How to Deal with Microaggressions in your Nonprofit Workplace

A Black woman looking at the camera, dressed in black, with long black hair in dreds, talking about microaggressions at work

Recently I got a reader question about microaggressions at work. And as employers try to make folks go back to the office as the pandemic rages on, and people don’t want to, this MIGHT have something to do with it.

Ok, What are microaggressions?

“Psychologist and Columbia University professor Derald Wing Sue defines microaggressions as “…send[ing] denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership,” and she describes microaggressions as generally happening below the awareness of well-intentioned members of the dominant culture. Microaggressions are considered to be different from deliberate acts of racism (such as the use of slurs or epithets), because the people perpetrating microaggressions often intend no offense and are completely unaware they are causing harm.”

“Sue describes microaggressions as including statements that repeat or affirm stereotypes about the minority group or subtly demean it, that position the dominant culture as normal and the minority one as aberrant or pathological, that express disapproval of or discomfort with the minority group, that assume all minority group members are the same, that minimize the existence of discrimination against the minority group, seek to deny the perpetrator’s own bias, or minimize real conflict between the minority group and the dominant culture.”

Since the pandemic started, a lot of Black women are feeling better not coming into the office, because there are fewer microaggressions they have to deal with working remotely (according to the New York Times). If you truly want to stop microaggressions, you should address them with people who perpetuate them, but also consider letting people work from home as much as they want to.

Microaggressions are everywhere

Recently, I received an email asking this question.

“As a woman of color in my early 30s, I often am a different generation than the “old guard” of fundraisers in their 60s or 70s in my area. Many of these are women who got into fundraising as volunteers while their husbands worked. Colleagues of my age often comment on a generational gap that’s more evident in fundraising than other aspects of nonprofits (EDs, program staff, support staff).

I often hear microaggressions about being so young I could be their child or am expected to pony up registration fees for “can’t miss” networking events and other organization’s fundraisers, when the reality is I’m saddled with many student loans and on a tight budget.

I would LOVE a conversation about this because I think its completely lacking in fundraising. We acknowledge that many fundraisers are wealthy, white, and older, but I haven’t seen conversation on how that plays out.”

One expert on how to deal with microaggressions at work

I asked Hamlin Grange, co-founder of Diversipro, what he would do in this situation. He said,

“I would say responding to these microagressions in a more developmental way is always more productive than making the person feel terrible. Sometimes these comments and behaviors are unintentional. Of course many times they are deliberate attempts to put people from the nondominant culture in “their place” and should be tackled head-on.”

He continues,

“In fundraising it’s good to point out to “older” colleagues that the younger generation is vital to the sector because they bring new and fresh perspectives. Sometimes it helps to turn the incident back onto the person by asking them specifically what they meant by the remark. It forces the person to think about what they said and could become a teachable moment for both parties.”

What you’re dealing with is messed up, and I’m sorry these older people can’t seem to relate to where you’re coming from. Sometimes we have to let people know, verbally, that they’re stepping across a line, and that they need to step back.

I’ve had this in a workplace where people make comments about my age. And worse! One board member asked me if I was going to get pregnant (IN MY JOB INTERVIEW!). I had no idea that this was an illegal question.

One Thing You Can do when microaggressions come up: INTERRUPTION

You might want to interrupt, and say one of these phrases,

  • “Hold on. I know you probably don’t mean any harm by your comment, but I am bothered.
  • “May I offer a suggestion? How would YOU like it if I said, “You’re old enough to be my grandmother?”
  • “Wait a minute. How would you like it if I constantly drew attention to how OLD you are?”
  • “Could you explain to me what you meant by that?”
  • “How would you like it if I started talking about your wrinkles and white hair?”
  • “Can I give you some feedback? How would you like it if I said, “AW, you look just like my grandma! Want to make me some cookies?”

Maybe that will give people some idea of why they should not say these things to you.

What about Microaggressions at Work in assuming you are willing to represent work after-hours?

About people assuming you can go to all of these networking events- you might want to think about being honest with them, and saying one of these phrases,

  • “You know, I’d love to go to that, but I’m on a budget right now.” or
  • “Maybe when my student loans are paid off, I can afford to splurge on that.” or
  • “You know, I’d like to go to that event, do you think that would be covered in our professional development budget?”

Again, they’re never going to know they’re out of line until they’re confronted.

Kishshana Palmer and Mazarine Treyz, talking about microaggressions at work

My leadership expert friend Kishshana Palmer said,

“If people have been getting away with nonsense for a long time, you are probably not going to change them.”

Still, it’s worth a try. And if interrupting doesn’t stop the comments, I would definitely look for a new job, where they appreciate you more.

If you feel like they might not listen to you because you’re younger or a woman of color, you might want to ask a white ally to stand there and be with you while you practice interrupting their microaggressions, or ask them to bring it up with these older women privately, as an ally.

Other ideas for dealing with microaggressions at work

Here’s what one woman named LaTora did to deal with microaggressions at work. Kind of mean, but funny.

Her co-worker refused to call her by her real name, (because those “hood” names all sound the same anyway) (yes he really said that) so she called him by the whitest white boy names she could think of. Soon everyone in the office was doing it.  And this kept up for months until he got the point.

Here’s a video below that I thought made a really good point about microaggressions at work, which is- let’s make white people uncomfortable. If you don’t have time to listen to the video, she says let’s address what’s going on, in the moment. Do YOU have any advice about how to deal with comments like this?

Here are more posts about how to be a better manager and a better leader at your organization.

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