Handle Your Business: How to Deal with Common Workplace Microaggressions

by Cheryl Thompson

Much attention has been given to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s working woman feminist manifesto, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. While her perspective and insight as a woman is relatable, I still find my ability to connect with what she’s saying limited for me as a black woman.

Many women have experienced the “manterruption” in the boardroom: the unnecessary interruption of a woman by a man, but what about the equally obnoxious interruption and distraction by privileged non-Black female colleagues? These women, who ordinarily could be seen as allies in the battle to break the glass ceiling, are not identified by Sandberg, most likely because they are the same race as herself. She discusess having ideas “bropropriated” (another term coined by Sandberg), meaning a man takes credit for a woman colleague’s idea, but she doesn’t acknowledge how often privileged white women are guilty of this same slippery behavior.

When combined with the racially-driven microaggressions we face regularly, black women are left bumping our heads against a ceiling much thicker than glass.

To be clear, I’m talking about more than someone trying to touch my hair, or asking me random and imbecilic questions like, “Do all black people eat watermelon?” I am talking about the kinds of behaviors and workplace interactions that are an attempt to reduce me to who I might have been during Jim Crow; the kind of behavior that could potentially alter the trajectory of one’s career if we are not mindful of the manipulative nature of microaggressions and their negative impacts on self-esteem and confidence.

Our privileged colleagues may not intentionally commit microagressions, but the system that allows them to occur is definitely intentional. They come from the deep psychological need of the “perpetrator” to maintain the system that has allowed them to own and enjoy power according to their worldview; they allow them to maintain their position of privilege. These comments and behaviors are to remind us: Be seen, but not listened to. Don’t get too “uppity” now that you’ve got a seat at the table, probably due to Affirmative Action. Everything is not about race, so stop being so sensitive. Regardless your age, level of education, or experience, you will not advance beyond me. Remember your place.

For close to a year I conducted an ongoing survey with black women to identify workplace incidents that could be considered racially driven microagressions. Below are three of the top incidents identified the responses that some have recommended.

Scenario #1: My superiors do not acknowledge me or pay attention when I have the floor.

Sure, everybody loses focus in a meeting now and then, but how many times have you had the floor in a meeting—offering up a new idea, reporting important information, or suggesting a workable solution to a problem—when it seems your boss or supervisor busies him/herself with some other “pressing task?” And when you’re done, they offer no feedback, barely acknowledging that you were speaking, before moving on to the next agenda item. If this happens frequently enough, it can leave some women with a sense of diminished self-worth in the workplace. This may happen to many women, but it is more of a regular occurrence for women of color.

What this really means: Looking at you while you are talking in a meeting and extending professional courtesy and respect will upset my worldview. I really cannot handle information or advice coming from a black woman, so I won’t engage. In my mind, acknowledging you as a thinking equal in this office and a valuable team member somehow makes me lose privilege and position.

Recommended responses:
  • “Lean in” to the meeting (literally) by extending your presence across the conference room table and maintaining eye contact with the boss.
  • Use the pen in your hand to make bold physical gestures, emphasizing certain points as you speak, occasionally tapping the table to bring attention back to yourself.
  • Stop talking when you notice people’s focus has wandered and simply and politely ask for their attention before you start again.

Scenario #2: When I speak, another colleague attempts to take over with, “What she is saying is…” or “What she is trying to say is…”

It’s not like you just tried to explain quantum physics to your colleagues, but for some reason the words coming from your mouth do not register until Biff or Buffy repeats them, using almost the same words. Even though you make sure to speak very clearly and assuredly when reporting important information on projects to your boss and supervisor, being careful to outline your points, what happens? A non-Black colleague attempts to jump in as your interpreter. In your mind, this is totally unnecessary. You really want to reach out and grab them, as this has become a pattern.

What this really means: Regardless of what you are saying or how well you are saying it, I assume that you are speaking Ebonics. The tone of your voice is too dominating, confident, or declarative. Let me help you better communicate, and at the same time rephrase your brilliant and insightful comments, so that our colleagues will actually understand and ultimately remember your good idea coming from me.

Recommended responses:
  • At the conclusion of your presentation or report, ask: “Is everybody clear on what I just said? If not, I can clarify things further for you.”
  • If there is lack of understanding, think of examples of shared experiences that may help drive your points home and further brand this idea or solution as yours.
  • When Biff or Buffy jump in with, “What she’s saying…” politely raise a hand, say “Excuse me,” and reiterate your points yourself or ask others if they need clarification.

Scenario #3: When I provide a new insight, idea, or solution, only to have another colleague try present the idea as theirs later, making me ask myself, “But isn’t that what I just said?”

This is the classic trick: You have made a crucial contribution to move a project forward, or suggested a new way to approach a floundering initiative. The majority of your colleagues see value in your idea, but your supervisor finds a way to table the discussion for a future meeting. When others present their ideas at this later meeting, Biff/Buffy restate your suggestion almost the same as you did, and everyone immediately agrees that this is a great solution. Your face is getting hot. You’re literally staring them down, but they have no shame and your stare has no impact.

What this really means: If I don’t find a way to restate her idea and claim ownership of it, my worldview—that protects my privilege and sense of power— is shaken up. I cannot allow her to be seen as having better ideas or being just as valuable (if not more) than me.

Recommended responses:
  • You sometimes don’t know when a brilliant idea will strike, but this is where preparation is key. When you come to a meeting, bring the documented research and examples of why this is a solution with merit. When your idea is high-jacked, reclaim ownership of it by ending the discussion with your documentation for others to review.
  • If you do have a close colleague on the same work team, work together and support each other. She or he can state that the idea now being cheered is the same one you put forward. You can do the same for them.
It’s important that Black women not let others try to steal their shine or diminish their contributions in the workplace. We have to be strategic about how we deal with microaggressions.

We have to handle our business.

Photo: Shutterstock

Cheryl Thompson is a public health professional who lives in Washington, DC, but was born and raised in Cleveland, OH, where her mother who taught her to "lean in" without effort. She administers the Facebook group, She Speaks, which serves as a community for Black women to discuss mentoring, career, and personal development. You can tweet her @Cherylspeaks or email her at Cheryltspeaks@gmail.com.

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