Skip to content

Speaking up: challenging microaggressions in the workplace

A few weeks ago, I read a Twitter thread where people from minoritised groups in the NHS were recounting their experiences of microaggressions (everyday, subtle, intentional and oftentimes unintentional interactions or behaviours that communicate bias toward historically marginalised groups) at work.

The conversation was filled with the heart-breaking experiences of people working in a variety of roles across the NHS, alongside messages of support, solidarity and helpful suggestions and advice.

Disappointingly, however, peppered throughout the thread were a series of less helpful comments in the vein of the below:

  • ‘Why didn’t you say something in the moment?’

  • ‘If you decide not to act you lose your right to complain.’

  • ‘Most of these are misunderstandings easily solved by a quick conversation.’

I wondered if those attempting to put blame, shame and sole responsibility for action on the shoulders of those experiencing discrimination and unfair treatment had ever been on the receiving end of a microaggression at work. The choice to speak up or stay silent in the moment often has to be made in a matter of seconds in the small window before the conversation moves on, and there is a lot to process in that short space of time.

The choice to speak up or stay silent in the moment often has to be made in a matter of seconds in the small window before the conversation moves on...

Processing starts with your brain racing to make sense of the interaction you had. You might replay things in your mind as you try to decide. The thought process doesn’t stop when you’ve accepted that you were indeed on the receiving end of a microaggression, however. You next have to quickly decide what, if anything you’re going to do about it.

Responding to microaggressions in a way that both highlights the behaviour and impact, while moving the conversation forward takes practice. Factored into the decision to speak up or stay silent are things like:

  • how best to express yourself and if you have the ‘right’ words to make your point

  • whether the time is right to start the discussion and how many people are around or involved

  • how the person is likely to react or respond

  • if you are able to respond without displaying unprofessional behaviour yourself

  • your own mental health and whether or not you feel resilient enough in that moment to engage in further confrontation should one occur.

And that’s not even an exhaustive list! Often by the time you’ve had a chance to consider half of the items listed above, the conversation has moved on and you’ve lost the moment.

I’m Black, queer, an immigrant and a woman. Trust me when I tell you that I’ve experienced more than my fair share of microaggressions. I have a wide range of snappy comments and responses I draw on, honed over time. But even so, I don’t always manage to get them out on time.

A couple of months ago, a male colleague made an inappropriate comment to me disguised as a compliment. I was caught off guard and found myself frantically looking around the room to see if anyone else was reacting. Did they hear what I heard, in the way that I heard it? The other women in the room were reacting and looking at me with wide eyes. They noticed. It was not just in my mind.

I then had to quickly decide on an action. I reached into my mental bag of responses and couldn’t draw on one quickly enough. Things were moving on. I was losing my window to say something. The panic started to set in and along with it, anxiety. The sympathetic glances of my colleagues started to feel weighty. All of a sudden, there seemed to be so many people in the room. Had they always been there? My brain was screaming at me, ‘You are a female leader in this organisation and the Head of Diversity and Inclusion. There are more junior female members of staff in the room. Use the opportunity to show them the way to handle something like this at work. Dana! Snap out of it! Do something!’

Sadly, in that situation I ran out of time. If I, an experienced diversity and inclusion professional who is used to speaking up and advocating for myself and others, and with numerous pre-prepared responses couldn’t find the words, can you imagine how much harder it is for others at the start of their careers for example, or in an uncomfortable environment, or in a large group setting where no one else is reacting or responding?

Not speaking up in the moment doesn’t mean choosing never to address the issue. There is a case to be made for initiating discussions at a later point when emotions are less heightened and when you’ve found the words. You might also want to draw on the help and support of an ally before deciding on a course of action, which is what I ended up doing in the situation I outlined above. It should also be noted that not speaking up to protect yourself and your mental health is also a valid choice that should be celebrated not derided.

'My main message, however, is for all those quick to point the finger at those on the receiving end of microaggressions for not taking action in the moment.'

My main message, however, is for all those quick to point the finger at those on the receiving end of microaggressions for not taking action in the moment. Those experiencing microaggressions cannot be solely responsible for responding to them, especially because it takes such a heavy emotional toll to both experience and to educate.

We all have a role to play in reducing the prevalence of microaggressions by speaking up. So before assigning blame, we should reflect and consider how we personally show up, how and when we speak up and whether our actions and behaviour make us an ally to the minoritised groups that could use our voice, support and action.


Joy Warmington MBE on anti-racism, leadership and the courage to speak out

What is anti-racism, and why is it important in the context of health and care? Jo Vigor sits down with Joy Warmington to find out.

Listen to the episode