The Impact of Microinequities in the Workplace
“Wow, you speak English so well!” is a comment that Hispanic lawyer Carlos Cruz-Abrams of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP has heard often throughout his life. While the statement is usually meant as a compliment, Cruz-Abrams said that it’s actually a subtle insult, coined by psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce during the seventies as a “microaggression.” At the Midyear Meeting program “Diversity in the Workplace: Microinsults,” Cruz-Abrams and other panelists shared how such slights can devalue individuals and negatively impact the workplace when they happen on the job.
“I’m Cuban. Somebody asks, ‘Have you ever been to Cuba?’ That’s not a microaggression,” explained Cruz-Abrams, who cautioned that a change of just a few words—“When was the last time you went back to Cuba?”—can turn such an innocuous question into an insult. “The implication there is that you are ‘other.’ You’re from somewhere else. You are not from here.”
Microaggressions fall under the umbrella term of “microinequities.” Drawing from definitions from Pierce and Columbia University psychologist Derald Wing Sue, microinequities are subtle verbal or nonverbal slights that convey rudeness or insensitivity and demean a member of a minority group.
According to panelist Dr. Terry Mills, dean of the Division of Humanities & Social Sciences at Morehouse College, “Microinequities are cumulative in effect. They devalue, discourage and impair performance in the workplace. And they inevitably affect overall productivity.”
Microinequities are usually unintended and so subtle that perpetrators are often unaware that they are offending others, said panelists. “People don’t know they are discriminating. And if you were to try to prove there was discriminatory intent, it would be next to impossible to do,” said Cruz-Abrams.
So how should people respond to microinequities?
“Microinequities require a measured response,” cautioned Cruz-Abrams. “The response should be tied to the level at which the aggression is being given.”
“To have a vehement response to someone who is clearly not meaning to be insulting would be detrimental to you—especially in the workplace,” continued Cruz-Abrams. “You have to figure out the level at which you are comfortable with whatever your response is. You don’t want to escalate a situation.”
“It takes a lot of mental and emotional energy to figure out what you’re going to do in these situations,” added panelist Lovita Tandy, a former employment lawyer with King & Spalding, encouraging those facing microinsults to find support from others who can understand their situation.
Law firms can address microinequities in the workplace. Mills suggested that law firms increase awareness and provide training around the issue to “make the invisible visible” and establish sensitivity to these types of aggressions.