In Episode 51: “Recognizing & Overcoming Microaggressions – Part 1,” Melinda Briana Epler answers the most often-asked questions about microaggressions: what they are, how humans are impacted by them, and examples of alternative language that can replace common verbal microaggressions in the workplace. This episode is based on fundamentals from Melinda’s book, How to Be an Ally (McGraw-Hill 2021). You can order your copy of How to Be an Ally at ally.cc/book for a deeper dive into the subject.
- “Dr. Chester Pierce Understood Racism On Multiple Fronts” by Elissa Ely
- “Disarming racial microaggressions: Microintervention strategies for targets, White allies, and bystanders” by Dareld Wing Sue
- “My Name Is Not ‘Interpreter’” by Dr. Roberto Montenegro and more about his research: “Scientists Start To Tease Out The Subtler Ways Racism Hurts Health” by Rae Ellen Bichell
- “On Microaggressions: Cumulative Harm and Individual Responsibility” by Christina Friedlaender
- “Uncovering talent: A new model of inclusion” by Deloitte
- “Day-to-Day Experiences of Emotional Tax Among Women and Men of Color in the Workplace” by Dnika J. Travis and Jennifer Thorpe-Moscon
- Oppressive Language List by Brandeis University
- Leading With Empathy & Allyship EP28: “Empathic Leadership And Emotional Tax In The Workplace” With Andrea G. Tatum
- Leading With Empathy & Allyship EP42: “Influencing Your Company To Address Racism” With TDo
The live show is made accessible thanks to Interpreter-Now and White Coat Captioning.
- “Microaggressions are everyday slights, insults, negative verbal and nonverbal communications that – whether intentional or not, and often unintentional – can make someone feel belittled, disrespected, unheard, unsafe, othered, tokenized, gaslighted, impeded, and just like somebody doesn’t belong.”
- “There is a study that shows a single incident of microaggressions can lead to an immediate 25% decline in somebody’s performance in a team project. And then leaving the company or the industry. 40% of women engineers ultimately leave tech. They leave and go on to be managers and grow up in other professions – because who wants to stay where they are not respected and appreciated, right?
- “Similar to biases, the key with microaggressions is to develop our empathy skills and to become more intentional so we recognize microaggressions forming and we stop them before they come out.”
MELINDA: Welcome to Leading With Empathy & Allyship. It is Tuesday, July 6th. Hope you had a long, wonderful weekend. At Leading With Empathy & Allyship we have deep, real, conversations about how we can be more inclusive leaders, and how we can work to create change in our workplaces and communities, starting with ourselves.
I am Melinda Briana Epler, Founder & CEO of Change Catalyst where we build inclusive innovation through training, consulting, and events. This is a safe space to learn, to build empathy, and to understand tangible actions that we can all take to make a difference.
This is a special season 4 where I talk about some of our most requested topics and answer questions from our live audience here. Today is episode 51. We will be talking about “Recognizing & Overcoming Microaggressions.” This is Part 1 of 2. We will talk about what microaggressions are, how to address them, and a bit about the impact they can have on people in the workplace and outside the workplace; and some common examples of verbal microaggressions in particular, and alternatives. We will keep going in the next episode with more around non-verbal microaggressions, environmental microaggressions, and some ways to start to interrupt them.
On screen are our ASL interpreters for today. Thank you, again, to Interpreter-Now for our ongoing partnership. This is also being live captioned by Maggie at White Coat Captioning. If you want to turn on captioning, if it is not already on, go down to the bottom of the screen and click ‘closed caption.’ You should be able to change the settings and all of that there as well.
Our team, Juliette, Renzo, Ariyah, GG, Emilie, everybody is here doing amazing things behind the scenes to make this happen. They are also in the chat and Q&A. If you have questions or technical issues, please, do ask and engage in the chat. This has been really wonderful to engage with you over the last several episodes. Please share what you are learning. Share what is resonating. Share questions that you have. I will also leave time for questions at the end too. If you have some specific questions, bigger questions, put them into the Q&A function so I can see them easily. I am going to share my screen now.
As you all know, I am Melinda Briana Epler. I am the Founder & CEO of Change Catalyst. The slide is a picture of myself. I am a White woman with long, red hair, wearing in this photo and actually, today I am wearing a dark blue shirt with black and white glasses. You can find me on Twitter @mbrianaepler or Instagram @changecatalysts, and also on LinkedIn. Essentially I create inclusive ecosystems using human system design, storytelling, community building, and behavior science. I have been doing this a long time. I have recently written a book. I am an author as well. Speaker, author, change maker, working to make the world more equitable, empathetic, and to create change in our workplaces and communities.
