Psychological Harms of Microaggressions

Nikita Srivastava (’19) 

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Nikita Srivastava (’19) demonstrating how to give a cross-examination at the University of Dayton.

Everyone will have different experiences while working over the summer. Some may find the work load difficult or easy. Some may find the law frustrating or rewarding. At some point, all law school students will experience these feelings, however not everyone will experience the same work environment.  Some students will experience microaggressions.

Microaggressions are brief and commonplace — daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities and invalidations, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults to the target person or group or “outsiders”. “Outsiders” are individuals who do not come from the dominant culture. They are women, people of color, and the LGBQT community.  Usually, the “well-intentioned” people are the microaggressors–they are the ones who actively say and/or believe they are not racist, sexist, or homophobic; however, their actions or expressions say otherwise.

I’ve experienced microaggressions in the workplace environment. For example, I was in a shared office space with my peers. My phone kept ringing and I noticed it was my mother. At first, I let it go to voicemail but my mom kept calling so I answered it. I told my mother I would call her back in 5 minutes since I was at work. After I hung up, one of my co-workers asked me “what did you say about us?”

“Excuse me.” I said.

“What did you say about us in that other language?” said another co-worker. When my mother called me, I spoke to her in Hindi which is my second language. I did not even realize I spoke to her in Hindi. (Speaking Hindi comes naturally to me when I talk to my family.)  I told my co-workers I was not talking about them to my mother, but their skepticism demonstrated disbelief. (Should I avoid speaking Hindi at work? Why does that make people feel uncomfortable?) After this moment, I felt that I could not express a part of myself at work. Speaking Hindi makes up a large part of who I am and something I like to share with others. I am proud of my bi-lingual abilities. However, I could not be proud of my abilities at work.

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Image from breitbart.

That’s not my only experience.  In my three years of working, I have endured co-workers interrupting me when I speak, second guess my solutions, trying to explain my work or even stepping  in to do my work, and “complimenting” me by such statements as back handed compliments about my performance. At one point a colleague said to me, “congratulations on your new job, but you only got it because your former supervisor recommended you.”

And, my response?  It has been to do or say nothing.  As a woman of color, I fear speaking out for two reasons: 1) I am outnumbered and 2) I fear that my feelings will be dismissed. Instead of speaking up for myself, I find myself fighting an internal battle with myself – do I say something, or is better to move on and focus on the work? Eventually, I stopped speaking Hindi at work because it made my peers feel uncomfortable. Although many of my co-workers or peers are well-intentioned, they acted threatened by outsider-ness.

Constantly dealing with microaggressions ultimately leads to psychological ramifications. For example, many work environments announce policies of “color blindness” but display portraits of all-white or all-male directors and workers. But, these environments have an informal racial-based dress code creating microaggressions. For example, many black women will straighten their hair because they were told that their natural hair looked unprofessional. They will conform to dominant beauty standards to look or feel more professional.

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Image from the book Own It: Leadership Lessons from Women Who Do. HarperCollins 2016

Outsiders begin covering by complying with the dominant culture.  However, this way of thinking has harmful effects. Outsiders hiding their identity may feel anxious or depressed. They will have lower job satisfaction, lower affective organizational commitment, and greater job-related anxiety. Victim of microaggressions feel discouraged causing them to doubt their abilities at work. Some victims believe they must hide their stigmatized identity in order to fit in.

I recently discovered that my frustration not only stems from being a victim, but also not having the ability to change my situation.

How can we prevent microaggressions? Here are my suggestions to create change.

Victims of microaggressions:

  • Focus on the work itself. “My work should speak for itself. Although it is difficult, I have to focus on getting my job done by attaching myself with good work. Eventually, my co-workers and employers will see that I am good worker.”
  • Find outlets to release your frustration like exercise or gardening. Healthy hobbies will keep your mind balanced. Exercise will build your stamina and keep you sharp.
  • Find a group of people who are similarly situated. Discuss your problems to see if there is a common problem. Knowing you’re not alone will give you the strength to fight back.
  • Take advantage of programs like “Let’s Talk” or other counseling services.

Microaggressors:

  • Treat your colleagues the way you want to be treated. If you do not want someone constantly interrupting you, taking credit for your work, or taking over your presentations then do not behave that way.
  • Take classes like critical race theory, gender and law, and feminist jurisprudence. You may believe you are well intentioned, but your actions do not demonstrate that. Taking these class will show you how to match your intentions with your actions.
  • Before immediately dismissing a complaint or a concern, take the time to listen to your co-worker’s problem.

 

Author: Nikita_Srivastava

Nikita Srivastava is a 3L at the University of Cincinnati College of Law. She is a founding member of UC Law Women and Vice President of UC Law's Trial Advocacy Team.  Currently, she is a legal extern for the Indigent Defense Clinic at the Hamilton County Public Defender's Office.

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