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January 11, 2019

Unconscious Bias and Microaggression: Two things that undermine all the diversity and inclusion work you’re doing.

What is unconscious bias? “Learned stereotypes that are automatic, unintentional, deeply engrained, universal, and able to influence behavior.” (Wikipedia)

LaJuana Warren, an Indianapolis Diversity and Inclusion trainer, says a great check is to ask yourself, “When did you see the green alien?” Do you know this stereotype to be true because of your life experiences, people you know, or did you see that on TV?

You take these small acts of bias or prejudice and they become so regular you don’t notice them, but they take a large toll on the person in the marginalized group. That’s microaggression.

Microaggression is a catchall term, “used for brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative prejudicial slights and insults toward any group.” (Wikipedia)

Microaggressions fall on a continuum of being deliberate and conscious to being outside one’s conscious behavior. From microassaults, which are very similar to old-fashioned racism, to microinvalidations, which assail self-esteem and identity, says Derald Wing Sue, a professor at Columbia University.

The other type is a microinsult. Say a group of women of color walk into a restaurant. They’re seated at a less desirable table than the white group coming in. And they don’t get the same service as the white group. You may think this doesn’t happen today, but I’ve been part of a predominantly black work group, and I experienced this microinsult as part of the group. It hurts. It’s infuriating actually. And it creates a hostile and invalidating climate. If you choose to stay, you will be uncomfortable. Being the victim of microaggressions hurt your self-esteem and over time, your health, putting you at a disadvantage at work and in school.

The University of California published a list of microaggressions, which include phrases like “Wow, you’re really articulate!” Or “I never would have guessed you have a disability.” These may seem obvious to those of us in HR positions, but what about “the most qualified person should get the job” or “men and women have equal opportunity here.” These too are microaggressions. While not intending harm, they hurt nonetheless. Academic Affairs at UC provides the list of politically incorrect expressions and actions to help recognize microaggressions and eliminate them.

As a mother to an adopted son who is biracial, biases and microaggression abound. I’ve heard “Where’s he from?” “How did you get him?” “That’s a great thing you did. And I don’t believe in race anyway.” It’s hard to describe the frustration I feel, while trying to balance a well-intentioned inquiry, educating someone and encouraging adoption, and protecting my son from ignorance of others.

Understanding our own unconscious or implicit bias can help open our eyes to friends, family or co-workers around us who have likely been experiencing these microaggressions for years. Check out Harvard’s implicit bias tests here.

For me in my journey, and I’m learning every day, the importance of using the privilege I have brings awareness to others. I say calmly, “It’s actually not okay to ask how I ‘got’ my son. You probably don’t know that.” And I smile, knowing I will answer this question again and again. But I can’t ignore it and I recognize that I could before, or maybe once I may have even asked one of these hurtful questions.

I’m no longer indifferent to unconscious biases or microaggressions because it doesn’t impact me. Being able bodied over someone with a disability. Majority culture over minority culture. Educated over uneducated. The list goes on. So I choose to help others and stand up because I care and I don’t want anyone to experience that hurt if I can make an impact that could prevent it.

If you’d like more information on how Purple Ink can help your organization with diversity and inclusion, reach out to us.

Erin Brothers
Erin Brothers
Erin is a former member of the Purple Ink team. Erin’s top strength is Achiever and she truly enjoys working hard and gains energy by accomplishing more work. Every day starts at zero, and tackling projects big and small helps give that sense of accomplishment to benefit her clients, peers, family and friends.

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