As you all know, How To Be An Ally is a new book of mine coming out. I have spent hours – thousands and thousands of hours on it. Compiling all of what I have learned over the years. I just made the final edits to it. I turned it in on Wednesday around midnight. So it is now heading off to print. I know some of you have already purchased it and I really appreciate you. Just a little ask: all of our content is free, so if you can afford a little token of appreciation by buying my book, I would appreciate it. It makes a difference in the overall success of the book. Either way, please share the link and I appreciate you.
Also, if you want to do any bulk book orders for your team, for your company, for your school school, reach out to us and we will set you up with a discounted rate: email@example.com. And thank you, Alex. I appreciate it. It feels like an accomplishment. It has been a lot of work. Alright.
For this special season 4 over the summer we are diving into some of the subjects in the book. To give you some important things you can do right now to make a difference in your workplace and also in your communities. In the first episode we talked about “Why Empathy & Allyship Matter In The Workplace.” Some of the business cases for allyship and how empathy and allyship influence diversity, equity and inclusion; and also, what people want from allies. If you missed that, please, go back and listen to that.
Last episode we talked about our biases and ensuring we are doing no harm through biases. We learned a lot of different types of biases and how to self-regulate and counter those biases through processes, systems, and workplace culture.
Just a reminder – allyship is recognizing there is an imbalance in opportunity in the world, in life, in how we go about our daily lives and our career. That imbalance and opportunity and using your privilege and power and influence to change it. Change happens one person at a time. One act at a time, one word at a time. There is this constant learning process and growth process. We learn, we show empathy and we take action and then we use that power and influence to create positive change for colleagues, our friends, our family, our network and neighbors as well.
So the steps that allies take are in my upcoming book. This is kind of how it is laid out in the book. Each is its own chapter. You start by learning, unlearning, relearning. That’s a lifelong process. We have learned a lot of things that have gaps. Gaps in our history books, gaps in our networks, gaps in our understanding, and we need to fill those gaps and relearn.
And then we don’t get stuck in that. We take action. We work to do no harm. We talked about understanding and correcting our biases, recognizing we have them, that come from families, from friends, from media, from TV, from film, from our teachers. We learn to understand those biases and correct them.
The second part of doing no harm is recognizing microaggressions and overcoming them. They are little, but they can make a difference and create a lot of harm and trauma if we do them regularly. We will talk about that over the next two episodes. Again, today we will talk about what they are especially focused on verbal microaggressions. Next time we will talk about nonverbal microaggressions, environmental microaggressions and treating the impact of microaggressions, and a little about microinterventions – some of the things you can do when you see something.
I am going to talk a lot today. Please use the chat. Please let me know what’s resonating. Any experiences you have along the way. Any questions you have. I will take questions at the end as well.
Microaggressions we have defined before. They are everyday slights, insults, negative verbal and nonverbal communications that – whether intentional or not, and often unintentional – can make someone feel belittled, disrespected, unheard, unsafe, othered, tokenized, gaslighted, impeded, and just like somebody doesn’t belong.
While smaller aggressions than bullying and harassment and macroaggressions or abuse, of course, they can reinforce the inequities and their effects can be traumatic and long lasting. Sometimes they can be called microexclusions. Microaggressions can be rooted in our biases or lack of understanding or empathy. We talked about bias a lot in the last episode. If you haven’t had a chance to listen or watch that episode, I highly recommend going back and checking it out.
Similar to biases, the key with microaggressions is to develop our empathy skills and to become more intentional so we recognize microaggressions forming and we stop them before they come out. And just so you know, the term microaggressions was first described in 1970 by Chester Middlebook Pierce. He was looking specifically at microaggressions against Black people at the time. It has been evolving since to cover microaggressions against people of all underrepresented identities.
What happens in the moment of a microaggression physically is that you can have an amygdala hijack. It is the physical response in the brain that produces the fight, flight, or freeze response. I am sure many of you have experienced microaggressions at some point in your life. You might think about: how do you react in that moment? Are you fighting, are you freezing, are you looking to get out of there. I definitely freeze and look for an out as well. Someone talks over me, somebody interrupts me repeatedly, somebody says something belittling or harassing, I generally shutdown. I freeze. What does that do to innovation? What does that do to inspiration? How do you be your best self when somebody is telling you you don’t belong there, they don’t want to hear you, don’t respect your experience or identity.
