10 microaggressions Black women experience at work – and how HR can put a stop to them

More subtle negative comments are harder to spot and less often reported, but are no less damaging or hurtful, argues Yetunde Hofmann

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More than 50 per cent of Black Britons experience racism at work. HR is working to tackle overt forms of racism – like a colleague using a racial slur, for instance – but other forms of racism can be more hidden and less often reported – making them harder to put a stop to. Microaggressions are one of them. Microaggressions are negative comments – sometimes said in jest – that are displeasing, hurtful and can target people in the minority. They can be just as damaging and should not be tolerated. 

Everyone has a right to feel like they belong and that they can be their genuine self at work, regardless of their background, race, how they look or indeed how they wear their hair. Yet Black women often feel pressured to hide their personal identities within the workplace and microaggressions play a big part in this. We must work on all fronts to ensure that people in the minority at work, and especially Black women – who face a double burden of racism and sexism – are comfortable and are able to maximise their potential and ability to contribute to the success of the organisation that employs them. 

HR must lead the way in applying a zero-tolerance approach where microaggressions are concerned. It is often said when you give an inch, then a mile will be taken, so it’s key that HR encourages people to call out behaviour that is not edifying and demonstrate that it is okay to call this out. Microaggressions often aren’t reported because, when you are in the minority, sometimes you do not want to stand out or be seen to be causing a problem or making a mountain out of a molehill. Let’s change this by getting better at spotting them and stopping them. 

Common microaggressions Black women experience at work

  • People making comments about a Black woman’s hair or the colour of her skin – even if it is framed as a compliment – or asking a Black woman if you can touch her hair. See the Black hair code recently launched in the UK 

  • Addressing a Black woman as “aggressive” or “scary”. I have myself been described in this way at work in the past and it is dehumanising. It can really affect the person on the receiving end – it certainly did me.

  • Asking someone where they are from – this implies that person does not belong here and makes them feel ostracised 

  • Making any comment that suggests a Black woman is different from others

  • Not taking the care to pronounce an unfamiliar name the way it should be pronounced or shortening a long name without asking if you can. This may demonstrate a lack of care. Take the time to learn how a name should be pronounced or ask the individual how they would like to be addressed. 

  • Expressing surprise or making a big deal out of how a Black woman looks should their appearance change – this can be taken as judgement or disapproval so watch your language and expression. 

  • Commenting on a Black women’s possessions, even in way that’s innocently expressed – e.g. “nice handbag” if she is carrying a designer handbag – can carry the implication that she doesn’t deserve it

  • Claiming that promotions are made only on merit – when all the evidence shows this is not the case. It’s critical not to deny this but to take the time to listen to, understand and address the problem

  • Making a Black woman feel as if they are asking too much when they request an investment in their career progression – for instance a Black woman asking to go on a training programme and being told it would “take too much of your time away from work”, whilst white colleagues set off on training programmes that are more expensive and last longer

  • Paying Black women less than white counterparts for the same work – Black women are the least likely of any group to be among the UK’s top earners and are paid less than 70 per cent of what white men are paid

How HR can put a stop to micro-aggression at work:

  • Encourage allies – when a white person calls out bad behaviour it helps. Do not be a bystander

  • Practise what you preach yourself – stamp out every kind of bias and microaggressions in your own team and department

  • Check in with your Black female talent – and regularly. You may need to build trust

  • Encourage the sharing of lived experiences and, when someone does share their experience, take action that goes beyond listening

  • Become self-aware as an individual and a leader yourself. How does your behaviour come across? Ask your team and ask the Black women in your organisation – how does she experience what you do and what can she advise you to do differently?

  • Love, love, love – love based leadership (the acceptance of all of who you are and all of who others are), when applied, leads to more inclusive behaviour because it means we see the human being in all of us – regardless of skin colour, gender or race

  • Educate yourself and your colleagues on what microaggressions are

  • Adopt a zero-tolerance approach – microaggressions are still racism

  • Bin the expression ‘microaggression’ – discrimination is discrimination; racism is racism, whatever form it takes

  • Understand your own biases as a leader. Commit (this means being willing to do whatever it takes) to ensuring that your biases don’t rear their ugly heads in your own area

  • Check your intentions when making comments and ensure that they come from a place of love. A statement said without agenda and in love, no matter how clumsy, is likely to be received in love and corrected in love should a correction be needed. 

  • Put the ‘human’ in ‘human resources’ and encourage all your colleagues to do the same

Yetunde Hofmann is a board-level executive leadership coach and mentor, global change, inclusion and diversity expert, author of Beyond Engagement and founder of Solaris