How to handle racial microaggressions at work

How do you deal with the subtle, often-unintentional racism that can come from clients, co-workers and employers? It isn’t easy. Microaggressions that make people of color uncomfortable are much different than a blatantly racist attack — but they’re still examples of racism.

What’s a microaggression? Comments about your natural hair or requests to touch your hair or skin because of its color or texture are common examples. Remarks about your heritage, along with comments like, “So what are you, anyhow?” in reference to your race are another. Most of the time, this kind of casual racism can be handled by:

  • Confronting the other party directly. Use an empathetic approach that assumes that they do not understand why their actions are hurtful or make you uncomfortable.
  • Deflecting the question or action with humor. A gentle rebuff can make your point clear while still keeping everything friendly.
  • Speaking directly (but informally) to a supervisor or team leader about the issue. This means relying on their professionalism and skill as a leader to address your concerns productively.

If these efforts fail, you have every right to file a complaint. Remember: It’s not your job to educate your co-workers on how to behave, so it’s okay to decide that you want to let your company handle the issue.

Racism is definitely still a problem in the world today, but you shouldn’t have to put up with racism in the workplace. Your employer is legally obligated to take action if you make a complaint about workplace discrimination. If your employer fails to act (or retaliates against you for filing the complaint), it’s time to explore other options — including the possibility of a civil claim.

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