Overtime, this can have long term effects. Add to that the daily stress of racism, sexism, all the -isms, all of the discrimination many of us experience outside of work as well. It really can accumulate into long-term health issues and trauma. Psychologist Derald Wing Sue who has some great books out there and we will link to those in the follow-up to this episode. He has built decades of research on microaggressions and racism and found accumulative effects of microaggressions can be biological, cognitive, emotional and behavioral. Roberto Montenegro, who studies the biological effects of discrimination, has also shown that chronic exposure to microaggressions can turn into microtraumas. Not only emotionally but physically; physically and emotionally.
Christina Friedlaender has shown the cumulative harm of microaggressions can include stress, anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, insomnia, substance abuse, eating disorders, social withdrawal, suicidal ideation, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Lots of studies are starting to come out about this. While we call them micro, they add up over time and they can make a big difference in our lives and our careers.
When we talk about doing no harm, the harm from microaggressions can be short term and they can be long term. It matters to us personally. It also matters to a team’s effectiveness at work and to the company’s bottom line ultimately. These can change. Biases, microaggressions, harassment, bullying, general othering, systemic inequalities – these can all change how you show up at work over time.
Some of the things they can translate into: Impostor Syndrome. I am sure some of you all have experienced this at one time or another in your lives. Imposter Syndrome is feeling like I am not the expert that I am. I don’t belong as a leader, despite being a leader. That I don’t belong in the front of this room despite having the experience to be able to do that and being invited even to do that. If you are told your whole life you are not good enough, regularly experiencing microaggressions that question your expertise, you might begin to believe it, right?
Stereotype threat is another one. Fear that you might play into stereotypes of how people might perceive you. It is an extra weight some people carry around with them. Covering a piece of your identity. Code-switching, so being somebody different speaking a different language at work versus at home. Holding yourself differently at home versus at work. Deloitte actually found that 83% of the people who are LGBTQIA+ cover a piece of their identity. 79% of Black people do. 66% of women do. 63% of Latinx people do. A lot of us are covering or doing extra work at work.
That lack of productivity as well, a lower engagement level. There is a study that shows a single incident of microaggressions can lead to an immediate 25% decline in somebody’s performance in a team project. And then leaving the company or the industry. Just as an example, we work a lot in the tech industry. 40% of women engineers ultimately leave tech. They leave and go on to be managers and grow up in other professions because who wants to stay where they are not respected and appreciated, right?
Each individual microaggression can be harmful in the short term and they can accumulate daily. They can take a significant toll on somebody’s life and career in the long term. People with underrepresented identities encounter microaggressions on top of the stress everybody experiences and that company catalyst calls that the emotional tax. It is something that is additive in our work. As allies it is our job to understand this, to understand the impact and what microaggressions are so that we don’t create that harmful impact.
Alex asks, “Can you briefly expand on what you mean by ‘general othering’?’” Yeah, it could be that, you know, tokenism for example, is a kind of othering where you bring one person in from a diverse background, an underrepresented background, and they can feel like they are representing all people from their identity. They might be asked to represent all people from that identity. It is one kind of othering. Another is making somebody feel that they don’t belong in any kind of a way. There is that in-group out-group bias that we talked about last time. If you have an in-group around you and somebody else is over there they are experiencing othering in that way. Does that help, Alex? Absolutely. You are welcome. Okay.
There are different types of microaggressions. Generally, verbal, nonverbal and environmental. We will focus on the verbal microaggressions today and next time we will get to the other two.
Alright. Interrupting. Yeah, and to interrupt myself here, Tanya says, ‘Favoritism is another example.’ Absolutely an example of othering as well. Interrupting and taking more than your share of air time. Interrupting somebody while they are speaking, talking over somebody’s words, not allowing somebody to finish their thought.
People with underrepresented identities are more likely to be interrupted. Men are three times more likely to interrupt women than another man. Interruptions can be verbal and nonverbal. If we are thinking about what we want to say next we might be saying something with our body language that tells someone we are not actually listening to them. That’s a form of interrupting. That’s interrupting their thought process. Make sure you take a step back and listen with empathy. Try not to form your ideas before somebody has finished sharing theirs. Respectfully allow them to finish their complete thought. Then make the space.
Taking up more than your share of airtime is another piece. Dominating the conversation, not creating space for somebody to speak. Speaking on panels or at events that don’t have diverse speakers can be another example of this. A study from Brigham Young and Princeton Universities found that in a mixed population at the table, men take up 75% of the conversation in a meeting. So be aware of who is taking up airtime. Be aware of the airtime you are taking. Create openings in the conversation for people. Sometimes that means giving breath in that conversation, sometimes it means giving a little bit of silence which can be uncomfortable. Take a little bit of the uncomfortable silence to allow somebody to step in.
