Microaggressions

Veronica, a regular member in British Columbia

What are racial microaggressions? How often would you say you experience them?

The term racial microaggression refers to "verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of colour".

I'm going to share two personal stories that demonstrate how racial microaggressions have affected my family and me. These are not isolated incidents.

A few years ago, I was selected to represent the RCMP on a course organized by another government agency. After a long day, I was walking back to the hotel with one of my course-mates. We'd spent a few days together so I think she felt comfortable enough to ask about my ethnic background.

"So, what are you?" she asked. I told her I was Canadian, and that my mother was Black and my father White. She responded by saying, "I couldn't tell. I knew you were different. So, if your parents are different races, what are you?"

"I'm Black," I said. "But to be fair, it's December, so I'm in my 'winter coat'." I used to make jokes to diffuse uncomfortable situations.

My course-mate then proceeded to tell me how "lucky" she felt I was as I could "use" my Blackness to further my career. It wasn't the first time I encountered this line of thinking from someone who didn't share my ethnicity. I disagreed, but said "Okay," and inwardly rolled my eyes as I often did in these circumstances.

Another incident took place a few years ago on Remembrance Day. I was proud to have my mother in attendance as I marched in my detachment's commemorative parade. The ceremony was particularly important to my family because my mother's father had been one of the Black soldiers who fought for Canada in World War II and my Mum was the only one of her siblings born after the war. If my grandfather hadn't survived his European deployment, neither she nor I would have been present that day.

After the ceremony, I found my Mum in the crowd and she told me about something that had happened just before the ceremony. An older woman with a European accent had tapped her on the shoulder. She and her husband, both approximately the same age as my mother, had tried to "educate" my mother about the significance of the ceremony. They asked her if she understood what it all meant, as if my mother had no idea. When Mum told the couple that her father had fought for Canada in Europe and then pointed me out, on parade in Red Serge with my peers, their eyes grew round with embarrassment. They drifted off as soon as the ceremony ended.

Why are microaggressions so harmful?

A few things about these experiences demonstrate why microaggressions are harmful. The first is the concept of otherness. In both instances, my Blackness, and my mother's, was treated as foreign to Canada's national fabric. My course-mate made me feel like a dehumanized oddity, and my attempts to counter her assumptions by emphasizing my Canadian-ness were simply ignored. In the second incident, my family's contributions to Canada were presumptively discounted because of our outward appearance, and although my mother's response embarrassed her microaggressors, she didn't receive an apology.

Othering can take many forms, but these two examples demonstrate why it's so problematic. Othering allows you to ignore or erase someone else's contributions to society, which devalues and silences them. My course-mate's racial microggression demonstrated a contradiction: she suggested that my Blackness was something I could use to my advantage in a society that devalues me.

To what extent does being Black actually benefit someone's career? Studies conducted over the past few years have revealed shocking discrepancies between Black and White experiences. Statistics Canada reports that unemployment among Canada's Black population is higher than it is for other racial groups. This remains the case even when Black people attain higher levels of education.

Recent studies show that COVID-19 has had a disproportionately negative impact on Canada's Black workers. As of July 2020, Black Canadians were nearly twice as likely to be unemployed than non-minority Canadians, with Black women being particularly disadvantaged. Meanwhile, a wage gap has persisted between Black Canadians and the rest of the population. Approximately 21% of Canada's Black population is considered low-income compared to 12% in the rest of the population.

Studies show that Black leaders are underrepresented at the executive level and on governance boards. Research into incarceration rates, involvement in police use of force scenarios, and school dropout and expulsion rates also paint a dim picture of what it means to be Black in Canada.

The statistics illustrate a workforce that is not equitable and that's not okay. It's understandable that many Black people bristle when confronted with the notion that their successes are due to affirmative action rather than their own hard work. Recently, I've made an effort to stop habitually saying "okay" when this happens to me, because microaggressions are not okay.

How should microaggressions be stopped?

I've come to realize they must be addressed each time they happen. In the examples I provided, I think my Mum handled things well. I confess that I haven't always lived up to her example; I pledge to do better.

I call upon my fellow Canadians to approach this issue with an open mind. We need to check our privilege, and I include myself in that statement. I know that some people think Blacks in the workplace are simply filling a quota. I've seen the comments online and I've been told this directly on a number of occasions. I have the privilege of providing a counter-narrative, but that's because I had the financial means, family support, and academic acumen necessary to complete my doctorate. Not everyone has the ability to "prove" their contributions in the same way, but frankly, no one should have to.

If I could go back in time, I would tell my course-mate that Blackness isn't a commodity to be used to one's advantage and the idea that a Black person in the workforce is occupying someone's else's position is just plain wrong.

Racial microaggressions are negative, divisive experiences, and our collective goal should be to end them. We should strive for this not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because it will make Canada a stronger country.

