by Karlene Clark, Chester Fritz Library, University of North Dakota
EDI Committee Chair
Micro-aggressions have been compared to the phrase “death by a thousand cuts.” These are compliments that are, in most cases, unintentionally offensive. They lead to the recipient dealing with a form of “battle fatigue” (a trauma response) where going to work feels like preparing for battle and needing to be prepared to face these comments throughout the organization. The words or actions directed at the person are not policy violation, but they do erode the sense of self and value over time. This can interrupt or cancel a person’s desire and excitement about coming in to work.
Trauma responses do not affect a single group of people. When we don’t understand or perpetuate old biases or behaviors, we can inadvertently add to a person’s sense of being attacked. This can relate to groups such as BIPOC, LGBTQ+, being female (or male), being differently abled, having an invisible illness and more.
What can this look like? A few examples to consider:
- “I love your hair; can I touch it?” Often directed towards BIPOC. Consider if you would ask others you know this same question. Saying you like someone’s hairstyle is okay; asking to touch is not.
- “You’re so articulate” / “Your English is so good.” Again, this is often said to members of the BIPOC communities. Consider what bias your thinking is coming from in assuming they would not be able to speak well.
- “You guys.” Members of the LGBTQ+ community – and many others these days - are conscientious about pronouns and the usage of them. Grouping everyone together as a “guy” can be seen as insulting, derogatory, or degrading. Consider instead using something like “You all” or “Everyone.”
- “You’re such an inspiration” to someone who is disabled – visible or invisible. They are just going through life, doing the best they can in most cases with no intention of being a beacon to look to. Unless they are a motivational speaker, doing a presentation on the topic, consider instead SAYING NOTHING.
- “That’s crazy” or “I’m being so OCD” when you are not diagnosed as such. Neurodivergent people are very aware of their differences and hearing things such as this strikes deeply. Instead, consider the following options:
- “It’s crazy in here” can change to “It’s really busy today.”
- “That’s a crazy idea” can change to “I haven’t heard an idea like that before.”
- “My boss is crazy” can change to “I don’t understand what they were thinking.”
- “I’m being so OCD” can change to “I just feel like I need more order in my life right now.”
How do we show up? How do we stop hurting our co-workers? Those that deal with micro-aggressions are exhausted and often will not say anything. Start with yourself. Evaluate your own views and biases. Apologize when you catch yourself. If you see something, consider how to help and what to say.
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