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This Is Why Confronting Microaggressions Is so Difficult

Tuesday, April 27, 2021
By Carlos Aguilar, Chief Content Director, California ChangeLawyers and Jen Meehan, Associate Director, Digital Strategy & Partnerships, Hispanics in Philanthropy

On my very first week of work in philanthropy, I was tasked with hand delivering an important document to the board chair. His office was located in a big, beautiful, glassed skyscraper in downtown San Francisco. It didn’t matter that very few people in the building looked like me. I was in awe and I felt like I belonged.

Until I didn’t. 

The board chair introduced me to a colleague, a white male partner, who proceeded to say, “Hola Amigo! Welcome! I bet this place looks fancy to you.” I did what so many of us do in situations like this. I nervously laughed, mumbled a compliment, and left as soon as I could. I knew something was off about this encounter. But I couldn’t quite name the harm. 

This is why workplace microaggressions are so insidious: when the harm is wrapped inside a compliment, you begin to wonder if you’re the crazy one. In the years since this encounter, I have learned how to name the harm. However, I have also learned that naming the harm is just one piece of the microaggressions puzzle.

Earlier this year, my friend Jen Meehan and I were preparing a workshop called "How to Confront Microagressions" as part of NCG’s Liberating Communications workshop series. As we began to role play microaggression scenarios, here’s what we learned:

  • Carlos: Even if you can name the harm, the power hierarchy in philanthropy (and other predominantly white spaces) make it almost impossible for someone like me—a Brown, Queer kid with immigrant parents—to speak up to someone with positional power, even when we know what they are saying is troubling.

  • Jen: The pain caused by a microaggression never goes away fully, no matter how many times you experience it. I used to think that after a certain number of times of hearing the same comment, I would get to a point where I could brush it off. In reality, every single time the microaggression occurs, all the harm from past moments reopens the same wound.

  • Carlos: Jen is right. While we might get better at confronting--or at the very least living with--microaggressions, we never really stop feeling hurt by them. The process does get easier over time and with practice, but the harm is always there, simmering underneath the surface. There is no “end” destination with microaggressions. You will always be on a journey--and that’s okay.

  • Jen: At the end of the day, it is incredibly important to stand up for others--if we can. This part is difficult. We may have all the tools to speak up, and still feel intimidated and silenced. However, if you’re in a place to point out the aggressors actions or offer support to the agressee, it’s essential to do so. 

Apply for the 2021 Communications Institute

You can join Carlos at NCG's 2021 Communications Institute. Applications are due May 7th!

learn more about the communications institute

About the Authors 

Carlos Aguilar is Chief Content Director at ChangeLawywers and Peer Advisor for NCG’s 2021 Communications institute.

Jen Meehan is Associate Director of Communications at Hispanics in Philanthropy. 

Below you'll find a link to the raw footage of the microaggression role play with Carlos Aguilar of ChangeLawyers, Jen Meehan of Hispanics in Philanthropy, and Emily Katz of Northern California Grantmakers. 

watch the raw footage