3 “Normal” Workplace Occurrences that are Actually Micro-Aggressions


I never understood what was meant by the old adage “ignorance is bliss” until I really began studying racial equity work. There are so many regular occurrences that I’d written off as “normal” for years–and it wasn’t until I really began carving out dedicated time to understand institutional racism and the intricate, lethal beast that it is, that I realized I had no idea I was interacting with racism everyday. So, I guess that’s what’s blissful about not being aware. You don’t see anything wrong the status quo; you don’t read between the lines or feel the system working against you–you simply accept things for what they are, not even realizing they could be different.

That’s what’s so unsettling about the system that we live in. It was designed in a way that doesn’t require active participation in order for it to function. It is self-sufficient and determines our norms and expectations to the point that going against it feels abnormal. It’s why it’s so easy for you to feel crazy for “making something about race” when, to the naked eye, it isn’t. In a recent post, I talked about how it’s important to understand that everything that we interact with is a function of an inherently racist system. So if the system is inherently racist, that makes every institution we’re apart of inherently racist by default. Our workplaces are no exception. Micro-aggressions are commonplace behaviors and mindsets, whether intentional or unintentional, that perpetuate systemic racism and hostility toward people of color. Here are a few to be aware of in order to begin feeling empowered to call them out and address them:

1| When you are assumed to be the expert in all things “diversity-related,” limiting your opportunity to be an expert in other content-specific work. 

Companies across every sector are adding “diversity” or “inclusiveness” into their core values left and right. However, the overwhelming majority of those companies have no idea what workplace equity and inclusivity looks like, or how it’s achieved. While we’ve made huge strides in diverisifying who is at the table, it still feels like we’re sitting at the kids table sometimes. What’s problematic and micro-aggressive is when any sort of diversity-related term comes up, and all the white people in the room immediately look to you for the answer. It is not our responsibility, nor it is our burden to let white people off the hook for understanding and addressing race and equity for themselves.

 I am attending a nonprofit conference in a few weeks, and as I was reading the agenda and the breakdown of presenters, I noticed an interesting theme: all of the presenters were white women, with the exception of one white man. However, the keynote speaker is a Black woman. And guess what her speech is on: diversity and inclusiveness. Don’t get me wrong. I am ALL for people of color leading spaces that explicitly discuss race, power, privilege, equity, etc. I am excited to hear and learn from this keynote speaker, and hopefully walk away with her business card. She should absolutely be the keynote speaker and the issue of inclusivity should absolutely be discussed. However, I can’t help but feel unsettled that the only speakers who are discussing development, marketing, leadership, fundraising, and other skillsets that nonprofit professionals are looking to develop at this conference are white.

2| When you’re overly recognized for actions and norms that should be expected of you. 

“You are SO articulate! I am so impressed by the way you speak.” Understand that this is actually a backhanded insult rooted in systemic racism, because it is based on the assumption that I shouldn’t be articulate or eloquent. This point also goes hand in hand with the fine line between recognition and tokenism. Systemic racism is so hurtful because it makes us question if we got asked to speak on that panel or present at that meeting because it makes the institution look better for having a minority represent them. We ask ourselves, “Am I really that exceptional? Or is it my Blackness that makes me exceptional for this particular opportunity?” I don’t allow this mindset to get the best of me, because at the end of the day, opportunity is opportunity and I am always going to lean towards grabbing it. However, awareness is power.

3| When people aren’t on board until a white person says it. 

Observe white men in your workplace. Take note of how confident they are. Nobody is coming for their power or competing for their seat. Minorities, on the other hand, tend to be pitted against each other in the workplace because we feel like (or know) there’s only one seat available and only one of us is going to get it. I often wonder what it feels like to know that there are infinite seats available to you, and to know there are no barriers outside of your control that might stop you from acquiring one of them. White men are more likely than any other demographic to negotiate their salaries and preferences. Why? Because they feel like it’s theirs to have. Women and minorities (and especially minority women)? We’re just excited to finally be invited to the party after 300 years. Now, this isn’t meant to knock to all of the hard-working, aggressive, negotiating minority women that are out there–shout-out to y’all for paving the way. However, this is a function of systemic racism and the power and privilege that is has given white people–men in particular–to navigate their workplaces with an unwavering confidence. Part of this power is the dominance that it grants to white voices in a room. Ever been in a meeting and proposed an idea or interjected an opinion, and felt like no one heard you? Or suddenly you’re speaking a foreign language? And then a white man moments later rephrases or literally repeats exactly what you said, and suddenly it makes sense to everyone? Suddenly, it’s a brilliant idea! We should all rally behind it! I can’t believe no one ever thought of that before! The invisible, dynamic power that is automatically granted to white people on the basis of their whiteness is palpable in the workplace. So what happens when your voice doesn’t carry much or any power? When people consciously or subconsciously doubt the merit of what you’re saying because of the inherently racist institution within a system that they are operating in? How do you not allow it to diminish your confidence or stop you from speaking up?

I wish there was an easy answer. I wish I could tell you to boldly call it out as you see it without worrying about you putting yourself at even more of a disadvantage from doing so. The point I continue to make here is that systemic racism is crippling, in every aspect of our lives. Focus on bringing attention to our fractured norms more broadly, building awareness and allyship along the way. It’s infuriating, unfair, and draining, but we have to believe in the possibility of an equitable society. Or else, what are we really fighting for?

/// How do you experience or witness microaggressions taking place in your workplace? 

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