And then, of course, say no to panels without diverse speakers and suggest somebody with an underrepresented identity in your place if you are from a majority population or majority identity. And in general, it is always a good practice if you are asked to speak to continue to open up the space for others, for people with other identities. Okay.
So negating somebody’s identity or language is a big one. It shows up in a lot of different ways. At the basic level, not doing the work to know somebody’s name. For example, calling somebody a common name from their culture I can’t remember their name. It is like Raj or something. Or not learning how to pronounce somebody’s name. That woman with a name I can never pronounce. Or continuously mispronouncing somebody’s name. Or mixing up the names of two different people who are Black at your company or two different people who are Latinx or Asian or Arab or women. This actually happens a lot.
Somebody’s name is a key piece of their identity and it doesn’t make much effort to learn them. On LinkedIn now, people put pronunciations. You can put pronouns there now, FYI, in case you haven’t done that yet. So learn their name. You can practice it. I write them down phonetically as well for myself just so I know in the future. It is okay to ask. It is definitely okay to ask how somebody pronounces their name. When you do, write it down for yourself so you remember it. Mixing up people’s names can be a form of invisibilization which we talked about last time. Biases and making people feel invisible.
Another one is negating somebody’s identity. This can happen when you say ‘I don’t see race. I am color blind.’ Or ‘we are all one race, the human race.’ It can also happen asking somebody of a mixed race: ‘what are you?’ Which is super dehumanizing. First of all, nobody should be referred to as what versus who. Yeah. Pia says that bothers you. Telling somebody of a mixed race what race they are. Looking at somebody visibly and saying ‘you look White. You are totally White.’ Or ‘you don’t look or act like a normal Black person, Asian person, disabled person, etc.’ What is that telling somebody?
‘Tone down your appearance’ or ‘don’t bring your lifestyle to work’ is another piece of negating identity. Incorrectly identifying somebody’s race or ethnicity or disability. Kevin, thank you. Everybody, I just realized. I didn’t see that when you chat, if you could just chat to all panelists and attendees. That would be awesome. Thank you, Kevin, for pointing that out. I didn’t notice.
Another way of negating somebody’s identity is providing the wrong type of accessibility for somebody’s disability. I read an article – I think it was a tweet recently where somebody who was Deaf was on a plane and the flight attendant gave them the instructions, the safety instructions, in braille. They were Deaf and the flight attendant gave them a braille document, right, for somebody who was Blind. Often well-intentioned these things can be really, really harmful.
‘I don’t see race’ or ‘I am color blind’ can be experienced as ‘I am erasing or ignoring a piece of your identity. I am ignoring the fact that not seeing race or color is a privilege that many people don’t have because society treats people differently based on visible identity.’ Instead, learn, and acknowledge somebody’s unique identity, culture, tradition, history, experience as well as the unique oppression and systemic barriers they may face as a result.
Remember to value differences. We talked about that several times. Not centering your own culture as the norm but recognizing each identity and culture as the norm but recognizing each identity and culture is equally normal, equally valuable, and do the work to really understand different identities.
Some other things here: disparaging somebody’s language which can come out by calling an Indigenous language a foreign language, by saying ‘you don’t sound Black,’ or asking somebody from a racial or ethnic minority group, ‘why do you sound White?’ For those of you who have read Michelle Obama’s book, she writes about that. As a child she was asked that question repeatedly in her neighborhood in Chicago. This can be a form of cultural gaslighting.
We talked about gaslighting in the last episode. They can also be a form of cultural erasure and making someone feel like their internal identity is incongruent with what should be, what the norm is. Avoid these phrases and sentiments and work to ensure somebody feels they belong. That their language and identity belongs.
And then lastly, assuming someone is foreign because they present as being from a minority or as being someone from a minority ethnic or racial group. Phrases like you speak good English. They might be from an English-speaking country but even so is that really a compliment? Or ‘Where are you really from?’ is a common microaggression. These are othering statements. They can make somebody feel like an alien in their own land. Like they don’t belong. So instead, if you are interested in where their hometown is, ask where did you grow up? If people want to tell you about their race and ethnicity they will and if not, it is okay.
I am going to move on to referring to an artificial gender binary or grouping everybody using terms referring to men is another piece of that. Using terms like 50/50 gender balance. Instead use gender parity. Ladies and gentlemen – try everyone, right? Boys and girls, again, everyone. You all. Y’all. Channel your inner Texan if you are from the U.S. These are binary terms that exclude people who are nonbinary and gender nonconforming. nonbinary is a spectrum. Here are just some of the many identities that people identify with.
