Death by a Thousand Cuts


2020, in my humble opinion, was the year of deep thought. Individually, and collectively.

We are finding the language and taking the time to articulate issues that are ever present in our society. “Microaggressions,” for example, is not an entirely new word, but as a society, we’re coming to understand its meaning and recognize when it happens.

A microaggression is an indirect, often unintentional expression of racism, sexism, ageism, or ableism (basically any “-ism”) and come out as seemingly innocuous comments from people that may be well-intentioned.
They can make workplaces feel uncomfortable, unwelcoming, and toxic. Long-term, they can result in poor workplace culture, and high staff turnover.

What a Microaggression Might Look Like

When I’ve told people that English is not technically my first language, but I consider myself a native speaker, I get a lot of “but you don’t have an accent”, or “you speak it so well!” I did not learn English until I was two and started daycare; we spoke our native language at home. Because I was born and grew up in small-town Ontario, I spent most of my time speaking English and have an English undergrad. When I hear these comments about my English, I feel like I do not fit in or belong anywhere.

A better, more obvious example is when a friend of mine, who happens to have a St. Lucian father and a European Canadian mother, went to a salon for a haircut. Her hair is very curly. She got in the chair, and the stylist said to her, “you didn’t tell me your hair isn’t normal”.

When microaggressions compound, though, we cannot always call them harassment. They are not as overt or might be missed by others (witnesses), and it’s hard to articulate how you feel.

How Microaggressions Affect Work

A friend of mine had some issues with a co-worker last year. It started last fall. She had her best job interview ever, was told shortly after that an offer was coming, but that there were some complications because someone
else would be hired along with her. She told herself to keep an open mind when things felt uncomfortable. Then, she met her co-worker: obvious tension and a great deal of microaggressions, were present from the minute they met, and they weren’t going away. Lots of “mansplaining”, a condescending tone and power-play was happening, even though she and her co-worker were technically on equal footing in the workplace hierarchy.

Walking closer and closer to her desk and co-worker every day, her heart would race. Shortly after, panic attacks started to happen at work and she’s on a low-dose SSRI after a month and a half with clear symptoms of anxiety. Fast-forward to just before everyone was told to work from home, mid-March, and she is calling me reeling from an outburst her co-worker had directed at her that left her stunned. By the end of April, she had filed a harassment complaint. She was diligent and documented all the sideways things her co-worker had said to her. I had to ask her: why did it take her so long to act? The question might not be simple to answer.

Coming Forward

I caught up with Dr. Manuela Valle-Castro from the division of Social Accountability at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Medicine. Dr. Valle-Castro’s academic and personal background demonstrates a deep commitment to social, gender, and racial justice and equity. We had a chat about why victims of microaggressions and harassment don’t come forward right away when their experiences happen. She suggested two big reasons why immediate action isn’t taken, and why complaints come out of the woodwork much later on.

First, people may not have the language to articulate what was happening at the time and may have been too stunned to even process what happened. Sometimes, you don’t realize you were a victim of something harmful.
Over the last few years, we have been hearing words to describe uncomfortable situations with power imbalances like microaggressions. Movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter are giving us the language to articulate the issues that happen on a societal level that are often dismissed or seemingly invisible. Language is helping us clue into our pasts.

The second reason people may not come forward right away is that they may not have felt they were in a safe place to put forward complaints because of having had to encounter their aggressors or a power imbalance (whether real or perceived).

While organizations have policies that tout “zero tolerance” for harassment, they cannot reinforce, police, monitor or ensure that victims are safe, in many cases. And often, the human resources department’s best interests are keeping the company safe and free from liability, rather than looking out for employees.

Removing the Problem

While an organization may have a beautifully written anti-harassment policy, they may not necessarily adhere to it. The typical result of dealing with microaggressions and workplace harassment can belong, drawn-out, and painful.

How Can Workplaces Help

Dr. Valle-Castro told me that “we don’t have great frameworks to deal with harm” after I told her my friend’s story. There is little in the way of solutions in the workplace that help make the aggressor comply to policies when someone is experiencing microaggressions, since they’re typically not written into workplace harassment policies. Systems that we work and live in are inherently the root of the issue.

The results: less culturally safe organizations that are not sustainable or healthy for individuals or our collective society. HR departments, senior and executive management can take more accountability and start with simple things, like believing the victims that are experiencing microaggressions and harassment and try to rectify the issue without upsetting the victim further (like pushing them into mediation or confronting their aggressor).

A power imbalance also changes how willing people are to coming forward. My friend recalled her first-time visiting HR at her organization, and the funny looks the HR person gave her about her description of things made her question whether her feelings were valid.

Individually, we can work on checking our language and reading up on what microaggressions might look like to different people. Or keeping our compliments and comments, very simply, kind and as politically correct as possible.

It is difficult, particularly with large organizations that have years of history behind them, to make large cultural shifts. Ultimately, the issues start from the top and trickle down. Newer workplaces and organizations typically work their workplace culture around current societal norms, making it easier for them to make small shifts for safer workplaces. Government organizations, on the other hand, are much more difficult to shift into newer mindsets given their bureaucratic histories.

The reality of the issue is that changing the new world order takes time, but each person who steps forward or speaks to the issue is making it collectively better for future workers.