Microagression Fact Sheet

What is a microaggression?

Microaggression is a term used for commonplace daily verbal, behavioral or environmental slights, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative attitudes toward stigmatized or culturally marginalized groups.

Microaggressions signal disrespect and reflect inequality.

What is the impact of microaggressions?

Microaggressions can be difficult to address - they are often subtle, are behaviours that are ingrained in social discourse, and each one can be a small slight. Confronting these can seem like an over-reaction, but their impact on the receiver builds up over time, creating a hostile environment and eroding self esteem.

What can I do about microaggressions as:

1. The perpetrator

The onus is on you to better your interactions with the diverse group of talented individuals who are your colleagues, be they faculty, staff, or students.

Unintentionally committing microaggressions does not make you a bad person, it simply means that you need to be more aware of your biases and impact on other people. In many cases, just being aware of which behaviours are perceived as insults or harmful by others is enough to help you adjust your actions. Here are examples of race-based, gender-based, ageism, and other icroaggressions you can practice avoiding.

If you are having trouble determining if a behaviour is appropriate, a suggestion is to imagine a person who does not embody the traits associated with increased microaggressions in the place of the person you are interacting with, as an internal check on your actions. This requires you to consider the dynamics of bias between you and the recipient, which should help as well.

Example questions to ask yourself:

Would you send that same email to a person of the opposite gender? If they were from a different ethnic background? Or would you phrase it differently if the person you were sending it to holds more social power than your current recipient?

If someone points out that your actions are being received as microaggressions, apologize and endeavor to improve - don’t belittle the person or dismiss their concerns. It takes nerve and energy to confront discrimination - endeavour to see this as a learning opportunity.

2. An observer

If you observe a microaggression taking place, you can:

a. Address it directly with the perpetrator, using the OTFD model
b. Interrupt the microaggression
c. Be an ally and support the individual affected

i. Amplify their ideas if they are being talked over, with credit
ii. Correct mis-pronunciation or mis-titling
iii. Confirm to the affected individual that the behaviour was not appropriate

3. The impacted individual

If you have the energy and are in a position to address a microaggression (i.e., in a position of authority), interrupt the microaggression.

Find others in your sphere who share these experiences - this can be affirming that the behaviours are systemic and not personal.

Microaggressions can wear down your sense of competence and self esteem. Find a group of supportive colleagues who can counteract this effect. Limit time with those who are consistent microaggressors.

We are not an exception - the Department of Biology has an active problem with microaggressions.

Common examples of microaggressions seen in the Department of Biology:

• Interrupting and talking over the person speaking
• Using titles for men, not for women or racial minorities
• Not recognizing/respecting power differentials
• Assuming lower professional level (PI assumed to be grad student, grad student assumed to be undergraduate)
• Questioning the expertise of a woman/racial/gender minority on a topic that they have knowledge in
• Not respecting the requested pronoun of the individual
• Mispronouncing names, not asking how to pronounce a name in advance
• Offloading work that is their responsibility to women staff members
• Talking down and being dismissive of women staff members

Email etiquette in the Department of Biology is rife with microaggressions. Women and racialized individuals, even those in positions of relative authority over the sender, receive more aggressive, impolite, and angry emails.

Some examples, anonymized but inspired by real emails from our Department:

Male faculty member to female faculty member (female member has seniority):

1. “make sure you are using positive words to describe the situation” – 6 other people included on the email
2. “You need to use a semi-colon, not a colon in that sentence” – correcting a small error and including numerous others on the email
3. “Make this edit and send it back to me” (it was their error and responsibility)

Male student to female instructor:

Upon correction of title:

1. Personally, I prefer to be addressed as X (he/him), where the pronouns are said aloud. Or alternatively, "sir", but this changes day to day so it's always best to ask how to address me before addressing me, even if you're not likely to hear from me again. Not for professional reasons, but out of respect.
2. I apologize for the initial unprofessional address, but personally I think it might confuse most people as they might assume you're a doctor of medicine, so I prefer not to. Since you asked, however, I have no issue making an exception for you, doctor.

Unsolicited feedback:

1. I understand it was probably a lot for you to make these lectures, but you have to redo them with a Mac and add more animations to make the lecture more easily digestible. I am willing to help in whatever way I can!!! You have to see that this quality of teaching is unacceptable.
2. Seriously you could never present new information like this (it's new to us the students) at a conference with actual experts in the field … I KNOW YOU MUST KNOW THIS.
3. Here is your chance to represent and embody an elite institution. You have a problem; let's work on the solution.
4. You and your colleagues need to chill out with all the assignments and things.

Some of these may seem very minor. Others may seem easily laughed off. It is the sheer volume of these interactions, and the persistent messaging that one does not belong or is not respected in their role, that causes issues over time.

Curious to know more?
Check out the hyperlinked articles in this fact sheet and the EDI committee’s resource page.

Check your own unconscious biases with the Harvard Implicit Association Test

Questions or comments? Reach out to the EDI committee.

Revised: 2022-04-01