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Challenging Racism in the Workplace

What is a microaggression? How can racism in the workplace be managed?

Susan Cousins
Source: Susan Cousins

Susan Cousins, MBACP Senior Accredited Counsellor and Supervisor and author of Overcoming Everyday Racism, explores the challenge of workplaces that discriminate.

The experience of not feeling at home in your environment, feeling ill at ease or even scared can lead to a constant state of stress and anxiety for some Black, Asian and minority ethnic individuals.

You may have experienced all kinds of discrimination, ranging from microaggressions to verbal assault or even physical assault. Racism is unfortunately persistent and makes for an unfriendly, unpredictable and cruel companion. Feeling overlooked, excluded or having to work twice as hard to progress can take its toll on your wellbeing. It may often feel as if this dysfunction is somehow within you; we are much better off locating it as belonging to the organisation. At this point, it makes sense to say that I have decided to use the widely recognised term Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) throughout this post, whilst acknowledging that this terminology is viewed as problematic, reductive and does not account for current and emerging new identities.

Excluding practices exist within our workspaces, "out grouping" is standard, and we do not need to say that much about career progression because we know from research that BAME people are underrepresented in this area too. Favouritism is rife, because people are simply warmer to people who are more like they are. The manifestations of "out grouping" are both subtle and overt in the exact instance it occurs. This combination is impossible to challenge because it flows silently through the structures of systems of power so that the existence of unfairness is not easily proven. The pressure of unfairness and unequal access to workplace privileges can lead to stress-related reactions and depression, having damaging effects on all aspects of wellbeing.

Developing a resilient approach to managing your environment is paradoxically also about figuring out what you can and can’t control. The core component of adopting a more resilient approach to life, particularly with external stressors, is the understanding that not everything is within your control and therefore giving it too much energy and attention can increase anxiety and trigger feelings of hopelessness (Robertson, 2012).

Environmental mastery asks us to seek out opportunities to take control of what we can. Unlike our personal space, where we can be ourselves and create a home that reflects our personality and desire for comfort, safety and security, the public realm of our workplace or place of learning is mostly outside of our direct control. Fortunately, there are things you can do to build for yourself a healthier work environment in small ways. Making broad sweeping changes like moving home or getting a new job may feel like an impossibility. Acknowledging this stuckness is a first step to making your feelings conscious; bringing them to the surface allows you to view them as they are and to consider how you might make the decision to change.

Change might represent the smallest of shifting points in your life where perhaps you begin to gain the support of someone to validate and humanise your experiences of everyday racism. Linking in with other BAME colleagues, peers, students or school friends who have travelled a similar path can help with feelings of isolation and help you to navigate all kinds of barriers. It is positive to choose contexts that feel safer and more inclusive. BAME staff networking groups can provide a group of people who understand your perspectives and can help you manage the hurtful effects of discrimination and disadvantage. Staff members can reduce inequality by advocating on behalf of each other and as a group challenging the status quo, and help you build your resilience by enabling you to share experiences and find common ground.

What are microagressions and how can you deal with them?

Microaggression is a term developed by psychiatrist and Harvard University Professor Chester M. Pierce in 1970 (Angelis, 2009) to describe insults that are subtle, commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, and that communicate hostility. Microaggressions often lie unhidden beneath the surfaces of workplace environments. They are not easy to cope with and sometimes simply letting go of passing comments may be the best option available. Choosing your battles is one way of being savvy and making sure the focus of your work life is on your work and what you would like to achieve rather than engaging in every battle that comes your way. This will only serve to diminish your ability to reach your potential. Microaggressions can feel like tiny paper cuts – not serious in themselves but add another and another and five paper cuts in one week, 20 in a month and so on would have quite an impact on how you feel about the organisation you work for.

I am not recommending becoming a bystander to your encounters with racism, but I am recommending looking at the option of stepping away from the "heat" and conserving the energy it would take to confront the undigested and uninhibited acts of discrimination that come your way. The act of stepping away from negative social interactions is a perfectly viable and understandable choice to make. By this, I do not mean dismissing the existence of discrimination, but it might help to learn when it feels good to step away and when it feels good to be assertive – both options being acceptable.

What to do when workplace racism escalates

Being the target of workplace racism can provoke a range of responses. We are not all the same and we will not all respond in the same way. But this type of targeting is both distressing and can be traumatic and this is a perfectly normal response.

If you decide to report an incident of racism formally, the most important thing to do is reach out for support, either from a professional, or a colleague or friend who has an informed understanding of the impact of this on your emotional wellbeing. If a meeting is arranged for you to put your perspective forward, make sure you:

  • Have made the choice with no pressure from anyone else.
  • Take a written record of what has taken place with the dates and times included.
  • Contact your union and ask them if they will attend the meeting with you.
  • Arrange to have a friend or witness to support you, this will help you to feel relaxed.
  • Ask for the meeting to be recorded.
  • Expect the unexpected and allow yourself time to answer their questions.
  • Make a note of any questions you feel unable to answer and do not feel pressured into answering there and then.
  • Have an idea of the outcome you would like to achieve.

The most important action to take is to get support from a counsellor, trusted colleague or friend who will validate and understand your experience. Your wellbeing should be your highest priority.

Parts of this article have been reproduced from Susan Cousin's book, Overcoming Everyday Racism


DeAngelis, T. (2009, February). Unmasking 'racial micro aggressions'. Monitor on Psychology, 40(2).

Robertson, D. (2012) Build Your Resilience: How to Survive and Thrive in Any Situation. London: Hodder Education.

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