5 tips on Dealing with Microaggressions as Black, Millennial Woman in Corporate America

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Recently, I had a client ask me, “What are Microaggressions?” Turns out she had certainly experienced them, but had no idea it was important enough to have a name.

I could have found a definition on google, but decided to give her my own viewpoint on the subject, based on my own real experiences:

Microaggressions are those offensive occurrences that many of us experience on a regular basis but seem "too small” to complain about or report to HR. I call them “little cuts.”

Here’s how it usually plays out.

I don’t even know if I should be upset about this. They were smiling when they said it. Seemed like a harmless joke. Don’t I have a sense of humor?

If I speak about it, they are going to walk on eggshells around me and they won’t be friendly to me anymore.

Sigh. I’ll just try to put it out of my mind.

***ONE HOUR LATER***

Omg, I just thought of a good comeback. But the moment has passed. If I bring it up now, it’ll just be weird.

***SIX HOURS LATER, ON THE PHONE WITH YOUR GIRLFRIEND***

I can’t believe I’m still thinking about it and venting about it. I’m actually getting angrier as I think on it more.

Here are just a few common examples I have heard recently from clients:

Comments about our hair - “Omg! is that your hair? It was really short a few days ago. You guys spend sooo much time on your hair.”

Not paying attention to our viewpoint / talking over us / 'mansplaining'

For single women, single mothers - Being shamed about not being married.  Being shamed about having or not having kids

For recently-promoted millennials - Comments about our deservedness, i.e., being too young and having limited experience

For non-Americans: Do you plan to go back home? You are not really Black, etc

For those with non-traditional names: negligence around the spelling and pronunciation of our names even after years of working there

Ok let me stop. Because there are literally hundreds and I could go on.

So How Do You Deal?

Struggling with microaggressions as a young professional can be very daunting.  Earlier in my career, I would get so flustered by them that they would hamper my ability to think clearly and do my job.  As an entry level Black professional, I was still working on my self-confidence and self-value.  These “casual” insults would eat deep into my spirit because I was not yet grounded in my power.  If I was making a point on a conference call and was interrupted and summarily dismissed by a White, older peer, I would cower for the rest of the conversation.  Any possibility of sharing any of my great ideas was essentially suffocated. 

Worse still, it reinforced this false notion that I had to have an award-winning idea before I opened my mouth, when I watched my peers literally spew out some of the most unoriginal and underwhelming comments known to man. Because of this undue pressure I put on myself, this meant I spoke up less because I wasn’t sure my viewpoint was valid or valued.

Successfully navigating a microaggressive situation is still not an easy thing to do.  Many erroneously think that exceling in your job will rid you of them.  Even Black women CEOs continue to encounter them.  Ursula Burns, former CEO of Xerox, frequently mentions publicly how many people did not believe she was an engineer and would question her ability.    

So how exactly does one manage a microaggressive situation or culture?

Your first priority is to preserve your mental and physical wellness.  It is to make sure that throughout the experience you take care of yourself.  It is not to inform or educate or change minds, which may be a byproduct of your subsequent action.  Often times, we jump right into solving by trying to inform them of why they are wrong. Or allowing them to so negatively and deeply affect our mood.

Expect that they will happen.  The trick is to do this without being jaded or presumptive.  But the truth is, almost all of us have experienced them and there are some very common ones you can anticipate. Be prepared.

Know your desired eventual outcome.  Is this someone you work with frequently? Is this person your manager? A senior leader? What type of relationship do you want to have with this person?

Realize that like any other barrier, it needs a strategic process to navigate.  When we try to respond “off-the-cuff” or impulsively, we often respond from a place of emotion which, depending on the situation, can lead to a less than ideal result. 

Work with a professional who can help you create strategies on how to address. If microaggressions are having a significantly negative impact on you and preventing you from being your ideal self, you should not go it alone.  Find a support system.  For many women, their support system is made of friends and family.  While this may work for some, many others do not have people in their immediate lives who understand the situation and can provide actionable insight.  The conversations really become about venting and you may even hear a comment like, “Girl, you better be glad they hired you.  The economy is bad right now.  At least, you got a job.” Working with a career coach, like Intelle, you receive expert support from someone who has had similar experiences and can provide solutions.

 If you need additional support with microaggressions, contact us to discuss how we can create a strategy that helps you stay prepared, equips you with tailored responses based on common microaggressions and your desired relationship with the microaggressor, and provides you with mental wellness tools that you can use on-the-go right after the micro-aggressive experience.

These “little cuts” may seem harmless, but over time, if persistent can drain the energy and life out of us. Decide today to no longer be mentally enslaved by them, rather learn how to rise and thrive despite them.