White Papers

White Papers February 2022
How subtle acts of exclusion can poison your workplace culture

Microaggressions at Work: A comprehensive guide for Canadian employers

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What is a microaggression?

The term microaggression was coined in 1970 by Chester M. Pierce, a psychiatrist at Harvard University, to

describe instances he regularly witnessed of non-Black Americans insulting or being dismissive of Black Americans. Microaggressions occur during commonplace verbal exchanges where one person communicates — intentionally or not — hostile or derogatory attitudes toward a person in a culturally or socially marginalized group. Such persons may include racialized people, LGBTQ2+ people, women, seniors, and those who have disabilities or live in poverty. In such an exchange, the speaker may be unaware they have used a microaggression, especially in complex situations where multiple interpretations are possible. This complexity, in turn, contributes to a tendency among marginalized people to shrug off microaggressions, assume good intentions on the part of the speaker, and carry on without addressing the underlying prejudices and biases that may exist.

Why “micro”?

The concept of microaggressions has evolved. Since Pierce first proposed the term, other scholars have built upon it. While some suggest that “micro” refers to an insult or slight against one individual vs. against an entire group1, most researchers maintain that the prefix “micro” refers to the size and level of detectability of an insult or slight. Not only is a microaggression subtle and easy to deny, both the observers and the person who delivers a microaggression are often oblivious to it. In contrast, a macroaggression is an overt act that is intentional and unambiguous to all parties involved. 

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