Then the other piece is making sure you don’t center on men as being the norm with you guys, mankind. There is that kind of language as well. Sometimes it is so normalized that I hear a lot of women saying well, it doesn’t bother me, I use it too. But what are you really saying when you do? Do we really want to be using language that’s centering men as the norm? Right. Or is it time to change that?
Misgendering, deadnaming, or outing somebody. Misgendering: assuming someone’s gender identity based on your perception of how they look or dismissing their pronouns. This is especially harmful for people who are transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming. Don’t assume somebody’s pronouns. Look them up; a lot of people will share them on social media. Or ask people when you first meet them. ‘I use she/her pronouns. What are your pronouns?’ Alex and John, appreciate you letting me know the last slide was impactful.
Deadnaming: using the name somebody was assigned at birth before they changed their name. In a similar vein, saying somebody used to be man/a woman or he/she. That language can be really harmful. Transitioning is an external presentation of an internal identity. That person may have never identified with that sex assigned at birth. If somebody has transitioned, do the work to relearn their gender, their name. Make sure you do that tiny bit of work to make somebody feel like they belong.
Then the last piece here is outing somebody: asking somebody who is transgender and/or has a disability to identify themselves publicly. Or talking about somebody’s disability, gender, transition, religion, publicly without their permission could be potentially outing them as well.
When somebody comes out as transgender or having a disability it can be a difficult process to navigate and they may do it in phases. Anybody along the LGBTQIA+ community might experience this. Give them that space. Allow them to do it on their own terms. Coming out in a private conversation is really different than coming out publicly. Remember that.
People from different religions also. Some have been severely persecuted and may cover pieces of their religion out of safety and so they may not want that public. People with disabilities as well. It may take time to fully come into their identities. Let people tell their own story. However and to whomever they would like to tell it. Yeah, John says, ‘“Outing someone” must have their consent.’ Absolutely.
Diminishing somebody’s accomplishments: this can be questioning somebody’s expertise. That ‘prove it again’ bias, consistently questioning somebody’s expertise, asking to see somebody’s badge at your company if they don’t look like they fit it in. This happens a lot in the tech industry. Treating a person of color as the hotel or event staff at a conference rather than an attendee or a speaker or at a restaurant treating them as a valet rather than a customer. This happens a lot. This happens regularly to my husband and friends who are Black. Really check your biases in those moments.
Assuming somebody who is a veteran has no skills other than to be aggressive or to use a gun. I heard a really awful microaggression once. She worked in the military so she has a fighting instinct – but what else can she do? It turns out she led a large team in high stress situations to debug military grade technology. Those are first-person identity biases, usually. People from underrepresented identities generally have to prove their expertise and their skills over and over again throughout their lives even when they have achieved leadership positions.
I don’t know if you all saw, I believe it was last year Edward Enninful, the British Vogue Editor in Chief and the first Black Editor of the magazine, was walking into his office and was told to use the garage entrance as he entered his own office. Pause, catch yourself and interrupt those biases before you do or say something that can cause harm.
Dismissing somebody’s experience with systemic inequity and marginalization: this is a form of gaslighting. Everyone can succeed if they work hard enough. Or insisting on a meritocracy. Saying, ‘don’t play the race card.’ ‘I am not a racist’ is another one. If you are defending yourself when somebody points out a microaggression – ‘I am not a racist’ – it is a form of gaslighting. A large body of research shows that people with underrepresented identities are discriminated against and marginalized. We know that. Remember to listen to people’s experiences and believe them.
A combination of the last one and this one: implying somebody was hired because they had an unfair advantage as somebody who has an underrepresented identity. Calling somebody a
‘diversity hire’ or otherwise implying they were hired because of their identity versus their expertise. Insisting on reverse discrimination. So this is the combination of the last one diminishing somebody’s expertise and dismissing the system of oppression they have experienced. It can be very belittling.
Our hiring processes have embedded practices in them for a long time that exclude people with underrepresented identities. Finally companies are starting to correct this inequity and bring in qualified candidates from diverse backgrounds that they had been putting barriers against. In the same way you probably wouldn’t say he is a White male hire, right? You wouldn’t want to say he is a diversity hire. That person is a diversity hire. Catch yourself if you are thinking this and recognize and support somebody’s unique experience and skills and expertise. If you see it, also, interrupt that as well. We will talk about interrupting more next time.
