Recent hearings held for Supreme Court Justice nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson provided an up-close and often heart-wrenching depiction of the microaggressions, macroaggressions, and unconscious bias that Black women often face daily in their workplace environments. These unjustified behaviors have long existed, however, they have been gaining more traction in recent years as the world becomes more conscious about the work that still needs to be done within the realm of racial equity and racial injustices. These behaviors are often left out of discussions centered around mental health and Black women when they can in fact have a profound impact on worsening existing conditions. Additionally, they can create new cases of anxiety for women of color in the workplace. These baseless misrepresentations often leave us feeling less than enough, or like we have to prove ourselves more than our coworkers do. Oftentimes, the assumption is that as Black women we are lazy, slow, argumentative, “too urban”, etc. I can go on and on regarding the stereotypes and preconceived notions that exist. This unfair status quo can either put us in a defense mode or a mindset where we can fail and appear to give in to the stereotypical diatribes. Some women internalize anxiety as well as the unfair, and biased treatment out of fear of retaliation, or fear of being passed over for advancement in the workplace.
The Urban Dictionary defines macroaggression as, “obvious, intentional, above-board insults, where there is no chance of a mistake on the part of the transgressor to be provoking, insulting, or otherwise discourteous.” The Merriam-Webster definition for microaggression is, “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority).” The fact that this same dictionary does not recognize the term macroaggression is a problem in itself. It further highlights the overarching desire to quell any further discussions or examinations of the inherent problem that exists in some workplaces and in societies across the world. When we talk about bias we think about not being open to points of view or having predisposed opinions. A lot of times this can appear unconsciously, for example, when a supervisor assumes that because you have children, certain positions would not be suited for you. Another instance could include a coworker assuming that because you are Black, you may not be used to professionally speaking in a workplace. During the proceedings for Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, she was referenced as being articulate. Telling a Harvard-educated woman or anyone that has been educated that they are articulate can be perceived as an example of a microaggression.
Like many women of color, often our cultural backgrounds call for us to be strong and not talk about or complain about unfair treatment. As a result, some of us grow up thinking that we cannot have a voice out of fear that we will insult someone. We often feel like we are not allowed to discuss our feelings as it shows weakness and in turn, we are taught to ignore them. The pressures felt at our workplaces and throughout our careers are very real. The internalization of those pressures is detrimental to both your physical and mental well-being.
In an article published by the NY Times on June 23, 2021, titled, “Return to Office? Some Women of Color Aren’t Ready” by Ruchika Tulshyan, Laura Morgan Roberts, professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business noted that, “Many women of color feel disconnected to co-workers and colleagues. There’s a feeling that white co-workers don't really understand, respect, or appreciate our cultural context or our journey.” This holds true in the sense that the stressors and increased pressures that we feel as minorities are not something that a person of non-color can easily identify with let alone understand. It also extends to people from other cultural backgrounds not understanding one another and placing some of the same unconscious bias attitudes on their coworkers from a different race. This leaves many women remaining stuck in a negative pattern of continuing to internalize our feelings and not being able to discuss them in the workplace out of fear of further alienation and retaliation. There is no additional outlet at home or within the community as women of color are often taught at a young age to not discuss or complain about certain things so as not to give the appearance of being weak. We are taught early that society is not always fair and we should therefore learn to adapt and live with the unfair treatment. What you have left is an endless cycle of pent-up frustration, despair, unresolved, and unprocessed feelings.
Society is slowly changing and recognizing that our workplaces are indicative of our society's makeup and as such, the old way of office politics needs to catch up to that. Most recently, the Crown Act passed the House of Representatives which prohibits discrimination based on an individual’s texture or style of hair at the federal level. This may seem like a small feat but for many, it is not. It means no longer getting unwanted stares if you show up to work in a braid or cornrow style. It also means not being asked a question regarding whether our hair is real or not, or any reference to how one chooses to wear their hair. These things add up and contribute to uncomfortable workplace environments filled with false perceptions and judgments. I would like to think that passing this legislation and others like it can help to end and correct behavior, however, there is still a long road ahead. The fact that a hairstyle can further drive unconscious bias or microaggressions may sound absurd but it is very real.
Until we have significant change, we need coping skills for ourselves and for our young women coming up behind us. How do you cope with a workplace environment that constantly puts you on defense? You do so by showing up prepared and showing up with your integrity and self-confidence in place. You show up determined to do your best not for your boss, or your employer, but for your creator, and if you are not a spiritual person, then you do your best for yourself. Never let anyone else’s opinion be a measure of your own excellence. Always believe you deserve a seat at the table and you deserve to work in a peaceful and healthy environment. Lastly, do not be ashamed to talk about your feelings with a loved one, friend, or professionally with a therapist or doctor. Do not feel like you are going crazy because of how your peers or boss treats you. It is ok to voice your feelings when appropriate or know that the situation does not define you. Know that your excellence comes from a long line of ancestors of strong, smart, and independent women. You were qualified for the job you do based on your merit and should not have to prove yourself more than anyone else. This remains our burden to bear; however, if we speak out in unison, we can hope that real change occurs. The conversation will not lose steam as long as we hold those around us accountable including our employers and leadership within the workplace. All women deserve to work in a safe and comfortable environment free of anxiety and stress.