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Microaggressions and how they affect underrepresented professionals

Veleisa Burrell


For underrepresented professionals, existing in a workplace that doesn’t fully understand and embrace who you are can present a minefield of opportunities for awkward encounters. One of the ways work can challenge interpersonal relationships is microaggressions, or “indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group.”

So what is microaggression?

The first step to understanding microaggression is identifying it. Often, the person experiencing microaggression is asking themselves the same question: what just happened? Microaggression differ from direct and obvious instances of discrimination, such as name-calling, overt lack of hiring of people of color or being directly targeted for your sexuality or religion. Microaggressions are subtle and can often be explained away as the aggressor “misspeaking” or “not meaning it that way” when the act or statement is highlighted. Social psychologists organized racial microaggressions into three forms: microinsult, microassault and microinvalidation. The forms, however, can be applied to any underrepresented group.


This form of microaggression is characterized by language that expresses “rudeness or insensitivity to demean a person’s racial heritage or identity.” This can also apply to someone’s religion, sexuality or gender presentation. This could look like mistaking one Latino coworker for another, even in an office with as few as two Latinos, or noting that a gay team member doesn’t “look homosexual.”


Microassaults are “explicit...derogations a verbal or nonverbal attack...through name-calling or avoidant behavior or purposeful discriminator action.” This could look like a private conversation (thus the “micro” antecedent) in which one coworker knowingly and willfully misgenders or uses the “dead name” of a trans coworker.


Microinvalidations “exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings or experiential reality” of an underrepresented person. In a professional setting, this often means being told you’re overreacting or misunderstanding an experience you’ve had of being discriminated against, perhaps as a woman being underpaid for your job or a person of color being passed over for promotion.

The Effect of Microaggressions

Unsurprisingly, the impact of implicit bias and discrimination is deletritous on underrepresented people. In looking at studies on how racism and microaggressions affect health, the Center for Health Journalism at USC Annenberg noted that microaggressions harm mental and physical health. Specifically, individuals dealing with microaggressions report, and review of their health show, stress, wear and tear on the body, depression and anger, and avoidance.

Additionally, having to question the intentions of microaggressors and measure a response that will address the issue without ruffling the feathers of the perpetrator can cause employees to live in a state of tension that is unproductive and possibly damaging to their career. The hypervigilance required to live in this corporate environment is not sustainable and could lead to attrition and lack of engagement.

If you are a professional who is dealing with the effects of microaggressions, you can improve your workplace and make it welcoming for underrepresented professionals. Create your Kanarys account, and share your experiences as the first step in creating a culture that works for all.

Contact Kanarys for more information.

    Company Culture
    Gender Equity/Diversity
    Racial Equity/Diversity

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