Microaggressions and systemic oppressions have been common in the workplace for quite some time. These concepts are commonly mentioned in today’s diversity and inclusion training sessions, but do we really understand what they are and what causes them?

As someone of privilege, I know all too well how easy it is to dismiss the notion of microaggressions or the idea that systemic oppression is constantly working in our favor. Most of us don’t have bad intentions. We want to believe our economic, social, and political systems are fair and will reward us based on our merit.

The system does not treat everyone equally, however, and allies of the Black Lives Matter* movement must continue to make progress. In particular, allies with privilege are in a unique position to shed light on inequality and push for change.

* Note: While this post focuses on anti-Black discrimination, it is not meant to belittle the microaggressions and systemic issues experienced by other minorities which often result from similar causes. Every individual, no matter their creed or color, has their own unique story of struggle, pain, and prejudice. We should always listen to and treat each other with compassion.

Microaggression vs. Systemic Oppression

Microaggressions are verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults to a minority group or individual. The “micro” in microaggression refers to interactions on a personal level. Systemic oppression is considered “macro” and occurs throughout our social and institutional structures.

Microaggressions and systemic oppression can occur anywhere, but one place where people of privilege can make a tangible difference is the workplace.

Workplace microaggressions include “assuming that a black employee is of a lesser employment status, asking a black coworker to get you a cup of coffee, asking a black woman if you can touch her hair, requesting a white supervisor because you think a black supervisor ‘isn’t a good fit,’ asking a black employee how they got their job, commenting to a black coworker that he is ‘so articulate,’ or referring to a black employee as ‘you people.’”

Stephanie Sarkis, Let’s Talk About Racial Microaggressions In The Workplace, Forbes

If these types of microaggressions are not immediately rooted out, they can perpetuate larger systemic issues.

An experiment done by David C. Phillips, an economist at Notre Dame, shows how microaggressions can lead to continued oppression. Identical resumes were sent to employers in Washington, DC. Applicants with Black-sounding names were six percentage points less likely to receive a callback than applicants with ambiguous or white-sounding names. Other studies, such as one done by the D.C. Policy Center, have found that disparity is highest for jobs that have the most demanding educational requirements.

Studies like these have proven time and again that racial disparities exist in the workplace. An initial microaggression (thinking a Black candidate is unqualified or a “poor fit”) leads to an organization creating a bigger systemic issue (qualified Black candidates get fewer opportunities than white candidates).  

What can be done?

Especially for those of us who are privileged, we often don’t know how to help or where to start.

The first step is to acknowledge that it’s our duty to ensure our organizations have a fair and understanding environment. It’s also important to understand that most microaggressions aren’t intentional and happen as a result of unconscious bias.

Understanding our own biases can help us change our behaviors, fight microaggressions and systemic oppression, and create a better professional context for everyone.

What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious biases are attitudes or stereotypes that impact our views, actions, and decision-making. They are automatically-activated brain processes and greatly affect how we think and act.

According to Dr. Brian Welle of Google’s People Analytics, we receive 11,000,000 bits of information per second—but only consciously process 40. We unconsciously process 99.999996% of the information our brains receive. (Source: re:Work’s Unconscious Bias @ Work video and workshop slides.)

Bias is a naturally occurring phenomenon resulting from the human mind’s heightened ability to categorize and make split-second decisions. Unfortunately, these tendencies can be damaging at work and in modern society.

We all think and act through the lens of our biases—no one is completely objective even in perfect conditions. Under stress, we lean on our biases even harder.

The best place to start is to recognize this reality and consciously analyze what we think and why. This gives us a chance to slow down, step back, and see how our individual power to prevent workplace microaggressions and put cracks in systemic oppression.

Related: Want to Accelerate Change? Slow Down and Observe Team Dynamics

A playbook for counteracting each bias type.

There are at least 6 types of unconscious biases: conformity, perception, halo/horn, attribution, affinity, and confirmation. Each can be mitigated by noticing how much bias informs a given behavior and making an effort to counteract the effect.

Conformity Bias

Conformity bias is a desire to conform. For example, believing a Western ideal of beauty is superior to the aesthetic norms of other cultures is a conformity bias. This bias often happens when we unconsciously go with the flow rather than identify and express our own opinion.

How to avoid conformity bias:

  • Ask yourself, “what is my opinion and why?”
  • Evaluate when it’s appropriate to share your perspective.


Perception Bias

Perception bias is when group stereotypes are applied to individuals. For example, believing a minority job candidate will automatically have a strong work ethic and be more willing to do grunt work. Perception bias happens when we group people into a category and make assumptions based on stereotypical traits.

How to avoid perception bias:

  • Identify patterns in your behavior.
  • Reflect on if you are more or less likely to think or do something with certain groups of people.

Halo & Horn Effect

The halo and horn effect occurs when we believe all elements of a person are “good” or “bad” based on a first impression. For example, assuming a job candidate will fail because they were shy during an interview. This classic workplace microaggression happens when we don’t question ourselves and assume our initial perceptions are right.

How to avoid the halo and horn effect:

  • Play devil’s advocate.
  • Understand the risk and ramifications of being wrong.
  • Get input from others.
  • Approach life with curiosity, not absolute conviction.

Attribution Bias

Attribution bias is a tendency to explain behavior based solely on internal factors while underestimating the influence of external factors. For example, attributing success strictly to hard work rather than situational influences. Attribution bias happens when we judge ourselves on intent but judge others on results.

How to avoid the attribution bias:

  • Think about your own results and other’s intentions.
  • Put yourself in others’ shoes.

Related: An IT Leader’s Empathy Exercise Bootcamp

Affinity Bias

Affinity bias is the tendency to favor people most similar to ourselves. For example, a white male manager assigning important tasks disproportionately to white male employees. Affinity bias happens when we make decisions based on our commonalities with people, not their capabilities, ambition, or experience.

How to avoid affinity bias:

  • Differentiate between attributes that may shade your judgment of concrete skills and qualifications.
  • Seek out new experiences that are shared with people outside of your closest circles.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is giving more weight to information that supports a belief than is warranted by the evidence. For example, thinking a left-handed person will be more creative is a confirmation bias. This happens when we cherry-pick evidence that supports a preconceived notion or make assumptions about a person based on one or two personal attributes.

How to avoid confirmation bias:

  • Consider a unique, exceptional trait in someone that elevates your perception of them and ask yourself how they would compare to others if that trait were absent.
  • Seek out data that contradicts what you assume or take for granted.

See the bias. Build stronger teams.

Unconscious bias is not inherently bad. If you travel to the Amazon rainforest and see something green slithering toward you, you would immediately run before you process a single conscious thought. You might not even know why you’re running, but your reaction will likely keep you from mortal danger.

Switching from a jungle to an office, instead of something green slithering toward you, you see someone who looks or sounds different than you and the rest of your coworkers. Your unconscious bias will trigger a complex response that might result in a tone-deaf comment, an underestimation, or other workplace microaggression that unintentionally creates an unwelcoming or counterproductive environment.

We all have biases. Overcoming them is easier said than done and requires determination and permission to be vulnerable. Nevertheless, we must put this type of effort in when it means creating a better workplace.

Facilitate an unconscious bias discussion with your team to create a better work culture and encourage personal growth. The steps above can shed light on common mental traps, encourage racial equity, avoid microaggressions, and help strengthen organizations—and even society at large.