Microaggressions: The Papercuts That Leave Scars

Tania A. Ibarra, CPA
October 1, 2019

The stereotype of women as nurturing, natural-born hostesses persists, leading to a common workplace microaggression: regardless of their actual role, women are often expected to grab coffee, tidy the office, or bring the cake. These seemingly small instances, termed "microaggressions" by Columbia University psychologists, are defined as "brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative ... slights and insults." But why are these "small" things such a big deal?

The reality is, microaggressions can have serious consequences, ranging from increased stress and anxiety to even heart disease. In the workplace, they contribute significantly to feelings of disengagement, distrust, and isolation. Imagine trying to build trusting relationships with colleagues who constantly remind you, through their words or actions, that you're different, wrong, or somehow less-than. It's nearly impossible.

Here are some other examples of microaggressions you might encounter:

  • "No, but where are you really from?"
  • "You don't act like you're Black."
  • "I've always wanted a gay best friend!"

Often, these remarks are meant to be innocent or even friendly, but they carry a powerful message, especially when repeated. Asking someone "where they're really from" isn't just a casual question; it implies they don't belong, that they're somehow an outsider. And what exactly does it mean to "act Black"? If someone identifies as Black and they're doing something, that's by definition a way Black people can act. As for the "gay best friend" comment, it reinforces harmful stereotypes and biases, even if the intent is positive.

Think of microaggressions as "death by a thousand papercuts." One cut might be annoying, but a hundred become painful, and a thousand can be devastating.

If you haven't experienced microaggressions personally but want to understand them better, I highly recommend Fobazi M. Ettarh's "Killing Me Softly." And don't forget to check out our Tools and Resources for Action to discover how you can contribute to building a more equitable and inclusive world.