Explaining for somebody. ‘What she is trying to say is….’ Or explaining a concept to somebody who is an expert in the field. Often this is based on stereotypes and identity bias. Assuming somebody is not intelligent or experienced. Some people call this mansplaining or Whitesplaining. It is assuming somebody doesn’t know and isn’t an expert in this. Instead assume somebody is experienced and intelligent. Allow somebody to explain their ideas themselves rather than trying to explain them for them. Only explain a concept to somebody if they want to know more. You might be talking to an expert in the field. Just be aware of that.
Another is taking credit for somebody else’s idea. This happened a lot when I was an executive: often a person with an underrepresented identity shares an idea that’s dismissed by the group and later repeated by somebody else – and it is championed. It can negatively affect somebody’s career. Make sure you listen to people’s ideas, give them credit. If you see this is happening, say something simple like, ‘Liz’s idea you just brought up is great. Maybe she has more to say about that?’’ Somehow attribute it back to them. Bring it back. Also giving the wrong person credit for an idea can be another piece of this. Another example of this.
Yeah, Pia says I have been called a token to my face. Pia, is it okay if I share this? I realize she shared it with just panelists. I will wait until you respond to that. Okay. Pia says, ‘I have been called a token to my face so many times. My reaction always surprising the audience. How does it feel that I am a token getting the job done that you could not? This certainly does not foster camaraderie but does stop the hazing.’ Interesting. Yeah. Yeah. To just call it out with actions as well as words too. Okay.
Moving on to objectification, exoticization and inspiration porn. Stella Young has a great TEDx Talk called, ‘I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much’ where she talks about inspiration porn. Inspiration porn is treating people with disabilities as an inspiration. ‘The way you overcome your disability is so inspiring.’ What is that saying to somebody? Instead of seeing disability as the weakness or something to overcome, recognize disability as somebody’s proud and powerful identity. I highly encourage you to watch it. It’s short. It is great.
Also, rags to riches stories of poor people and immigrants overcoming obstacles against all odds. This is perpetuated in the media a lot. Exoticizing people and cultures. Treating people as objects instead of as humans. Tokenism, again, bringing that back. Using one or a handful of people to create the impression of diversity or asking them to represent all people from their cultural identity. These can be dehumanizing. They can reinforce stereotypes. They can objectify a person for the benefit of others.
It shows up so much in film and television and video games. Talk shows. Books. Toys. Media. Workplaces. The fashion and advertising industries have notoriously exoticized and treated models as objects and are starting to come to terms with that now. Instead of using people’s stories and looks for the benefit of your own inspiration, make a difference by humanizing and fixing the systemic barriers for people with underrepresented identities. Flip that. How can you help? How can you be an ally?
We have a lot of racist, prejudiced, ableist, sayings that are stuck in our culture and in our languages. There are many phrases that we use that have deeply racist back stories or are considered cultural appropriation. Catch yourself before you say them and find alternatives. Some of them here: ‘vision quest,’ ‘Indian giver,’ ‘sold down the river,’ ‘no can do,’ ‘long time no see,’ ‘that’s so gay,’ ‘powwow,’ ‘spirit animal,’ ‘open the kimono,’ and ‘master/slave’ technology is a big one the tech industry needs to do a lot of work on. Racist sayings are pretty prevalent. These are pretty prevalent. Find alternatives for yourself and change that. Don’t use those.
I am not going to go through each of these and explain them. Alex, I see you asked that question. But I encourage you to Google it because they are Google-able. Awesome. Many common phrases are also derogatory and rooted in ableist ideas.
The right – side of the slide that I’m showing is a bunch of terminology that is ableist and shows disability in a negative or less than or abnormal or deviant light. ‘Blind to.’ ‘Blinded by.’ ‘Turn a blind eye.’ ‘Deaf to.’ ‘Falling on deaf ears.’ ‘Crazy.’ ‘Insane.’ ‘Loony.’ ‘Lame.’ ‘Moronic.’ ‘Feeble minded.’ ‘Mental.’ These are terms that I grew up learning and they were normalized when I grew up. They are not okay.
Educate yourself about these terms and just find other terms. There are so many great terms instead. You can say wild instead of crazy. I am seeing lots of comments and little ‘aha’ moments in the chat. Just think about alternatives. Spend a little bit of time today maybe and over the next few days and catch yourself and just find alternatives to some of the words you might be using. And then also, of course, ableism goes far beyond language, right? Also just educate yourself beyond language as well. There are a lot of normalizations here that we have that are not okay.
