The term “microaggression” was coined in the 1970s by Harvard University professor Chester Pierce to describe the subtle, everyday ways that Black people experienced discrimination from their white counterparts. Since the publication of psychologist Derald Wing Sue’s book Microaggressions in Everyday Life, the term has become widespread and seen to apply not only to issues of race, but ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and more.

Two recent articles in Harvard Business Review, “We Need to Retire the Term ‘Microaggressions” by Ruchika Tulshyan and “Recognizing and Responding to Microaggressions as Work” by Ella F. Washington, call into question the term itself and more importantly what the term connotes.

Tulshyan says of her discovery of the term:

“Microaggressions” finally captured the essence of how I was feeling. I did feel slighted, but the real issue was the cumulative effects of hearing something about my difference as a woman of color called out every day, in seemingly benign ways.”

At the same time, she came to realize that the term is inadequate to the experience and the harm it does:

“The term ‘microaggression’ doesn’t fully capture the actions’ emotional and material effects or how they impact women and people of color’s career progressions. In fact, researchers found that experiencing what we know as microaggressions can be just as harmful, if not more, than more overt forms of racism.

She goes on to quote Sue:

“People say that microaggressions are small things, but our studies indicate that microaggressions have a macro impact as they affect the standard of living of a marginalized group,’ Sue says. Daily microaggressions ‘create a lowered sense of psychological well-being. They deplete psychic energy or problem-solving and work productivity.’ Why? Microaggressions are cumulative. ‘They occur to people of color from the time they awaken, until they go to bed, from the time they are born until they die,’ Sue adds.”

It’s powerful to have a commonly understood way to articulate these issues and address the impact they have on the experiences of marginalized people, including in the workplace. As more leaders focus on creating inclusive work cultures and strive to make meaningful change in their organizations, more need to be aware and understand the effects of these exclusionary, biased actions.

The inclusion of the term “micro” in fact masks these actions’ harmful effects and, more importantly prioritizes the comfort of those inflicting the harm by focusing on their intention rather than their impact. Tulshyan suggests the term “exclusionary behaviors” as a replacement for microaggressions. These behaviors may be subtle and unintentional, but they exclude people and push the already marginalized further toward the margins.

Obviously, changing the term is not enough. Leaders who strive to be inclusive must also create an environment where it is safe for people to point out the behavior when they see it and to call themselves on It when they catch themselves.

Tulshyan concludes that:

When we brush off “microaggressions,” we minimize the huge impact they have on underrepresented and marginalized employees. To make change, we must first be able to name, recognize, and acknowledge the harm they cause.


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