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AN EXCLUSIVE TABLE | Addressing racial microaggression in the workplace

One paper cut is harmless. A thousand can wreak havoc. This is what it feels like for many African Americans in the workforce who often experience consistent racial microaggressions.
Eartha Hopkins Column
Eartha Hopkins

One paper cut is harmless. A thousand can wreak havoc. This is what it feels like for many African Americans in the workforce who often experience consistent racial microaggressions.

To put it in perspective, try to picture what it would feel like to have multiple colleagues ask to touch your hair, or ask your thoughts on the entire Black community during meetings in front of your team, or to have your name mispronounced so much that you acquiesce and provide a less ethnic nickname instead.

To take it a step further, imagine what it feels like to have your intelligence and mental faculties appear as a surprise consistently wrapped in statements like, “You’re so articulate.”

These are a few examples of the complexities and hidden existence of racial microaggression that shadow African Americans on the job every day. What makes racial microaggression so particularly harmful is its discreteness. These indiscretions felt and understood among African Americans rarely make it to human resource desks because of their subjectiveness.

Additionally, the burden of proof falls on a victim who has little to no supportive resources to hold an employer accountable.

What is racial microaggression?

In 1974, American psychiatrist and Harvard professor Dr. Chester Pierce coined the term 'microaggression' to describe the covert prejudice and discrimination that Black people experience at the hands of white people while on the job. He noted, "One must not look for the gross and obvious. The subtle, cumulative mini-assault is the substance of today's racism."

The impact of unresolved microaggression in the workforce

Insights gleaned from a "Being Black In Corporate America" report, Coqual highlighted data indicating 51 percent of Black professionals said they had experienced prejudice at work compared to 15 percent of their white colleagues. The same reports maintain that Black professionals experience this at even higher rates than other ethnicities. These and other experiences compounded have devastating impacts on Black professionals, resulting in damage to morale, reduced overall productivity, financial losses and negative impacts on mental and physical health while undermining the progression of racial diversity efforts.

The Coqual report includes a variety of insults and invalidations that are normalized at work. Some of these experiences involve being asked to Black employees being asked to explain life as someone of their race and being directly kept out of opportunities. Additionally, dismissive comments like "I don't see color," and being the butt of racially insensitive jokes compound the effects of feeling isolated and unheard.

Confronting racial microaggression head on

As local companies commission more resources to their diversity and inclusion initiatives; data suggests progress for career advancement for many Black professionals remains stagnant. Eighty-three percent of Black Americans reported that corporate companies needed to do more regarding racial equity.

Opening new pipelines of recruitment and acquisition and increasing cultural sensitivity workshops have the potential to enrich Black lives in the workplace but will consistently have less than stellar outcomes until it is understood and accepted that racism exists in the unconscious and sometimes conscious minds and hearts of individuals.

Local businesses and organizations are not somehow absolved of this fact and do not live within silos shielded from its manifestations. It must be named and appropriated contextually in the social construct in which it was created for everyone to fully grasp the heinous legacy from which it derives.

— Eartha Hopkins is a Youngstown native and an alumna of The Ohio State University. Born with a penchant for storytelling, the business owner and journalist offers a distinct voice with the goal to inspire her generation to live authentically. Be sure to catch her 2 cents on her website and Instagram @eartha__hopkins.
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