The Ugly Truth: Microaggressions in the Workplace

Posted on January 11, 2019


What I’m Watching: You

What I’m Reading: Nothing at the moment…

What I’m Listening to:  The Internet

The other day my Soror (Sorority Sister for those unfamiliar with D9 lingo) text me, and asked me to share with her the most disturbing microaggression I have ever experienced.  She experienced an incident that made her uncomfortable, and wanted to collect a variation of stories from other black women for a writing piece she was working on.  I hope she does not come across this, and see that I too am writing about this topic (*chuckles*). But what can I say…this discussion is worth having.

I thought back to an experience I had last spring.  I was working near the front desk. My boss was nearby engaged in a conversation about the architectural design for City Hall.  The person that my boss was talking with was intrigued with my hair, I guess.  You see, my hair was different from the last time she saw me.  As a black woman, who wears her natural hair, it’s easier to keep it in protective styles when I am too busy to do it myself.  This time I had in my crochet Havana twists, and this person had never seen them before.

The first question she asked—an uncomfortable one that most black women hear in the workplace—was, “is that your real hair”?  I am used to this question but it is always uncomfortable to hear.  The question seems harmless, right?

People are quick to argue that the person is “ being curious” or “think it looks nice and want to know how it is done.”

However, people don’t seem to stop and think how the other person might feel.

Asking a Black woman if the hair is all hers reinforces several negative stereotypes, including the myth that black women cannot grow long hair.  I’d add that no one wants to feel they are an exhibit every time they decided they want to get their hair done.  I could say more, you get the point.

I’ve been in this situation more times than I can count. So I say, “No it’s not.  They are crocheted in,’ hoping the person will be content with my answer and leave it alone.  Instead, she leans forward, and says, “Can I touch it?”

Before I get a word out of my mouth, she grabs one of my twists. At this point, I am triggered in ways I cannot fully explain.  I have been in this situation before,  many times before.  It has taken years to find the strength to be able to tell people no, without feeling guilty, or being fearful of being labeled the “angry black woman.”

The truth is I am a human being, not a petting zoo.

For some strange reason people feel entitled invade my personal space.  I will be the first to tell you that it is not acceptable.  In that moment, I felt violated.  What could be done in that moment?

I am sure you are thinking, “Well, why don’t you ask her not to do it again” or “why not pull your boss aside later and ask her to talk to that person?” It is never that simple.

Even though I have every right to react in those ways, there is a constant fear wondering if the wrong reaction will lead to the demise of my professional life.  Sounds dramatic right?

Growing up as a black kid in America, you learn at a young age that you have to be the best at whatever you choose to do, and you cannot make mistakes.

Because those who do not want to succeed, because of your race, are looking for anything to ruin your credibility. Surely we know that not everyone we encounter has that agenda, but we walk on eggshells regardless because…well…you just never know.

I am sure by now you are wondering what this has to do with local government.  For starters, this happened in a local government office. People experience microaggressions in professional spaces all the time, and I am sure that people are often oblivious to them.

Studies have shown that racist, sexist, homophobic, or xenophobic microaggressions (whether intentional or unintentional) cause trauma, similar to how people are traumatized through blatant racist, sexist, homophobic, or xenophobic encounters.

Although the trauma is minimal, it can have a long-term negative effect on a person’s mental health.

As public servants, it is not only important that we create inclusive and safe communities for our residents, but we must also do so internally.  The first step in this process starts with checking ourselves. It is important to be aware of how we view people who do not look like us.  We need to think twice about what we say and what our intentions are.

Despite popular opinion, we do not live in an all-new super sensitive society.  The issue, often times, is people choose to take back their power, because they have a right to be treated with dignity and respect.  Oh and did I mention that Google is free?  It is important to educate ourselves before we start asking uncomfortable questions, or crack inappropriate jokes.

Remember that education does not have to be an individual effort. Teamwork always makes the dream work. The well-being of coworkers should not be something we take lightly. We depend on one another to accomplish important tasks on a daily basis and let’s be real, work is stressful enough!

I did not share this story because I want pity, instead I want this to be a lesson that all of us can learn from.

Never let anyone violate you in any way. Ever.  Do not be afraid to speak up when someone says or does something that makes you feel uncomfortable, because you have every right to do so.

We must work together to create safe spaces within our profession.  I challenge you, as individuals and organizations, to share resources and making it an overall priority whenever you set your goals for the year.  Is this process simple and easygoing?  From my own personal experience, I can say “not often” but I believe that it is worthwhile.

Because we all deserve to work in a place where we feel safe and valued, and at the very core of my being, I believe that by having these difficult conversations we can make it happen.

Today’s post is by Ashley Wooten, Management Intern with the City of Mission Hills, KS.

Close window