MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we'd like to return to something we talked about recently - microaggressions. Now you might not know that word, but you probably feel it if one is directed at you. These are those little every day comments or questions or actions that tend to indicate a subtle form of bias.
Somebody says, you know, you're awfully pretty for a lesbian. You speak so well, for a black person. Or somebody asks you for tech tips because you're Asian-American. Well, we got so many responses on Facebook and Twitter last week when we did a shout out asking for examples of this that we decided we had to return to this issue.
But this time we decided to focus on microaggressions in the workplace. Derald Sue is back with us to tell us more about it. He's a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University Teachers College. He wrote the book "Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation," with us from our bureau in New York. Professor Sue, thanks so much for joining us once again.
DERALD SUE: Well, thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Also joining us is Luke Visconti. He's the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, and he writes a column called Ask the White Guy for DiversityInc magazine. He's with us from his offices in Princeton, New Jersey. Luke Visconti, it's been a while, but thank you so much for joining us once again.
LUKE VISCONTI: Hi, thanks for having me on again, Michel.
MARTIN: So as we mentioned, last week we asked listeners to share some of their experiences with microaggressions. And I want to share one of those stories, this one from listener Tye (ph) who lives in Springfield, Ohio.
TYE: All my life basically I've been told that I don't act, sound, dress like a black person. You know, I'm 28 now and I still hear it constantly. My response is always, well, how are black people supposed to act? Please tell me.
MARTIN: Well, professor, you know, she - and she made it clear that she doesn't just hear this from white people. She does also hear this from African-Americans. So tell me a little bit about what do you think is going on here when someone says something like that?
SUE: Well, what's going on here is that people have a preconceived notion or stereotype that generally is negative about African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Latino Hispanic Americans and they - when you act differently from the negative image that they have of you, they show shock, surprise and oftentimes will say something like you speak good English.
And it's meant as a compliment, but in some sense it undermines your racial ethnic identity by saying that you're a perpetual alien in your own country. You're not very bright or intelligent, and you represent the exception.
MARTIN: So Luke, you founded a company that focuses on encouraging diversity in the business world. So let's say somebody says this to you and you're in a job interview? I mean, it's one thing if you're a student and somebody says this to you in class, you can say what do you mean by that or what are you trying to say - or you can, you know, do whatever. But let's say you hear this in a sticky work situation - what do you say? What do you recommend?
VISCONTI: Well, especially if you're in a job interview, if you've done your preparation and looked at the company's website, looked for the CEO's comments on diversity - and they should be there, and if they're not, that's a signal.
If you're at a job interview you might be able to write it off as poor behavior on one individual person, not the company's way of doing things. But if you're in the job and you're hearing this from the supervisor, that's something that you then have to make the decision - do you take the person aside and gently kind of coach them a little bit about why that wouldn't sound the way they thought it would sound.
MARTIN: Professor, so what do you think about that?
SUE: Well, you know, how you deal with it depends a lot in terms of the power differential and the consequences. When we studied, you know, people of color dealing with racial microaggressions, what we found was over 50 percent of them chose to ignore or do nothing about it because of the fear and consequences that they would not get the job, would not get the promotion.
There is something that we've been teaching people of color about how to handle this in a very subtle, indirect way. Let me give you an example. When I'm complimented for speaking good English, what is generally being communicated to me is that I am a perpetual alien in my own country. I'm not a true American. I used to get very upset about that, but the way I undermine that message is to simply say, thank you, I hope so, I was born here.
What I am doing is to, you know, to acknowledge that they perceive, on a conscious level, that it's a compliment. But I undermine the meta, hidden communication and I try to plant a seed that hopefully will make sense to them later on.
MARTIN: Luke, here's something we heard from listener Diego (ph) in Knoxville, Tennessee, and this is a classic. I mean, this is something you've written about many times in your column.
And Diego says, people often ask me where I'm from, and the natural response for me is to say New York - and I'm always asked right after, OK, but where are you from or people will roll their eyes and say but where are you from. OK, so what's going on here Luke and tell me how you recommend that people deal with this?
VISCONTI: I think this is a very important thing that goes along with what the professor's saying - that the person who's asking that question and is insistent on it is usually trying to isolate a person. And I think the professor's words - make them an alien in their own country - are very correct. I always - I get this question in places - where are you from - and I will say the most local thing, Princeton, I'm from New Jersey, and let the person ask two or three times more.
Sometimes it's an innocent question, more often than not it's flowing from a precision of perceived superior power to a position of perceived inferior power. And it's a way of putting somebody down, dismissing them, putting them in their place, making them appear small, putting them at ease. It's not correct behavior.
MARTIN: Well, I think some people might say I'm just trying to figure out if we know anybody in common.
VISCONTI: That's usually spoken in a different way, and you can usually tell the difference. I am an optimist, but most of those questions I don't find to be positive.
MARTIN: So what do you do, particularly if the person asking - let's say you're new at a workplace, which is the kind of - the situation where in which that's likely to occur or the person asking you this is somebody of a higher rank - what do you do? What do you recommend?
VISCONTI: Well, I think, like the professor said, you at times have to roll with this. And it's uncomfortable, but you can ask the question back I think in a way that is not offensive to helpfully make that person think a little bit about the question that they're asking.
I wrote a column about this where I was asked this question by a person who clearly didn't think I belonged in the room. And I kept deflecting it until she finally burst out and told me about how her family had been in Princeton since the settlers. So she was just really communicating that I didn't belong here. I wasn't part of the club. And she wanted to let me know that.
MARTIN: Go again, Professor Sue.
SUE: If I can - yeah. If I can say something that really is important for us to look at - a lot of times what we're saying is that how can people of color, how can women employees in the workplace handle microaggressions, and it's almost like we put the onus of responsibility for any change upon them when it is the decision-makers, the organizations with their biased policies, practices and structures that are causing the harm.
So the question I would ask generally is that - what are the obligations, what are of the responsibilities of the decision-makers and the businesses and industry in terms of altering and changing the climate so that microaggressions do not occur.
MARTIN: I think that's nice once you already got the job and you're the boss. So if you're the one - you're trying to - I think we're trying to sort of help people who are not yet in a position where they feel like they have that power.
Point taken, take your point entirely, but then again, like a lot of people are in vulnerable positions in the workplace right now and we want to give them some tools. Final...
SUE: And they have to - they really have to find support groups with one another. Otherwise they feel that they're isolated, alienated, lonely in the situation.
They've got to really find people who understand what I call the minority experience - what it is like to constantly face this constant onslaught of microaggressions that derogate and denigrate and assail their racial ethnic identities.
MARTIN: I'm going to end with a comment from Sean (ph) in San Diego. Sean is transgender and gets a lot of personal questions from acquaintances. And he writes if it's a coworker who didn't know before or if it's somebody that a friend introduced me to or something - if they start asking me questions that I don't think are appropriate to answer, I will call them out and say, look, that's not something you'd asked somebody else or I will ask them a personal question in response. So that's Sean's word of wisdom.
So thank you both so much for telling us more about this important issue. Luke Visconti is the founder and CEO of DiversityInc. He's author of the column Ask the White Guy. Derald Sue is author of the book "Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation." He joined us from our bureau in New York. Thanks - both so much for joining us.
SUE: Thank you.
VISCONTI: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.