Pittsburgh, PA

Ask E: How do I respond to microaggressions at work?

The Homepage, published by Hazelwood Initiative

By Erika “E” Johnson

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Erika "E" Johnson is a Pittsburgh native, a singer-songwriter, writer and founder of Beata Beatus Co. Find out more at www.erikadenaej.com.Photo courtesy of Erika Johnson

Dear E,

I have a coworker who laughed at my comment that Juneteenth should be a national holiday. How do I deal with a response like this and microaggressions at work regarding my cultural viewpoints?

Signed, Keeping it Professional

Dear Professional,

Our world is made up of different ideas, opinions and beliefs, it’s what makes us human and multifaceted. I am not saying this to pacify any type of intentional or unintentional attitudes toward culturally marginalized groups. I am saying this as a precursor and to remind you when you may want to respond in a way that can come across just as offensive, which tends to not solve much.

You’d be surprised at how many people don’t have or take the opportunity to learn about a culture outside of their own, so when hearing something that they’re not aware of, the response can be tasteless. People tend to lean towards what they identify with and what’s comfortable. The key to dealing with someone else’s comfort at the expense of your own is to make sure you feel safe and comfortable. Then you can find ways to communicate. This is not always easy. It can be awkward, with conversations or suggestions you’d rather avoid or submit through a suggestion box.

You can choose to directly say, “It is uncomfortable for me when you say or respond like that,” or, “It makes me feel...” 

You could also say you don’t want to misinterpret the response and ask them to clarify their meaning. This opens dialogue in a non-aggressive way and lets your colleague know that you’re not accusing them of anything. You’re seeking to understand. 

Some less direct ways to communicate your uneasiness are to share educational materials. This can include suggesting a book or TED talk video via an email chain to the whole department or team. You can also suggest a diversity and inclusion training to management or human resources. This brings attention to other cultural norms and beliefs, as well as increasing the overall awareness of workplace diversity.

Whatever you choose to say or share, keep in mind that your colleagues may be oblivious of what you know. Even though it is not your responsibility to tutor an adult, involving yourself allows you to create a path that those after you can continue to walk for a better workplace experience.

Editor's note: Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration of the end of chattel slavery. It has become a time to connect with family and one’s roots, and elevate Black culture, art and resilience. Juneteenth officially became a federal holiday last year, but Pennsylvania declared it a state holiday in 2019. In 2020, Mayor Bill Peduto and the Allegheny County Council designated the day a city and county holiday. Find out about local Juneteenth celebrations at www.wpajuneteenth.com.

Erika “E” Johnson is a Pittsburgh native, a singer-songwriter, writer and founder of Beata Beatus Co. Find out more at www.erikadenaej.com.

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The Homepage is a print newspaper delivered monthly to households in Greater Hazelwood, Glen Hazel, Greenfield, Hays, New Homestead, Lincoln Place and The Run. Hazelwood Initiative, Inc., a community-based nonprofit, publishes The Homepage through a grant from the City of Pittsburgh and advertising revenue from local businesses and organizations. The mission of Hazelwood Initiative, as a community-based development corporation, is to build a stronger Hazelwood through inclusive community development. Sonya Tilghman, Executive Director of Hazelwood Initiative, Inc. (she/her) Juliet Martinez, Managing Editor of The Homepage (they/them) Sarah Kanar, Layout and Design of The Homepage(she/her)

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