January 18, 2022

This column originally appeared in The Cohort, Poynter’s newsletter that centers conversations about gender in media. Subscribe here to join the community.

You know the feeling: You’re in a meeting — maybe it’s with your boss, or your immediate colleagues, or with a client — and someone says something. It seems innocuous, but the way it hits your ear makes you feel a type of way. Maybe it’s a comment about how you run a meeting, or an edit note in a story. Maybe it’s a joke that hit a little too close to home.

Then you spend the next day/week/month turning the comment over in your head. Did they mean it like that? Am I being too sensitive? Do I have a responsibility to say something? What will be the consequences if I do?

I’ve had this experience many times in my career. If you’re reading this, I’m going to guess you’ve had it, too.

When people of diverse backgrounds work together, microaggressions are bound to happen. We’re all learning to care for each other more intentionally, and most people want to know if they’ve said or done something that has offended you. Often, the only way for them to know they’ve messed up is for you to say something.

When you’re a person from a marginalized background though, it’s not always clear when or how to speak up. Your colleagues might not take your concerns seriously, you might get labeled a troublemaker or overly sensitive, or you might face covert or overt retaliation (which, depending on the specifics of the situation, might be illegal). Choosing to speak up could have real consequences on your professional life.

But it’s also important to have conversations with colleagues from different backgrounds about building more just workplaces for everyone. I reached out to Phoebe Gavin, a career coach and executive director of learning and development at Vox Media, for her advice on how to deal with microaggressions in the workplace.

Start by knowing your goal. Are you there to put in your hours, get some strong clips and leave? Or is your goal to contribute to changing the culture of your workplace? (Hint: The only right answer to this question is the one you choose.) “At the end of the day, you are the one who has to live with the consequences of your actions,” Gavin said. “So someone from the outside could say, ‘That goal wasn’t virtuous enough. You should be working towards something else.’ But that person doesn’t have to live with the consequences of your actions.”

It’s OK to focus on your work and get out. Often when you’re the “only” or “one of few” in a room, there’s a strong sense of obligation to speak up. “You do have an obligation,” Gavin said. “But you have a greater obligation to yourself and your future self. So if these two obligations are in tension, you have to choose one. And it makes more sense to choose the one that’s in line with your goal, whatever your goal is.”

If you do decide to speak up, make it a conversation, not an accusation. “The language that I’d normally recommend for folks is, if you’re going to ask the questions, then set it up with: ‘I noticed this. My perception might not be right, but this is what I noticed. And I’d love to hear how you experienced that.’” This framing allows you to express your feelings without having to carry the burden of proving to someone that they made a sexist/racist/homophobic/ableist/etc comment, while also opening up a dialogue with your colleague. “You can move forward together side by side without being adversarial,” Gavin said.

If this sounds like a lot of emotional labor, you’re right. “It’s not fair, but at the end of the day, it comes down to what your goal is. If your goal is to improve the relationship, then you have to work on the relationship. If you do these little tips and tricks of getting that person on the same side of the table with you, then they will start working on their relationship with you.”

And if they don’t start working on their relationship? “You should just leave,” Gavin said. She doesn’t buy into the conventional wisdom that a person should stay in a job for at least a year so it will look good on their resume. “If you are in a toxic work environment that is putting you in a position where mentally, physically, emotionally, financially, you are really suffering, it doesn’t make sense to stay.” Not every sinking ship is worth saving. Start looking for a new job.

Do you have any advice for when and how to speak up about a microaggression? Email me at thecohort@poynter.org

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Alex Sujong Laughlin is the writer and editor of Poynter's The Cohort, a newsletter about gender in media. She's a writer and an award-winning audio…
Alex Sujong Laughlin

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