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Racism 101 Asked And Answered: Just Because It's A Microaggression Doesn't Mean It's A Small Problem

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We've solicited questions from our audience — awkward, tough-to-ask, even silly questions — that they've perhaps wanted to ask people unlike themselves but have been too shy, embarrassed or afraid to ask.

WHAT IS RACISM 101?
  • We created Racism 101 to help our audience facilitate their own thought-provoking talks around race, with a conversation "starter kit," and extensive anti-racism resource guides to inform and educate. To field these questions, we assembled a panel of Angelenos willing to answer so folks didn't have to ask their friends, or even strangers.

Q: What are the racial slights and microaggressions you've seen or experienced in the workplace you wish your coworkers would just stop doing?"

HOW OUR RACISM 101 PANELISTS RESPONDED


Mike identifies as mixed race. His family heritage includes Native Hawaiian, Puerto Rican, Jewish and white roots.Today, he works as a journalist in the LAist newsroom. Mike said that his mixed heritage makes it hard for his colleagues to figure out his race. "Because I'm mixed they're usually only partially right, if right at all." This mislabeling and not fitting into a neat racial box, he said, "erases [his] multiracial identity." Moreover, it makes it difficult for him to connect with other minority coworkers because he doesn't "look" like them. This is exacerbated by the fact that he's an introvert who struggles to reach out to others.

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Listen to Mike:


Half Filipino and half Indian, or as he describes himself, "half lumpia and half biriyani," Roy said his family's many moves across the U.S. has exposed him to cultural and political diversity. He currently works as a part of our newsroom in the underwriting department. Having worked on teams where he's been one of a few or the only dark-skinned person, he said it's important to have discussions about race, that can be difficult or uncomfortable. Reflecting on microaggressions in the workplace, he said: "I've recognized the value in having these conversations. And, that it's possible to do so in a kind, constructive way, while remembering that I too commit microaggressions."

Read more from Roy:

Yep, that adorable Mouseketeer is me when I was about 2 years old. Check out that dope sweater - I've always loved wearing cardigans.

At a job I once had, my department of 10 people threw a baby shower for a coworker. A colleague came up with a shower game: We would post a baby photo of everyone from the department on the wall, and attendees at the baby shower would have to guess who's who.

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(Courtesy Roy Lenn)

A Black female coworker and I were the only two darker-skinned people on the team. During the shower she came over to me and joked, "It's going to be hard to guess which ones are us." We laughed about it with shared recognition and shook our heads in bemusement.

Was this seemingly innocuous game just another insufferable baby shower activity? Or was there something more to it? I had no doubt that my colleagues had good intentions. And I wasn't emotionally hurt or offended by the game. But for a short moment, I was reminded of my race and that I looked different from the rest of the people on my team.

Years later I realized that this was a microaggression, "an indirect, subtle, or unintentional interaction or behavior that communicates some sort of bias towards historically marginalized groups."

Psychology professor Kevin Nadal said in an interview with NPR,

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"The difference between microaggressions and overt discrimination, or macroaggressions, is that people who commit microaggressions might not even be aware of them."

In the same interview, Nadal clarified,

"The 'micro' in microaggression doesn't mean that these acts can't have big, life-changing impacts. They can, which is all the more reason to address them when you see them."

One problem with the shower game was the small sample size. Maybe I wouldn't have felt so "othered'' if it were a larger party using 100 photos instead of 10. Or, maybe there was an issue with the underlying premise of the activity itself. Why engage in a game that forced us to scrutinize everyone's physical appearance? Why not just post everyone's baby photos without making us guess who's who?

I never spoke up about how that activity made me uncomfortable. I didn't yet have the vocabulary to talk about microaggressions, and it also seemed easier to just let it go. After all, my coworkers didn't mean any harm by it. Why make them feel bad?

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But with time, I've recognized the value in having these conversations. And, that it's possible to do so in a kind, constructive way, while remembering that, I too, commit microaggressions.

"We're all human beings who are prone to mistakes, and we're all human beings who might commit microaggressions," said Nadal. "And it's not necessarily that you're a bad person if you commit a microaggression, but rather that you need to be more aware of your biases and impact on people. We all need to commit to working on these things in order to create a more harmonious society."

SOME CONTEXT

In the 2020's extraordinary push for race-related social change, many corporations and businesses publicly took a stance on the Black Lives Matter movement and condemned systemic racism following the death of George Floyd. Airbnb, tech giant Cisco, dating app Bumble and fitness company Peloton all made substantial donations to the NAACP. Others committed to recruiting more diverse candidates. Google and Etsy highlighted and made it easier to find Black-owned businesses. Though these actions taken by some of today's leading companies are encouraging, these decisions likely came from top management with little input or insight from employees who work at lower levels.

Microaggressions, slights or snubs not intended to harm but still result in hurt feelings and can leave a lasting impact, don't necessarily come from top management in the C-suite. They come from coworkers you see and interact with regularly.

Microaggressions, which can relate to race, gender, religion or other traits about a person that are singled out and "othered." Regardless which part of a person's identity is attacked, these microinsults are rude, insensitive and demeaning.

"He's definitely a diversity hire."

"You're always so mean-looking. Why don't you smile?"

"For one of those conservative Christians, he's so open-minded!"

"Another Asian dude in the IT department? Shocker..."

"She has a booty like Cardi B!. She's light-skinned, though, so she must be Latina."

"She's so loud! And she dresses like she's ready to hit the club. So unprofessional. She must've grown up in the 'hood."

Racist jokes, gender stereotypes, assumptions about a person's performance based on race often occur to people from underrepresented and marginalized groups. If they're frequent enough, after a while, it understandably gnaws at a person, like death by a thousand papercuts.