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Combating Microaggression in the Workplace as a Woman of Color

Dr. Waajida L. Small profile image

Dr. Waajida L. Small

A young black woman working at a desk in front of a computer, looking slightly concerned.

“You are so well spoken.” … “Is that your natural hair?” … “Can I touch your hair?” … “Where are you really from?” … “You don’t sound black.” … “You know, you are very intimidating.” 

These are just a few of the many comments I’ve received throughout my career. Colleagues have also called me by other people’s names—often the name of one of the only other Black woman in the organization. And while other colleagues get a professional handshake or wave hello, I’ve been fist-bumped in the hallway. 

Individually, these incidents may not seem like a big deal, but don’t be fooled: they are all microaggressions—racism in small doses. And just as with papercuts and mosquito bites, if you are on the receiving end of enough microaggressions, you really start to feel the pain. 

For women of color in the workplace, microaggressions can be an everyday occurrence and are detrimental to morale, self-esteem, and self-efficacy. Research has shown that microaggressions can be both intentional and unintentional, and over time, have harmful and long-lasting effects. 

So how can we recognize microaggressions and how can we as professionals, prevent and mitigate the effects of these everyday acts of racism?

A history of microaggressions 

The term “microaggression” was coined by Harvard trained psychiatrist Chester Pierce in 1974. In layman’s terms, as stated by Columbia professor Derald Wing Sue in a CNBC article, microaggressions “are the everyday slights, indignities, put-downs and insults that minorities experience in their day-to-day interactions.” 

Microaggressions can be even more prominent when you are a part of multiple marginalized groups. Women of color, for example, may experience microaggressions as a result of being both a woman and a person of color.  

The lived experiences of women of color

Many women of color in the social-impact space fall into the “only” category, especially when considering leadership positions, and there is an added challenge if you are trying to work your way up the ranks. Living with the constant sting of microaggressions is often described as “death by a thousand cuts.” 

According to the 2020 Women in the Workplace report, microaggressions are a reality for two-thirds of women in the workforce. And Black women are more likely to “deal with a greater variety of microaggressions and are more likely than other women to have their judgment questioned in their area of expertise and be asked to provide additional evidence of their competence.”

Consider these 10 categories of symptoms that manifest in people who experience regular microaggressions:

1.  Anxiety

2.  Paranoia

3.  Depression

4.  Difficulty sleeping

5.  Lack of confidence

6.  Worthlessness

7.  Intrusive cognition (distressful thoughts that stick in your head)

8.  Helplessness

9.  Loss of drive

10. False positives (overgeneralization of negative experiences) 

Taking a stand

Allies as well as organizational leadership all have a role to play in combating microaggressions and creating supportive work environments. Stephanie Sarkis, a contributor to Forbes suggests these four actions allies can take to fight microaggressions against their colleagues of color:

  1. Become aware of your own biases and racism, and start confronting your own beliefs about people of color. Reflect on and identify your own biases or incidents where you may have exhibited racist behavior or made racist statements. 
  2. Call out microaggressions when you see them. Use your privilege to speak up without repercussion. When you see or hear a microaggression, tell the aggressor that their behavior is unacceptable.
  3. Help educate colleagues and supervisors about microaggressions. Explain what microaggressions are and the impact they have on your colleagues of color.
  4. Advocate for, and enforce anti-racism policies in your organization. Call for zero tolerance of racism in your organization and if you see it happening, report it. 

As individuals, there is much that can be done, but it is really up to organizational leadership to create a workplace that is free of microaggressions, and managers can be a great first line of defense. 

Pro Tip: Here is a great resource we’ve created for you if you’re a manager looking for suggestions on how to reduce your own personal biases and create an inclusive team

One of the most important steps a leader can take to ensure their organization is free of microaggressions, racism, sexism (all of the -isms that prevent equity and inclusion!) is to create an atmosphere of trust. Trust is the foundation of every successful relationship—especially the relationships we build with our employees.


Did you enjoy this post? Read more about building professional relationships and work environments based on trust.

Dr. Waajida L. Small profile image

Dr. Waajida L. Small

Dr. Waajida L. Small is a human resources executive who has worked in the public and non-profit sectors for over 15 years. She is a certified leadership and executive coach, human capital strategist and certified purpose leader. Dr. Small is the author of "Our Leadership Journey: Shared Stories, Lessons and Advice for Women of Color", a book for women of color on the rise into positions of leadership and influence in their organizations, industries and communities.

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