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Can "Microaggressions" at Work be Evidence of Discrimination?


"Microagression" may be a term new to you, but it has been in the news lately.A recent New York Times article defined it by using examples: "A tone-deaf inquiry into an Asian-American’s ethnic origin. Cringe-inducing praise for how articulate a black student is. An unwanted conversation about a Latino’s ability to speak English without an accent.This is not exactly the language of traditional racism, but in an avalanche of blogs, student discourse, campus theater and academic papers, they all reflect the murky terrain of the social justice word du jour — microaggressions — used to describe the subtle ways that racial, ethnic, gender and other stereotypes can play out painfully in an increasingly diverse culture.”

No doubt this type of behavior occurs in the workplace as well. Oftentimes it these slights are harmless and unintentional; on other occasions they can be hurtful and amount to a form of subtle discrimination. An 8 year research project at Teachers College of Columbia University found that "these racial microaggressions may on the surface, appear like a compliment or seem quite innocent and harmless, but nevertheless, they contain what we call demeaning meta-communications or hidden messages." The messages can be sent verbally or non-verbally, or even environmentally (posting a confederate flag in one's cubicle).

In the book, Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation (John Wiley & Sons, 2010), three types of current racial transgressions are described:

• Microassaults: Conscious and intentional discriminatory actions: using racial epithets, displaying White supremacist symbols - swastikas, or preventing one's son or daughter from dating outside of their race.

• Microinsults: Verbal, nonverbal, and environmental communications that subtly convey rudeness and insensitivity that demean a person's racial heritage or identity. An example is an employee who asks a co-worker of color how he/she got his/her job, implying he/she may have landed it through an affirmative action or quota system.

• Microinvalidations: Communications that subtly exclude negate or nullify the thoughts, feelings or experiential reality of a person of color. For instance, White people often ask Latinos where they were born, conveying the message that they are perpetual foreigners in their own land.

Can these behaviors be used to establish a discrimination claim against an employer? Since the actions are so subtle, it will be very difficult. However, it is important to document virtually all behavior that you feel is indicative of discriminatory intent in your workplace. A single incident may not be enough for a claim, but if you can establish a clear pattern that leads to a negative employment action, you may have a case.

If you feel you have been discriminated against in the workplace, call the attorneys at Schwartz Perry & Heller LLP. We can help you assert your legal rights.

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