Published on: April 27, 2022
Awareness of microaggressions is essential to understanding equity, diversity and inclusion.
Historically, when we think of racist, sexist, or otherwise discriminatory behaviour, we think of words and actions that are obvious: using racial slurs, failing to hire women for powerful positions, teasing the only gay person in the office. In reality, in 2022 most discriminatory behaviour is subtle, and in many cases is even unintentional. In the last five years or so, the term microaggressions has been used more frequently to refer to these subtle behaviours that, over time, can have a detrimental effect on an individual and can even poison a work environment.
Courts and Tribunals have begun to take notice of the different ways in which microaggressions can manifest. In R. v. J.G. (2021 ONSC 1095), an Ontario court (in considering the impact of anti-Black racism on a defendant) explained: “Microaggressions are subtle attacks and invalidations of Black people that are delivered incessantly, and as such, have powerful negative impacts on the mental health of Black people, both individually and collectively.” In a 2020 labour arbitration decision1, the arbitrator took administrative notice of the existence of subtle forms of racism, and noted that microaggressions are “an expression of systemic racism that…cannot be ignored by an employer properly fulfilling its obligations to ensure a safe and respectful working environment.”
Clearly, it’s vital both employers and anyone charged with reviewing complaints about discrimination in the workplace understand what microaggressions are and how they manifest. Below are some examples of what microaggressions look like:
1. (Speaking about a female co-worker): “I wish she would calm down during meetings instead of getting hysterical.”
Why it’s a microaggression: The term “hysteria” actually comes from the Greek word “hystera” which means “uterus.” Historically, it was used to describe a particular kind of “crazy” (another problematic word) that was specific to women. Even now, women are often called “hysterical” or “crazy” as a means of dismissing them.
2. (Speaking to a Black co-worker): “You’re so articulate.”
Why it’s a microaggression: This is one of the most commonly-used examples of a microaggression, but unfortunately it is still something that comes up in the workplace. While on the surface it may seem like a compliment, telling someone they are “articulate” or “well-spoken” can come across as an expression of surprise, as though you did not expect them to be intelligent. Given that negative stereotypes about the intelligence of Black people compared to their white counterparts have been pervasive throughout history, this comment can be particularly problematic when directed at a Black co-worker.
3. (Speaking to a transgender co-worker): “I didn’t even know you were trans – you look just like a woman!”
Why it’s a microaggression: Aside from the fact that transgender women are women (and therefore do not need to be told that they look like women), delivering this kind of “compliment” suggests that trans women would rather look like cisgender women, which is a hurtful stereotype; it implies that there is something wrong with being transgender.
1Levi Strauss & Co. v Workers United Canada Council, 2020 CanLII 44271 (ON LA)
Recognizing microaggressions is just one step in developing a fuller understanding of workplace equity, diversity and inclusion. If you are interested in learning more about microaggressions, inclusive language, bias, and other aspects of EDI when conducting investigations, consider signing up for our Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Best Practices in Workplace Conflict Resolution & Investigations course.