‘Microaggressions’ in the Workplace

August 27, 2013 | CUNY Matters, The University

Microaggressions are aimed — in perhaps subtle and unconscious but nevertheless detrimental ways — in regard to race as well as other attributes, including ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and disability.

Kevin Nadal, psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, conducts sessions on CUNY campuses about ‘microaggressions.’

Kevin Nadal, psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, conducts sessions on CUNY campuses about ‘microaggressions.’

Kevin Nadal, psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, conducts sessions on CUNY campuses about ‘microaggressions.’
WHEN PRESIDENT Obama spoke about racial discrimination after the Trayvon Martin verdict, he said that most African-American men, including himself, have been unjustly followed in department stores. Or they have heard locks click as they walk by cars — or noticed women clutching their bags when they walk into an elevator.

His speech no doubt rang bells with CUNY employees who recently have been attending sessions to learn how to identify, deal with and eradicate comparable “microaggressions” in the workplace.

Microaggressions, as described by Kevin Nadal, a psychology professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, are aimed — in perhaps subtle and unconscious but nevertheless detrimental ways — in regard to race, as the president mentioned, as well as other attributes, including ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and disability.

Nadal, an associate professor and deputy director of the Forensic Mental Health Counseling Program at the college, has conducted educational sessions at John Jay and other CUNY campuses for staff, students and faculty and plans to lead more.

On Obama’s remarks, Nadal says, “President Obama was definitely describing microaggressions. While he did not use the actual terms, he provided examples that black men experience regularly…. In some of the research on microaggressions (including my own), it has been found that the more microaggressions that people of color experience, the more likely they are to experience mental health issues, like depression and low self-esteem. One of my recent studies found that people of color who experience more microaggressions are more likely to have a negative view of the world, which parallels what President Obama was explaining about the context of why African-Americans are so upset by the verdict and mistrustful of the justice system.” According to Nadal, quantitative research has found that microaggressions also have an influence on physical health.

To this, Jennifer Rubain, University dean for recruitment and diversity adds, “It is important to understand microaggressions because it gives people the framework and vocabulary to describe what has so often been experienced.”

An extensive University report on diversity was published last year and other CUNY faculty have served on panels on these and related issues as part of the University’s diversity initiative. At these sessions, various types of microaggressions are identified and discussed, as are strategies to stop them from occurring. Participants are invited to confidentially discuss their own experiences.
As did President Obama, in a far more public forum.

Rubain notes that panelists at a recent CUNY Faculty Diversity and Inclusion Conference panel on how this issue relates to race, gender and sexual orientation included Virginia Valian, Distinguished Professor, at Hunter, and Ryan Smith, associate professor, at Baruch. About that panel, Rubain says: “I could relate to the example given of black professionals often being praised for being articulate by well-intentioned colleagues. I recall speaking to a faculty member who was the only person of color in her department and she remarked that it feels demeaning to constantly be told you are articulate because she had never heard her colleagues praise each other for being able to intelligently express themselves.”

In his presentations Nadal suggests that supervisors and other employees lead by example, provide a safe place for back-and-forth discussion and be willing to admit when mistakes are made. He also suggests providing “microaffirmations”— subtle or apparently small acknowledgements of a person’s value and accomplishments.” And, in an recently published article for the American Psychological Association, Nadal notes that since “microaggressions appear to be quite common in society, perhaps it would be best not to place all of the blame on George Zimmerman or the NYPD [Sean Bell case] or the faulty legal system” but rather to look at the negative impact of our own unconscious biases.

Nadal has also just published a book: That’s So Gay! Microaggressions and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community. In explaining the title he has said: “An example of a verbal microaggression is a person saying ‘That’s so gay’ to convey that something is bad, weird, or different. An example of a behavioral microaggression is a person inappropriately staring at same-sex couples showing public displays of affection.”

He also notes other microaggressions such as assuming that an Asian-American would be good at mathematics or science, based on ethnicity not ability. Another would be repeatedly asking an individual of Asian or Latino descent what country they are from, when they were born in the United States. In the disability community, it is considered a microaggression not to first assume an individual’s competence, rather than focusing on what he or she cannot do — and then inquiring if any accommodations are needed to support successful endeavors.
Nadal points out that at the University some campuses have different cultures than others, and it cannot be assumed that all cultures are accepted on all campuses.

“Even in a place like CUNY, where there are many diverse individuals, statements can be uttered by well-intentioned people that have the effect of demeaning or insulting others,” says Gloriana B. Waters, vice chancellor for Human Resources Management. “Because we are so diverse, it is all the more necessary for us to be aware of the microagressions in which we may engage, and also to learn how to respond if we are the target of a microaggression.”