And then the last one is centering your experience as the norm. Centering your identity, your culture, your communication style and everyone else is kind of abnormal or inferior in some way. There are a lot of little ways we do this. I am just going to talk about a few specifically when it comes to people with disabilities. Often we will center disability language around ableist ideas of disability by using phrases like ‘differently abled’ or ‘handicapped’ or ‘handicapable,’ ‘the disabled,’ ‘special needs,’ ‘specially abled.’ This is language that often centers the norm around people without disabilities to make them feel more comfortable while othering people with disabilities and showing them as abnormal, as inspirational, or as less than.
Generally just in terms of disability language, people generally prefer people with disabilities which is person-first language or disabled people. You kind of have to ask somebody if you can. Disabled people is identity-first language or what people call the social model of disability – the idea that people aren’t disabled in their bodies, but disabled by society. Or people – there are lots of people that would like to be identified specifically by their disability like autistic, Deaf, Blind, Deaf-Blind. Do ask when you have the opportunity.
Another part of this is when people say somebody ‘suffers from’ a particular disability. Or they are ‘wheelchair bound’ or ‘confined to a wheelchair.’ Nobody is bound or confined to a wheelchair. Use better terms like wheelchair user or somebody who uses a wheelchair. Just little words that can make a big difference how you are showing your perception of them and how they feel about that. I gave a lot of alternatives along the way.
In addition, because these are based in biases you can use similar processes to interrupt microaggressions as you can interrupting biases. Find opportunities to learn, to unlearn, to relearn. Keep learning, keep growing. Listen to people. Follow new people on social media. I learn a ton on social media. Read books from different points of view, different perspectives from diverse authors. Go to events that you wouldn’t normally go to. Find ways to learn. And then pause. This can be a hard one but it just takes a little more time to say things in a way that is not going to create harm. That might mean even when you are composing a tweet, sometimes it will take me several minutes to compose a tweet because I want to make sure I am not inadvertently causing harm. Pause, humanize, empathize before you say or do things. Give yourself time to disrupt your response just in case you have a bias there.
Self-regulation is a part of this as well. Stop and hear your words from multiple perspectives before you say them. And then normalize the acknowledgment and countering of microaggressions in the same way you are doing that with biases. Call each other out on your team. Make it normal to just educate each other around it and open up to that education. And then, of course, create a culture that values DEI because that is going to be easier to create that normalization of countering biases and microaggressions.
Develop processes that reduce microaggressions. For example, how can you develop a meeting process that gives equal distribution of airtime? That reduces interruptions, that allows everybody to speak? Those can be easy little things that you can enter into your meetings. How can you reduce microaggressions in performance reviews? In performance reviews, microaggressions can come out in lots of different ways in the feedback we give. How can you, with training, with processes, counter that and provide useful feedback and give people different examples of what is useful feedback, what is good feedback, and start to counter that with the processes as well.
And then the last is if you are in a position to offer formal and informal learning opportunities in your team, at your company as well. Help people learn about and explore allyship, empathy, inclusive leadership, microaggressions, biases through training and informal learning and educational resources. Lots of different ways you can do that. Lots of training modules out there now. Lots of different companies like ours that are doing training. Lots of different ways you can rethink the culture and rebuild the culture in a way that is more inclusive and reduces biases and microaggressions as well.
And this isn’t meant to be a be all checklist of what not to do, of course. This is just some daily microaggressions and what they might look like and how you can reframe your approach and work toward eliminating microaggressions in your own work. You might see things here that you have done. One time or another, all good allies find ourselves making mistakes. It is our job as allies to listen, to learn, to unlearn, and also to make mistakes, apologize and keep learning.
There are lots of people whose lives we can change if we improve how we show up for them in the present and in the future. If you have done something that created harm in the past, forgive yourself for it. Forgive yourself. If you have done it recently, you might go back to that person or group and apologize and then keep working hard to not do it in the future and continuously learn and grow.
As I said, this is Part 1 of 2 on verbal microaggressions. We will talk about non-verbal microaggressions which includes avoidance and environmental microaggressions as well and then. We will also talk a little bit about microinterventions. We won’t get to everything but we will get to some things there too so you have more. Awesome.
If you have questions, we do have a little time here for questions. I do see one. Please put any other questions that you have in the Q&A. So an anonymous attendee asks, ‘Can we say out of your mind instead of crazy or is that term or phrase ableist too? What are some alternatives?’ I wouldn’t because it still implies some kind of ableism there, I think. I would say wild. Anybody else have alternatives to using insane, crazy, mad, those kinds of words? Please put them in the chat. ‘Is “impaired” a better word than “disabled?”’ No, because impaired still implies there is something less than. It is not a whole person. Or yeah. Generally, I would not use impaired. Disabled is a better word than impaired.
