Chester M. Pierce, a psychiatrist and Harvard professor, coined the term ‘microaggression’ in 1970 to describe subtle yet ongoing acts of racism. The definition has developed over time to now include acts of indirect bias and discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. It is important to recognize the immense effects of microaggressions on Black people, especially in the intersections of racialized and other minoritized groups, such as Black women.

Unpacking the implications of professionalism 

While all working women can likely attest to dealing with gender-based microaggressions in the workplace, Black women are subjected to both gender and racially motivated microaggressions. In an article from Benefit News, TaChelle Lawson – the CEO and founder of Fig, a brand strategy company – discussed how she is held to different standards as a Black woman. She explains that she is looked down upon for displaying the same character traits that her white men co-workers exhibit, such as being direct and non-emotional in a workplace setting. 

What makes microaggressions different from outright racism is that they are small offences that build over time into greater problems. In the workforce, microaggressions can include statements such as “I don’t see colour,” which signals that the speaker does not acknowledge the racial discrimination people of colour face. Another example includes asking a Black colleague if they plan to wear their hair “like that” to a client meeting. This perpetuates the belief that natural Black hairstyles are not professional. 

Microaggressions can not only lead to lower productivity, but also contribute to a hostile and invalidating workplace, affect physical and mental health because of the stress they cause, and devalue social group identities.

Professionalism and microaggressions can often go hand in hand. Professionalism is influenced by white colonial standards, which place Western and white beliefs over those of ethnic minorities. An example of this exists within expectations of hair grooming. Women of colour are expected to have straight hair and forego their natural hair. While professionalism may be important in a workplace, the existing Eurocentric standards can be toxic and have been used against Black people in the workforce. 

Responding to microaggressions 

An article by the Harvard Business Review outlines a framework to help Black people navigate microaggressions in the workforce. They suggest reacting to microaggressions in one of the following ways: letting them go, responding immediately, or responding later. 

Letting it go means being silent, which can be emotionally taxing for individuals facing microaggressions. In comparison, responding immediately can prove to be beneficial when correcting inappropriate behavior; however, the perpetrator may respond negatively. Responding later and addressing the perpetrator privately is another option, but the problem that Black employees face is the possibility of being considered passive aggressive or petty.

With these three completely different options, it can be difficult to discern what approach is best. Historically, when Black people have spoken up, they have been subject to backlash. 

Fighting microaggressions in the workplace

The onus for creating a safe workspace without microaggressions should not be on marginalized communities but on privileged allies. Before beginning to address microaggressions, allies need to know what a microaggression is and educate themselves on why it is detrimental. When allies make mistakes surrounding microaggressions, they should take the response given to them constructively and educate themselves on what they can do instead of replying defensively. 

Even though some workplaces have shifted to the virtual world, microaggressions have not disappeared. Remaining empathetic and compassionate, especially during the stressful COVID-19 pandemic, is important and can be done by regularly checking in. 

Organizations are beginning to recognize that investing in equity, diversity, and inclusion is integral to maintaining a healthy work environment. Large corporations such as Deloitte, Oracle, Procter and Gamble, and Pfizer have implemented their own equity, diversity, and inclusion programs. In doing so, they are able to create resources available to marginalized communities such as Black and LGBTQ+ groups in Canada. 

Overall, as we take time to reflect on the experience of the Black community during Black History Month, it is important that we work on creating a workforce that is fair and just, with equal opportunities and resources available to everyone. Supporting marginalized communities is important to promote the innovation and growth of Canadian society and create meaningful changes for generations to come.