“Wow, you’re quite articulate (for a black person.)”
“Hey, you’re really good at math (for a woman.)”
“I’m surprised, you don’t seem racist at all (for a white person.)”
“Oh, we’re going to the gym together, you wouldn’t want to come (because you’re overweight.)”
The subtexts can be so hurtful. Perhaps you have felt their sting based on your race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, or any other differentiating factor (DF.)
The panel at a NWEEO event included Julie Marshall, Ph.D. in clinical psychology, Nancy Cooper, J.D., and myself, with Jill Goldsmith, J.D. as moderator. We each brought a unique perspective and had a wonderful discussion. Here are some resulting thoughts.
What are micro-aggressions?
According to Derald Wing Sue, Professor of Psychology at Columbia University, micro-aggressions are “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults toward (people with a differentiating factor.)” Litigation cases of this type are growing, according to two Portland judges.
Is it discrimination?
Nowadays overt discrimination is less frequent than it used to be. In my opinion many people are better educated and truly feel that people should be judged on their own merits and inherent value as human beings, not based on DFs. Still, some less enlightened individuals have discriminatory thoughts but know how to keep them in the closet to avoid legal or employer discipline, or unpopularity. Micro-aggressions come in two varieties: those of genuine innocent error, and those borne of closet prejudice that pop out like passed gas. Oops! No I didn’t!
The Micro-Aggression Tree
I love to study and teach the science behind business practices, looking for evidence of why we do what we do, and what predictable consequences may occur. How we treat other people can be likened to a tree that starts from a seed, grows roots and branches, and eventually bears fruit.
The seed starts out with its inherent DNA – the biological drivers that will shape what it becomes. Add nutrients in the soil, water, and sunlight; then the seed sprouts.
When I bought my home I was excited that on the property was a big beautiful apple tree, heavy-laden with fruit. At harvest time I was excited to turn the apples into apple-crisp that I could freeze and enjoy at will with some ice cream. When I bit my first apple I spat it out. It was horrible! I had never before tasted an apple that bitter. Was it the seed (nature)? Was it the soil (nurture)? I had no idea. It didn’t really matter. I mourned over the uselessness of the fruit of my tree.
Roots of Micro-Aggression and Acceptance
Let’s walk through the creation of micro-aggressions:
- Nature (DNA, instinct) plus nurture (upbringing, education) create beliefs.
- Beliefs create thoughts.
- Thoughts create words and actions.
- Words and actions create micro-aggressions.
- Micro-aggressions are based on nature and nurture.
To me, this logic is self-evident and intuitive.
Fruits of Micro-Aggression
Now let’s discover the consequences of micro-aggressions:
- A micro-aggression is a message to someone that s/he is less valued or respected.
- That message creates feelings in the receiver of hurt, anger, contempt, and isolation.
- Those feelings lead to feelings back toward the micro-aggressor of distrust, disrespect, alienation and isolation.
- The back-and-forth feelings result in working relationships of passive aggression, dis-harmony, poor communication, and misunderstanding.
- Poor working relationships create a negative company culture low in trust, respect and engagement.
- A negative company culture reduces productivity.
- Low productivity means low profits.
- The bitter fruit of micro-aggression is lost company profits that, if un-checked, can lead to the death of the company.
Bitter to Sweet
How can we change the fruit from bitter to sweet? We can’t change the seed, but we can add nutrients to the soil. We don’t want to uproot the tree, but we can prune it and bend it. We don’t want to cut the tree down but we can cut off the bitter branches and graft in sweet branches.
Your organization can turn the bitter fruit of micro-aggression into the sweet fruits of harmony, engagement, and profit. Please contact me. I will help.
Doug Lundrigan, MBA