The Black Lives Matter movement has brought renewed attention to our country’s racist history and systemic injustices. It’s also brought attention to how these practices continue today in our policing, healthcare, education, housing and so on.

To help employees become more culturally aware, many workplaces are engaging in thoughtful conversations about race and justice. They’re also implementing equity, diversity and inclusion training and initiatives.

However, if workplaces are to make true progress in combating racism, they must address all forms of racism—large and small, including microaggressions. Racism in any form reinforces white privilege and undermines a culture of inclusion.

As the name suggests, microaggressions are small slights, indignities, put-downs and insults that people in marginalized groups experience due to their race, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability or religion. Whether they’re verbal, nonverbal, behavioral or part of the environment, microaggressions are meant to be derogatory and create a hostile and unwelcoming work environment.

Microaggressions have been referred to as “death by a thousand cuts.” Left unaddressed, these everyday slights can impact a victim’s job satisfaction, work performance, self-esteem, and mental and physical health. They have even led to suicide.

Examples of racial microaggressions

Within the workplace, racial microaggressions might include a white employee assuming that a Black employee is of a lesser employment status and asking that co-worker to get coffee or make copies. Another example could be a white person saying, “I succeeded because I worked hard—I didn’t rely on handouts.” However, this type of thinking fails to recognize that society and workplaces have built-in advantages for white people, making it easier for them to get hired and promoted because of their race and not their competence.

Microaggressions also occur when someone tells a racist joke but insists that it’s harmless fun or argues that “you’re being too sensitive.” They also include overlooking the contributions of a Black employee or even their presence.

Simply stating that “I don’t see color,” or “we’re all one race—the human race” is also a type of microaggression, because it fails to recognize a vital part of a person’s identity.

People from privileged backgrounds may say marginalized individuals are overreacting to these slights or that we should focus on bigger issues. But truth is, microaggressions create a hostile work environment and should not be tolerated.

Addressing these slights

The first step in addressing microaggressions is to recognize them when they occur. It’s also important to become aware of your own biases and start confronting those beliefs.

When you notice microaggressions, it’s helpful to call them out. If you are white, you have the advantage of speaking out with fewer repercussions than if you were Black. As you move forward in confronting microaggressions, it’s important to consider what you hope to accomplish. Are you hoping to make someone more aware? Are you looking for an apology? Are you hoping to stop these behaviors from reoccurring?

It’s also helpful to consider the responses you’re likely to face. Will you trigger an argument or jeopardize your safety? Will it affect your relationship? Will you regret not saying something?

Some experts recommend you prepare yourself by keeping a few responses in mind, such as: What do you mean by that? Or, you may not realize this, but I found your remark hurtful. Another tactic is to carefully educate others about microaggressions. If it’s not safe or you’re uncomfortable confronting these racist behaviors on your own, it may be helpful to report them to your manager or human resources department.

Employers today must enforce strict anti-racism policies. Allowing any form of racism to continue creates a hostile work environment, and the workplace can be liable. The world is changing, and we must learn how to become comfortable in a multicultural, ethnically diverse environment.

To help your organization become more culturally aware, please consider FEI’s Organizational Development services.