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Lessons in Diversity, Inclusion & Bias (DIBs): How to deal with microaggressions

As you connect with your teams and customers during the holiday season, follow these steps for identifying and dealing with microaggressions.

As the holiday season approaches, many of us are looking forward to gathering with our friends and families, and friends who are family. Take a moment and consider the number of holidays celebrated by your team, your department, your division, your organization. Given the ups and downs of global health, economic considerations and the devastating loss so many of us have faced, this holiday season has the potential to be one of the most powerful in quite some time.

With these occasions, though, comes the potential for difficult interactions, as well. And there are a couple of definitions you should learn to help get a baseline and make sure we are all speaking the same language as we engage not only as family and friends, but also as teams and coworkers.

Bias: A pre-judgement in favor or against a person or group  

Microaggression: Small, seemingly inconspicuous comments or actions — intentional or unintentional — that reinforce bias

Let’s remember that both bias and microaggressions can happen in connection to a kind of diversity, including the DIBs Big 8 (Race, Gender, Sexuality, (Dis)Ability, Age, Politics, Religion, Socioeconomics) and others. And when we add in the stress and pressures that often come with the holiday season, we have a recipe for something special or something disastrous.

Microaggressions have always been a part of the holiday experience. One might say they are as common “as the air we breathe” or “as American as apple pie.” Here are some thoughts and suggestions as you prepare for the inevitable microaggressions that arise during the holidays.

1. It’s you, too. Oftentimes when we think of microaggressions, we think of them from the perspective of having experienced them. I would encourage all of us, however, to remember that we have also executed them on others. The terrible beauty of unconscious bias is that we do not know that it is there. And since bias powers microaggressions, we would simply not know if an unconscious bias was at play when we executed a microaggression. For example, that time when you walked into the restaurant and were a bit surprised that the Brown man was the manager and not connected to the back of the house.

The point here is about humility and focusing on self. Yes, you were legitimately micro-aggressed, but before we fly off the handle, remember that someone likely gave you grace when you aggressed them. Can you provide the same for others?

2. Yup, that happened. When the microaggression happens, we often question ourselves or the incident. Instead, do your best to recognize that yes, that did just happen. And yes, it just happened to you — or perhaps, yes, you just did that to them. One of the most common reactions to microaggressions is disbelief, often combined with a bit of shock. When it occurs, take the moment to reflect, breathe and take ownership if necessary. After this moment, consider what your next steps need to be. 

Let me add one other perspective. Remember that you may be in observation mode when a microaggression happens. Or someone may come to you afterwards and replay a situation to you asking for you advice and counsel. Sometimes these conversations can start with, “Did that just really happen?” or “Am I crazy or did…?”  Whether you agree or not, we can validate that person’s feelings. “I can see (or feel) that this has had a real impact on you.” Sometimes the simple recognition that a microaggression did occur is enough; at other times, it is the first step.

Take our example from above. If you do find yourself surprised that this Brown man is the leader of the restaurant, take a moment and ask, “Why am I thinking this way?” and “What about my experiences led me to this conclusion?” This is one method of learning from the situation and taking another step on your diversity journey.

3. See something. Say something. There are those of us who are or feel empowered to do something when we see unfairness occurring. Others of us are more reticent to get involved for a variety of reasons. “I don’t want things to get worse”; “We are only here for a few days, it’ll be over soon”; “I’m new to the team, it’s not my place.” All of these are reasonable reasons to stay still. I would ask you to consider the words I shared with a coaching client recently. You have an extra responsibility to speak up for yourself or others and in public when you have the position, privilege and power to do so. Their response to me was, “What if it is not safe?” I told them that all of us are here because someone stood up for what they thought was right when it was not safe. They took a risk and sometimes failed.  

Here’s the point. Each of us will have to make a decision to speak up when that microaggression occurs, and how you speak up matters. Consider the following steps as you deal with microaggressions among your team.

A) Connect with the person who was aggressed and (as above) recognize that something happened to them or ourselves.

B) Consider a conversation with the person who executed the microaggression, even and especially when this person is you. Approach it from the perspective of the feelings of the other person. Most people are good people and do not want to cause harm to othersI have found this approach works with the vast majority of people, including myself. 

C) If you attempt steps A and B and the person is resistant and there is escalation occurring, tap out. Thank the person for taking a moment to hear you and walk away. You have done your part.

None of our families or teams are perfect or finished. They will continue to grow and morph and change and develop. This growth and change is wonderful and also means there will be new and interesting biases that will be part of the team or family dynamic. As a result, there will also be new and interesting microaggressions that will be added to those that have become family legends. There is no perfect fix. There is no magic statement that will calm all and create that wonderful greeting card moment many of us long for. 

Instead, what we are all likely to continue to experience is a wonderfully bumpy time with some of the most critical and meaningful people in our lives. It is a moment to practice a bit of patience, grace and compassion because the microaggressions (like winter) are coming. And remember that the micro-aggressor might just be the person in the mirror; show them some grace, too.


James Pogue, PhD is a consultant in the areas of Diversity, Inclusion and Equity. He’s the founder of JP Enterprises and believes that sharing the results of his research with leaders and decision makers is his way to be a catalyst for positive change.

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