Recognising racial microaggressions and overcoming biases for an inclusive workplace

8 min read | Elita Atwere | Article | | DE&I

Colleagues laughing and talking in kitchen

"It was meant to be a compliment." "You know I didn’t mean it like that.". For many of your Black and minority colleagues, these remarks are something they hear regularly, often in response to them expressing their feelings towards an offhand comment. The reality is that your peers from marginalised groups may face these uncomfortable situations daily in the form of microaggressions and you might not even realise it. So, the purpose of this blog is to help you identify and avoid microaggressions, to aid the sustained and genuine practice of allyship towards your Black and minority colleagues within the workplace.  


What are microaggressions?

First, it’s important to understand what a microaggression is: it is an indirect, subtle and – most of the time – unintentional form of discrimination made against those belonging to a minority group, or specific to this blog, discrimination based on underlying racial biases. Microaggressions are often made in the form of slight remarks masked as compliments, uninvited comments, and stereotyping; in fact, most of the time they are communicated by well-intentioned people who do not know the impact of their words and the hidden messages behind them. Do not get confused by the compound ‘micro’, however, as the effects within the workplace can be detrimental: such as a loss of confidence, feeling excluded and reduced morale.

To help your understanding, I will highlight and example some of the main ways racial microaggressions can be communicated.

Stereotyping: this is when you make assumptions about a colleague based on racial biases. For example, labelling a Black woman as ‘aggressive’ or assuming that because they are an ethnic minority, that they have come from a disadvantaged background. Moreover, your Black colleagues may get spoken to in ‘Blaccents’ – the exaggeration and mimicking of a stereotypical ‘Black’ accent. This reinforces the stereotype that all Black people speak in the same way and is a form of cultural appropriation.

Backhanded compliments: saying things like, “You’re very articulate for a person from…”, “You’re pretty for a …”, “You’re so exotic!”. These ‘compliments’ are belittling, as they presume people from minority ethnic backgrounds are less intelligent and less attractive. Being called exotic is also not a compliment as it implies your colleague is ‘not from here’ and categorises them as ‘Other’.

Uninvited comments: persistent comments about your colleague’s choice of food, dress sense and physical appearance (to name a few) are often unwanted. Something, or someone, being culturally different to you does not give an open invitation for constant remarks.

Physically touching: asking to touch or physically touching your colleague’s hair, skin, jewellery or clothing that is linked to their cultural or ethnic heritage is not ok. Please do not assume that just because one person was not offended by it that someone else won’t be. Yes, Black and minority hair types may be different and ‘fascinating’ to you, however this is not an invitation to invade your colleague’s personal space. To some it may be ‘just hair’, however for many Black people hair means so much more than this – it is a reclamation of beauty and identity. If you would like to read more about this, then read how Black hair reflects Black history.

Making someone feel invisible: this could be something like consistently pronouncing your colleague’s name incorrectly, choosing to give them a nickname without them asking or consistently mixing up the names of colleagues of the same ethnicity. Considering how much time we spend in the workplace, these experiences can strip your colleagues of their identity and individuality.

In summary, any one of these microaggressions can be dismissed as ‘no big deal’, however, over time, these comments and actions accumulate and can significantly impact self-esteem.


So, how can you avoid microaggressions and causing offence to your employees?

Think first: understanding what a microaggression is and having empathy for someone who receives them is a good start to avoiding them altogether. Remember, you will not know what is offensive to everyone and that is ok – the same way not everyone knows what is offensive to you. Be mindful of your words and the weight they may carry.

Please do not claim to ‘not see colour’: I cannot stress this one enough! Describing yourself as ‘colourblind’ is problematic on more levels than one, with the main one being that you are undermining, invalidating and ignoring the experiences of your colleagues. Deliberately ignoring significant differences to see everyone ‘equally’ is ignoring the needs of your colleagues. In plain terms, claiming to be blind to race is in turn making you blind to racism. Read more about why being ‘blind to race’ creates more problems than it solves.

Take the Implicit Association Test (IAT): Yes, as much as we don’t like to admit it, we all have implicit biases. Understanding your own implicit biases against those around you can help you become aware of underlying biases and how they may affect your interactions with your colleagues. You can take the Implicit Association Test here.

Encourage open conversations: Black networks within organisations encourage open and honest conversations about things you may not know or understand. Don’t feel like you have to walk on eggshells around your colleagues; if you have a question, just reach out.

Don’t be afraid of criticism: if you do end up offending someone, please remember we are all learning, and, again, that is ok. Any criticism you may receive is not a reflection of you as a person, but on the impact of your actions. Take onboard the feedback, acknowledge how it has affected the other person and assure them that it will not happen again. Try not to over-explain your actions; the best apology is acknowledging the impact of your words and having empathy.  

All in all, every individual at any organisation deserves to feel like they belong. That’s why, through understanding and acting, we can ensure everyone is an ally to their Black and minority colleagues, allowing us to maintain an ethical and inclusive environment that champions diversity and all our employees, all year round.

If you want to learn more about Black History Month and how to better support your Black and minority ethnic employees, then please take some time to visit the links in the text or take a read of these below:


About this author

About Elita Atwere

Elita Atwere is a former Talent Acquisition intern, who assisted and coordinated the delivery of attraction strategies, as well as the implementation of assessment and selection processes that determine the best people to deliver Hays' strategic objectives.

Elita was also a Network Lead for the Hays Black Network, which focuses on amplifying the voices of Black employees, improving representation across the business, raising awareness of Black Culture and challenges any perceived barriers to progression.

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