What we learned about microaggressions, advocacy, and allyship

This was written in collaboration with Ayanna Colman and Jeannie Macnab.

On Friday, March 22nd at A Human Workplace Olympia, state employees and guests came together to discuss the topic of microaggressions and how they can easily show up in the workplace.

We began with a “Freaky Friday” exercise to explore how someone else might feel in common workplace situations that could be potentially challenging based on one’s marginalized identities or intersectionality. This exercise was based on real people and scenarios.  With 60,00 people in State government, any of these scenarios are possible throughout state agencies.  Imagining ourselves in someone else’s shoes taps into our natural empathy. It also provides an opportunity to consider how to be a supportive presence for someone who may need an ally.

We talked about how to identify moments of isolation, which can create fear, and then ideas for how to respond in these situations. Our presenter, Ayanna Colman of Results Washington, walked us through a deconstructed definition of microaggressions, their impacts on us as a community, and shared the perspective that maybe it’s time to become “accomplices” (people who take action) rather than simply “allies” (taking a position with little to no risk of personal impact).

It was noted that the impact of microaggressions include:

·         Reinforcement of “othering”

·         Establishment of privileges where the microaggressor feels safe because there are no consequences

·         Personally damage to the self-image of the recipient

·         Professionally demoralizing

·         Institutionally destructive - not addressing microaggressions creates fear and toxicity

There is ample research demonstrating that people of color and women, particularly women of color, experience discriminatory language and practices at work. And it was noted by Ayanna that men can also experience microaggressions known as misandry.

As a group, we openly discussed various workplace scenarios and debated whether they were microaggressions. We discussed whether and how we would take action to create a more loving space for employees who may feel targeted by others based on characteristics beyond their control. It was clear from both the scenarios and the discussion that there are multiple interpretations of any situation and that microaggressions are often subtle.  Different perspectives were expressed, which was at times uncomfortable, but the environment was respectful and safe as we learned together.

Some ideas for what we can do:

·         It is important to get curious and ask questions. 

·         If someone makes a comment that sounds like a microaggression, ask them what they mean. 

·         Try to find out more information and be prepared to step up and let them know if you or others are offended by what they said.

·         Be willing to step up and offer support and explain why you are doing so.  

·         Ask the person you are talking to if they are willing to learning more?

·         This resource can help you learn about diversity and how to be an ally (or an accomplice!) in the workplace:

This workshop was just a beginning. There was widespread agreement on the need for more time to explore, share, listen, and learn. One feature of a dominant culture is “hurrying” and not giving ample time to explore and understand the experiences of marginalized communities. So we want to invest more time to listen and learn.

We will continue the discussion, exploration, and learning in April when Justin Chan, DSHS DDA EDI Administrator will co-host A Human Workplace Olympia on April 26, and further still in May, more details to come on that.