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Microaggressions – can we shift the landscape to microaffirmations?

This spring I’ve attended several programs on “Microagressions” in academia and wanted to share a couple aspects for your consideration. I suggest this topic is important as we seek to build a more collegial environment and based on the concerns that faculty members bring to the NC State Faculty Ombuds Office.

First, what is a microagression?

According to Derald Wing Sue (Professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University) who has written and presented extensively on this subject, the term “microaggressions” are generally thought of as “small” verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults toward people.  The “small” only refers to the act itself, not its impact.  Dr. Sue points out in much of his work that recognizing microaggressions is an important first step in changing behavior.  Here’s a “Microaggression Tool” for your use (adapted from Sue, Dearly Wing, Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual orientation, Wiley & Sons, 2010.

Editor Note: To clarify, the “Microagression Tool” included in this post was provided as part of a workshop and was not developed by the Faculty Ombuds. That said, it is included in this post for its designed purpose, to allow exploration of comments and actions taken that can negatively impact people. This clarification is provided as this post received many comments, mostly negative, taking offense at some of the statements that Professor Sue believes demonstrate various microaggressions. The point of this post was to present the concept of microaggressions in the workplace and offer a tool for thinking about what we say and do in our workplace. The intention is to encourage people to think about how they interact with other people in the workplace and to think about being affirming of those that have differences.

Second, in addition to recognizing microagressions, one workshop presenter offered the OTFD tool for use when you are in a place where a microagression occurs. The idea is to bring attention to the behavior in a way that will be heard, understood, and potentially acted upon in a constructive manner. OTFD stands for the following:

O – Observe         T – Think           F – feel              D – Describe

Here’s how it works. Let’s place ourselves in a faculty meeting when we note a behavior that gives you concern.

1) – Observe the behavior and make it concrete – what are the facts?

2) – What do you think about it? Does it fit your thinking of a microaggression?

3) – How do you feel about it?

4) – Describe what you saw and felt and what you want to happen as a result. It’s not about casting blame, its about describing the behavior and asking for a change.

For example: If at a meeting you notice a person routinely interrupting some people, but not others, and if you perceive it as a microaggression – then consider saying: I’ve noticed some interruptions in our meetings that make me uncomfortable. Can we think about and discuss some communication guidelines to help us have a more productive meeting?

Third, and final thought. Can we think in terms of microaffirmations? Can you compliment and support colleagues that are interrupted?  Can you greet someone warmly as opposed to no greeting? Can you make it a point to sit with someone where others do not?  Go back and review Sue’s Recognizing Microagressions Tool and think – what can I do to affirm?