Yeah, we are getting some other thoughts to our anonymous person around ‘bizarre’ instead. Yeah. ‘Doesn’t make sense.’ Yeah. ‘Are you thinking clearly?’ Yeah. Awesome.
John asks, ‘How do you influence change in a fake equity environment without having direct authority?’ That’s a big question. Not totally related to microaggressions. I will say that it is and it isn’t. There are lots of things you can do either on your team, because generally you are probably working with other people, so you can start to help create some team norms. You can do things with other people. You don’t have to be an ally on your own. You can have group allyship where you are working together to create change. That might be around changing norms around meetings or I think I mentioned in the last episode that women in the Obama Administration were finding that they were talked over and interrupted a lot so they kind of grouped together and together they started amplifying each other. So when a woman said something, another woman would echo them and amplify their words and it made a difference in the team culture. There are ways you can do it on a team level.
I would also say, you know, give feedback to your CEO, your managers, your supervisor. Let them know you care about this and you are seeing things that aren’t okay. I will say that a lot of companies reach out to us for training, for work that we do because people have said something and they keep hearing over and over again they need microaggressions training or allyship training or there is something happening in the culture that they keep getting feedback about so give that feedback.
And then the third thing I would say is if your CEO or your supervisor has made a commitment around diversity, equity, and inclusion, hold them to it and check in with them. ‘How are you doing that? Any way I can help?’
And then really quickly, Kimberly asks, ‘Do you have thoughts about how to hold companies accountable in organizations where this work isn’t being done? Or where we have experienced egregious experiences.’ Some of what I said. Telling them it is not okay with you is a big thing and doing that in groups is better, is easier. So if you can, do that.
We did an episode with TDo earlier this last season and we will link to that in the resources. TDo talks about there are a lot of people who are Asian from the AAPI community that wanted the company to acknowledge microaggressions and systemic racism and violence that their communities were experiencing and still are experiencing. She talks about what they did to go about that. I highly recommend looking at that as well. Awesome. All right. Thank you all for your questions and for your chats. Really appreciate this.
I just want to really quick – How to Be an Ally is available for pre-order as I already said. A special season 4: we are down to July 20th as our last episode of the season where we will be talking more about microaggressions. There were a couple of questions that I didn’t get to in the chat. If you had questions I didn’t get to, please, bring them to the next session and I will commit to doing that.
With that, thank you, all. I just want to ask you all to make sure that you commit to doing something different after this discussion today. What different thing will you do? What will you work on? How will you create change? And we will see you in two weeks. In the meantime, there are 50 other episodes. If you haven’t listened to or watched them all, check them out. Ally.cc. We have lots of amazing guests who shared their wisdom over the last year.
And then lastly, you know, I need allies too. As an ally, you can do a few things. Buy the book, tell people about the book, and give us a five-star rating on the podcast, review it and subscribe to it as well. All of those things can make a difference for us. Thank you for all the work you do. You all have a wonderful week. Bye.
Melinda Briana Epler has over 25 years of experience developing business innovation and inclusion strategies for startups, Fortune 500 companies, and global NGOs.
As CEO of Change Catalyst, Melinda currently works with the tech industry to solve diversity and inclusion together. Using her background in storytelling and large-scale culture change, she is a strategic advisor for tech companies, tech hubs, and governments around the world. She co-leads a series of global solutions-focused conferences called Tech Inclusion, where she has partnered with over 450 tech companies and community organizations and hosted 43 solutions-focused diversity and inclusion events around the world.
Previously, Melinda was a Marketing and Culture Executive and award-winning documentary filmmaker – her film and television work includes projects that exposed the AIDS crisis in South Africa, explored women’s rights in Turkey, and prepared communities for the effects of climate change. She has worked on several television shows, including NBC’s The West Wing.
Melinda is a TED speaker. She speaks, mentors and writes about diversity and inclusion in tech, allyship, social entrepreneurship, underrepresented entrepreneurs and investing. She has spoken on hundreds of stages around the world, including SXSW, Grace Hopper, Wisdom 2.0, the World Bank, Obama White House, Clinton Foundation, Black Enterprise, Google, Indeed, Capital One and McKinsey.
Watch Melinda’s TED Talk
Change Catalyst Co-Founder Melinda Briana Epler has spoken across the globe in hundreds of venues and virtual events. Empathy, Allyship, Advocacy, Microaggressions, Inclusive Leadership, and Building Inclusive Teams are just some of the topics Melinda has spoken on. Let us know about your next speaking engagement needs! Melinda has also spoken on how to build organizational capacity to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, such as how to lead behavior change or how to build allies and advocates.
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