Microaggressions and the necessity for courageous conversations

March 25, 2024 at 1:30 PM |
Posted by:
Kim Van Auken
Kim Van Auken

We have all been in situations at work when someone says something that feels offensive toward a particular group identity, the person doesn’t realize it, and no one who is involved and/or experienced it says anything. Statements that feel offensive are called microaggressions and a recent experience around this has encouraged me to share reflections about it.

In the workplace and in our personal lives, language matters--especially in the context of conscious and unconscious bias. One of the ways bias manifests in our language is through microaggressions. These can be subtle and therefore, may not easily be recognized by the person speaking or the person listening. One reason for this may be that words we use to describe a person or group of people are so engrained into our culture. Nevertheless, intentionally or unintentionally, the language we use can generate harm.

While the idea or microaggressions is not new, over the last few years, events in our social environment have highlighted longstanding inequities. Today we are progressively more mindful and tuned in to how we may have used microaggressions in the past, the impact, and as a result, are compelled to initiate conversations to address them. For some this comes easy, and for some it can be frightening because it requires not just any type of conversation but a courageous one. Quite honestly, I find these unsettling and I am assuming I am not alone in that. Having said this, I had a recent experience in a meeting where a microaggression occurred. With vulnerability, I will share that I did not recognize it. It was not until a colleague brought it to my attention that I gained awareness. There was a period of embarrassment and then reflection that led me to decide to initiate a courageous conversation. By overcoming my own fear, wins were gained not only for myself but for the person I initiated the conversation with as well. For me, I gained confidence and it felt good to do the right thing. The person I spoke to shared feelings of gratefulness for the conversation and their own reflective learnings. One important comment that stood out was the remark on the kind approach I used. 

Improving our ability to notice and respond to microaggressions, and becoming more aware of our own everyday speech, is a journey. This requires being open to a continuous process of learning, evolving, and growing. There is a cost to silence.

As you engage in your own courageous conversations regarding microaggressions, consider these four things:

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