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  1. Blog
  2. Microaggressions

How Microaggressions Affect Identity in the Workplace

Genesis felt excluded when she spoke Spanish at work, but not doing so made her feel incomplete

How Microaggressions Affect Identity in the Workplace
Photo courtesy of One Shot; Illustration by Daniel Stapleton

This article is part of InHerSight's Microaggressions series. Our coverage explores the complexity of discriminatory language and bias and the effects of microaggressions on women’s livelihood and opportunities to advance.

Genesis Defilippi knows exactly what it’s like to deal with microaggressions at work. For five years, she served as a healthy eating educator and local forager at an organic national supermarket and now works in a barbershop in Durham, North Carolina. “When closing shop late at night, my male coworkers have thought I’d need help completing the task because I don’t seem like I can get my hands dirty,” Defilippi says. 

The intersection of her gender and ethnicity have been a cause for comment, too. Defilippi is Latina: “I’ve also worn hoop earrings to work before, and people have assumed that I’m either ‘feisty’ or can ‘clearly defend myself,’ and I’ve even received comments that I look ‘exotic.’ Those beliefs have made me feel like I’m being judged based on what others have seen on TV or heard from pop culture.”

While passing comments might seem harmless to some—many people don’t mean to be discriminatory—they can gaslight victims into questioning their reaction and judgement or, worse, lead to depression, low self-esteem, and self-doubt. In Defilippi’s case, the environment they created led her to begin concealing aspects of her identity, even major ones like language, to assimilate. 

After moving from Miami to Durham, she tried to suppress her primary language, Spanish, and heritage. “I was in a new state with less Hispanics in the corporate workforce and less bilingual speakers,” Defilippi says. “This influenced the way I expressed myself. Now I reflect back on it, and understand that I often pretended to be someone I primarily was not—someone who only spoke English. I quickly wanted to perfect my pronunciation and sound similar to my peers. This left me feeling excluded at times, because of my pronunciation being different than those of my peers. Growing up in a bilingual household and community, I often interchanged languages to express myself freely and more passionately.” 

This might sound familiar to some people of color. The practice of adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behavior, and expression in order to comfort others and prevent differential treatment is called code-switching. For many racial minorities, downplaying membership to a stigmatized racial group goes beyond just fitting in—it’s crucial for professional development. Research shows that when employees code-switch at work, it increases perceptions of professionalism, the likelihood of being hired, and the chances of promotions

But while code-switching has career benefits in a non-inclusive workplace, constantly adjusting your behavior at work comes at a very personal price—it reduces authentic self-expression and contributes to burnout. Plus, the women who experience microaggressions against their identity are three times more likely to regularly think about leaving their jobs, meaning the impact for businesses goes far beyond just intraoffice relationships. Organizations miss out on diverse perspectives when women leave these toxic companies in search of an environment where they can be their whole selves. 

Where exploitation meets identity

The need for code-switching is indicative of larger systemic issues of unconscious bias, sexism, and racism in the workplace, problems that aren’t necessarily addressed by setting diversity-in-hiring goals. They’re cultural issues.

There’s a catch-22 often experienced by BIPOC employees: being exploited for their identity—by companies that desperately want to say they’re diverse—but at the same time, feeling like they can’t be who they are and keep their role or succeed. That’s called tokenism. A company hires people belonging to minority groups solely for the optics to prevent criticism surrounding lack of diversity and to give the appearance of valuing BIPOC employees. Ultimately, tokenism can lead to imposter syndrome, which amplifies the stress and discrimination many minority groups already feel

Pooja Kothari, a diversity, equity, and inclusion trainer and CEO of Boundless Awareness, says tokenizing reinforces stereotypes and biases associated with marginalized status that minimize BIPOC employees’ access to opportunity. For example, a company might declare, “we are not a racist company” in a news release, but the majority of people in power are white and cishet, and BIPOC staff feel ignored and passed over unless they're needed for a photo op. That lack of opportunity inhibits job growth in titles and pay, and adversely affects identity and self-esteem. “On one hand, we know our worth, but on the other hand, structural racism, misogyny, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, etc, still keep us from having those opportunities,” Kothari says. 

Creating a space for change

Addressing tokenism and inequality require employers to take ownership. Kothari says: “You can’t start the car when your employer is holding the keys. The work of inclusion is the burden of senior leadership, not for the employee or the interviewee to suss out. Show you are inclusive with your language and behavior, not by whose photo is on the front page of your newsletter.”

In order for leadership to enact positive change from the root of the company, Kothari believes there are three important steps to take. Number one, acknowledge that oppression exists in your company. “I frequently challenge my clients to acknowledge that while they consciously reject the racism, classism, sexism, misogyny, ableism, queerphobia that exists in our society, they nonetheless have quite literally replicated society’s social structure within the organization along with the oppressions they despise. The first step is to humbly accept and acknowledge this reality.”

Read more: Ask a Recruiter: How Do I Know if a Company is Living Out Its Values?

Step two is to start reading. Kothari suggests: “Racism and sexism exist individually, and when they occur together, the effect is compounded. To learn about this compounded effect, start with Kimberlé Crenshaw’s 1989 law review article, Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.

Lastly, work on educating yourself past just diversity and inclusion workshops. “Workshops are just one piece in a 1000-piece puzzle. Inclusion requires revamping and re-education from top to bottom. This includes systems assessments, surveys, data analysis, etc to group workshops and individual consults...The truth is, if leadership is not clear on their objective, fluent in anti-oppression language, or ready to make some deeply uncomfortable changes to who holds the power, then workshops are just lip service in keeping the status quo.”

Once senior leadership takes these steps to understand the systemic issues that are rooted in their company and hire more BIPOC employees for the right reasons (their qualifications), they’ll be better equipped to recognize and call out microaggressions in the workplace. And that’s what we all dream of—a workplace where every individual is celebrated for their unique identity and culture and every employee feels comfortable to contribute a different perspective. 

As for Defilippi? She’s since realized being bilingual is her secret weapon, and she celebrates the diversity she brings to work as she’s able to make more customers feel welcomed. Hire more people like Defilippi.

About our source

Pooja Kothari is an expert facilitator, trainer, and consultant on equity and inclusion. After witnessing firsthand how deep racism, sexism, and homophobia are ingrained in the criminal justice system as a public defender, Kothari founded Boundless Awareness to address unconscious bias in workplace culture. At Boundless Awareness, she offers tailored workshops and exercises to explore the intersections of identity, language, and bias in a fun, non-judgemental way.

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