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How Microaggressions Undermine Diversity Equity & Inclusion in the Workplace

Diversity Equity & Inclusion | Human Capital | Fahrenheit Advisors

Diversity, equity, and inclusion have been discussed as organizational goals and moral imperatives for decades. Unfortunately, not enough organizations have made sustained progress against those goals. Sure, annual diversity training has been conducted (check) but then what? How do you move from what might have been “check the box” diversity training efforts to something longer lasting and meaningful? How do you switch from not only recruiting diverse candidates, but bringing them into an inclusive workplace in which they can bring their full talents and capabilities?


Start with how you speak

According to Business Insider, prejudice, bias, and discrimination at work are a lot more common than many business leaders would like to admit. A survey by Glassdoor of 1,100 US employees found that 61% of US employees had witnessed or experienced workplace discrimination based on age, race, gender, or LGBTQ identity. Some of this plays out in the form of microaggressions, or indirect, often unintentional expressions of racism, sexism, ageism, or ableism. They come out in seemingly innocuous comments by people who might be well-intentioned.

common microaggressions that are easily removed from your language:

  • Calling a situation, person, or process “crazy”: According to Mental Health America (MHA), mental illness was on a steady rise prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2017-2018, 19% of adults experienced a mental illness, an increase of 1.5 million people over the prior year dataset. The consequent isolation of the pandemic has only exacerbated the nation’s mental health crisis, with the Centers for Disease Control reporting that one in four young adults have had suicidal thoughts during the pandemic. Given the likelihood that a colleague is personally struggling with mental health or caring for a loved one who is, and the prevailing stigma around mental health issues, maybe we should just eliminate this particular adjective from our vocabulary.
  • “Crazy” (towards a woman): Gender tropes and stereotypes have long held that women are irrational, illogical, and that they make decisions from emotion. Aiming this adjective towards a woman or her behavior perpetuates that stereotype. If you do not understand the thought process behind her decision or actions, it is best to ask her to share her reasoning rather than belittle her and her gender.
  • “Peanut Gallery”: This term is used to refer to a group that is often critical. The “peanut gallery” names a section in theaters, usually the cheapest and worst, where many black people sat during the era of Vaudeville. If it is not directly racist, it is at least classist and rude. Instead try just asking for other opinions on the topic at hand.
  • Grandfathered or Grandfather clause: While frequently used to describe a group of people or organizations that are exempted from new rules or processes, the term is overtly racist and was used to disenfranchise African Americans from voting even after the 15th Amendment passed.
  • You are so articulate”: This is often said towards people of color and may come across as though the speaker is surprised at the recipient’s ability to speak coherently. Instead a comment on the validity of the arguments made or the data in the presentation can be made.
  • “I don’t see color”: This is one of the most well intended microaggressions that has hurt many diversity and inclusion efforts. The phrase itself denies the racial component of an individual’s identity. And if we do not acknowledge our differences (especially the tangible ones we can see) how can we celebrate them? How can we discover the less visible talents and capabilities to create an inclusive workforce? “I don’t see color” is the anti-thesis to self-awareness, which is the foundation to uncovering unconscious biases, and regulating and controlling those biases.
  • Minimizing a disability: “I’m really OCD about my files,” or “Ugh, I’m totally dyslexic today.” Obsessive compulsive disorders (yes there are more than one) can be debilitating to many who suffer from them. Dyslexia still often goes undiagnosed especially in children in underserved communities. Minimizing the struggles of others because you make a mistake reading or because you have a particular way of doing your work is hurtful and a clear path to exclusion not inclusion.

If you find a colleague using one of these terms or phrases, gently educate them on how this language can deter from your organization’s inclusivity goals. If you find yourself saying one, and you recognize or reflect that it is a microaggression, then you have found yourself at the first step on the inclusion journey: self-awareness.

How do you move from what might have been “check the box” diversity training efforts to something longer lasting and meaningful? Need some assistance developing a DE&I program for your company? We are here to help-


about the author

Sara SheltonAs Fahrenheit’s Human Capital Management Practice Area Lead, Sara Shelton brings a passion for organizational performance and creating great places to work. She enables clients to achieve their business goals by aligning and maximizing their talent, leadership, and culture. She influences with integrity and credibility, treasuring her role as consultant, advisor, and trusted confidante. She is a member of Fahrenheit’s Leadership Team.

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