“So, what are you?”

Did he just say that? I pretended not to hear the question.

How would I answer it? I understood the curiosity, but not the ignorance. In that moment, I had to decide if I was going to lean in or fight the stereotype. I knew what I was up against: The accusation that I was being too sensitive.

Co-workers make jokes. Strangers ask questions. Managers stay quiet. And you find yourself swirling in the middle of it. This is a window into what racism looks like at work.

Microaggressions are day-to-day harmful interactions against marginalized groups. They are different from harassment and discrimination, which are stronger in tone. They’re not direct; they’re subtle and can appear like compliments, but are actually insults that drive people away. Even when the intentions are good, the impact can still hurt. And when they happen over and over, the resulting stress can lead to poor health and low job satisfaction. A Women in the Workplace report from LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co in 2018 said that only 16% of men surveyed believed they had to prove their competency, compared to 31% of women and 42% of black women.

Microaggressions are caused by the biases we all have that influence the way we behave toward others. Most are a reflection of our society at large and the hidden messages and images we are exposed to.

I’ve heard my share of microaggressions. I’ve been told someone doesn’t seem gay. I’ve been asked why someone doesn’t wear a skirt. I’ve been questioned about whether I’m serious about work because I’m pregnant. I’ve heard females being called hormonal, immigrants being called well-spoken, and people with disabilities being called inspirational. I’ve been told, “I’m surprised you made it this far.” I’ve heard the very common “we want to hire women, but also want the best person for the job.”

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Microaggressions can also come in the form of having your ideas ignored or discredited. I’ve brought coffee to the table, but wasn’t invited to sit at it. I scheduled meetings, but wasn’t asked to participate in them. I planned panel discussions, but wasn’t handed the mic. It’s not just me: Asian Americans are the least likely group to be promoted from individual contributor to management in the U.S.

So what do you do when you experience microaggressions? At times, I’ve reacted swiftly and posed the question, “Why are you asking me this?” Other times, I’ve felt as if I don’t want to educate everyone on everything.

If you’re the one being called out on a microaggression, apologize and take the opportunity to learn.

Probably the best thing one can do when it comes to microaggressions, though, is trust that they actually exist.

Diya Khanna, columnist for Seattle Times Explore
Diya Khanna, columnist for Seattle Times Explore