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The Weight of Your Words

Published Monday Jun 13, 2022

Author Marie O’Neil (she/her/hers)

The Weight of Your Words

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. This adage gave children invisible armor for playground teasing, thinking “it won’t hurt, so lay it on.” However, many who have been marginalized in our country are now citing a different reality: words hurt… deeply.

Enter, microaggressions.

“[These are] brief, commonplace and daily verbal behaviors or environmental indignities,” says Jermaine Moore, president of The Mars Hill Group. “I love the word indignities to define microaggressions because it’s exactly how they feel.”

Per a 2021 census, 93.1% of NH citizens are white. But as many businesses seek to diversify, creating spaces where non-white individuals feel accepted is crucial. And they are turning to organizations like The Mars Hill Group for help.

Moore says he helps clients such as Northeast Delta Dental and the Currier Museum of Art explore antiracism, unconscious bias and accountability. He says, “Microaggressions negatively impact workplace environments. Researchers show remote employees of color are hesitant to return because they aren’t faced with microaggressions every day when working from home.”

Empathy and Accountability
Microaggressions affect a person on many levels. “When microaggressions go unchecked, productivity decreases.… The more energy used for protection, the less is available to solve big issues,” Moore says. So, when an employee feels discriminated against, they start to hide their true self at work while living more authentically at home. Known as code-switching, it can be exhausting for workers.

Managers should first be aware of what microaggressions are. Second, managers should host conversations with all employees, ensuring that everyone understands how hurtful microaggressions can be, that they will not be tolerated.

Supervisors can provide a structure of trust and empathy while still enforcing good behavior. Moore says, “Listen to people, validate their viewpoint then hold the offender accountable. That’s what empathetic leaders look like.”

Mounting Pain
GLSEN Educational Trainer and Nashua art teacher Kamren Munz created a pebble image to show the effects of microaggressions. Munz says being hit by one pebble may not be bad, but the repeated assault of many pebbles can create “painful, lasting consequences—even scars.”

Munz notes that “social media adds an element of harm” and given that the pre-frontal cortex continues to develop through our mid-20s, many younger employees may be experiencing pain from online interactions.

“Add up these sources of microaggressions and they become major-aggressions. After a while, walking through life becomes heavy. As a trans non-binary person, every time I use a non-gender-inclusive restroom, it’s another pebble I hold onto.

Workplaces and classrooms should be empathetic to that reality,” Munz says.

Rebecca Sanborn, the founder of Sanborn Solutions in Derry, encourages clients to identify barriers that prevent LGBTQIA+ individuals from feeling accepted and thriving in their environments. “One of the goals in my training is to build empathy and best practices when engaging with the LGBTQIA+ community,” Sanborn explains.

“What makes microaggressions so insidious are two elements: a conscious overt communication and a hidden meta-communication. For example, saying to a Black person ‘oh you’re so articulate.’ The hidden microaggression is ‘you’re the exception, most Black people aren’t articulate, and I’m surprised,’” Sanborn says. She gives an example of heteronormative microaggressions. “Asking a man what his wife does for work doesn’t consider a potential male partner. This comes from socialization that straight and cis-gender are more accepted norms.” By being empathetic, you identify both unconscious/conscious messages simultaneously to recognize the pain caused to marginalized individuals.

“Microaggressions yield major consequences,” Sanborn says, “Chronic, unrelenting stress attributed to marginalization and discrimination is known as ‘minority stress.’ Stress leads to weakened immunity, high blood pressure and more. Constant exposure to microaggressions leads to anxiety, feelings of alienation, low self-esteem and exhaustion.”

Encourage Inclusivity
How can businesses promote genuine inclusivity in the workspaces? Kenny Frasch, owner of Manchester’s pretzel and beer spot The Hop Knot, has a unique approach to community building, “I’m straightforward when talking about race and identity. We encourage non-LGBTQIA+ people to ask questions, be polite, intentional but, ultimately, learn from your mistakes.”

The Hop Knot’s rainbow-clad walls are covered with plants, Safe Space stickers and colorful beer cans. Frasch says it’s a haven for unique and creative voices. “My staff is very in tune with our customers. We default to they/them pronouns, or greet customers with ‘Hi, folks!’ to create an inclusive experience. For my hiring practices, I try to foster accepting and inclusive values by hiring people I know respect the space we’ve created.”

As a proud LGBTQIA+ person of color, Frasch sums up his advice to NH businesses on promoting inclusivity, “Don’t be afraid to do it, be brave to do it.”

How can you counter the weight of microaggressions in the workplace?

Educate: “Fire up the Google machine and do some research,” Sanborn suggests. Dr. Derald Wing Sue and Dr. Ibram X. Kendi offer expert advice.

Diversify your social media: Follow thought leaders of color and LGBTQIA+ identities.

Be teachable: Notice your biases. Have a gut reaction against a person or group? Question it. When you make mistakes, be humble, not defensive. Consider other people’s experiences as valid.

Listen: When you offend someone, listen, apologize and promise to do better. Don’t dwell on feeling bad to coerce the offended party into comforting you.  

Encourage accountability: Cultivate environments where people feel comfortable to report. Help white/non-LGBTQIA+ employees reflect on their words if they’re offensive by asking for clarification. Remind them of company policies and values. And encourage alternate ways of looking at things.

As those who are marginalized continue to speak out, outdated ways of thinking and acting will dissipate. We can all look forward to kinder workplaces.

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