Shelly, a public service employee in Nova Scotia

What are microagressions? How often would you say you experience them?

My definition of a microagression is that they are a subtle and usually negative comment or situation that makes me feel, as a female African Nova Scotian, that I'm not as valuable as others.

During a recent meeting, another African Nova Scotian colleague and I were discussing hiring and development practices in our division. We mentioned several examples of developmental and promotional opportunities that had been given to white employees. It was clear that my colleague and I were not being heard and the validity of the information we were providing was being questioned. Even though we cited specific examples, my colleague and I fielded questions such as "Are you sure?", "I don't believe this is happening" and "I don't think we're just giving people jobs and opportunities." After some back and forth, a white employee spoke up and said that what we were saying was true, and that she had benefited from such practices. In that moment, our information was finally accepted as fact. Also in that moment, my colleague and I witnessed privilege and a microaggression happening in real time. After the meeting, I approached the person who had bravely confirmed what we'd been saying and thanked her for using her privilege to help us and others recognize what privilege looks like. I experience microagressions every day of my life, this is just one example.

Why are they so harmful?

Microagressions slowly chip away at your dignity and credibility and on some days, they make it difficult to walk through life. Over time, microagressions affect how you interact with people, they change your perception of the world. I have never forgotten how a microagression made me feel. As Maya Angelou said, "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel".

How should microaggressions be stopped?

I think we all need to challenge our unconscious bias and educate ourselves. When someone musters the courage to say, "That was offensive," it's important to listen and believe them. When we do mess up and offend someone, say you're sorry and mean it. Don't be sorry and continue the behaviour.

Dereck, a regular member in Ontario

What are microagressions? How often would you say you experience them?

I define microaggressions as actions or omissions, verbal or non-verbal, intended to highlight differences between the aggressor and another person. The differences are usually rooted in negative stereotypes about the group to which the aggressor assumes the other person belongs. Microaggressions are insidious and covert and they are forms of bullying, racism, sexism, harassment and discrimination.

As a Black individual living in Canada, I experience microaggressions every day during personal and commercial interactions, through traditional and social media and in the television programs and films I watch for entertainment. It's an experience I have to absorb and normalize so I can continue functioning.

Why are they so harmful?

Microagressions are harmful for many reasons, but let's start with frequency. Reacting to every instance would drive anyone insane. They're like water torture: with each drop, each microaggression, the pain becomes more intense and intolerable. You have to internalize the psychological pain, and we all know what that does to your mental health.

Within the RCMP's culture, by the time it get so bad you finally have to say "Don't do that!", you're labelled as soft, a whiner or a troublemaker, which only intensifies the psychological damage. When the RCMP's culture (not official policy) tolerates or encourages adding kicks when someone is down, or takes a stand of avoidance or omission, it leaves the injured person feeling alone, confused and further injured. This is especially harsh because the RCMP claims to be a family. The organization physically relocates people, moving them away from the support of their actual families, putting them in a situation where they need their adopted family, the RCMP, to step up.

After you experience a microagression, a break of a few minutes is usually enough to reset your meter. Sometimes, it's overnight, sometimes a weekend, sometimes you need to take a short holiday. The amount of time away from the torture is proportional to the level of injury you've suffered and how full your "mental-wellbeing" cup might be. Unfortunately, there isn't always enough time to reset your meter, so sometimes it stays in the red-zone, which makes it difficult to function normally. Sometimes the damage requires sick leave for medical recovery. The term "off duty mad" isn't an urban legend, it's actually used in the RCMP to describe someone whose experience necessitates recuperation time for psychological injury. The spirit of#Bellletstalk should be a year round commitment.

The acronym BIPOC refers to people who are Black, Indigenous or people of color. When members of this community experience that final straw that breaks the camel's back, we're further victimized because we're already suffering from an overwhelming level of mental injury. This usually reveals itself through anti-social behaviour: yelling, cursing, non-compliance, self-medicating, drunkenness, etc. As police officers, we often see the end result, now described in police terms as "an individual in mental distress". The failure of many systems and social safety nets have had mortal consequences for members of the BIPOC community.

Police officers are often targeted as the prime example of systemic racism, whether or not the officers who respond to mental distress calls exercise unprofessional behavior. We're an easy target, put in a position where we're held accountable for all of society's failings. It doesn't matter which stripes we wear or on which side of the border we find ourselves. In North America, all police officers are tarnished by the racist behaviour of any police officers.

Policing can't afford to employ anyone who holds and, more importantly, exercises biased or bigoted views. Our communities are becoming impatient with anyone who can't adhere to basic human and RCMP values. Sensitivity training, anti-bias training and cultural awareness training can't be used as a blanket response instead of accountability and justice. We don't hire people who can't tell the truth for the same reason we shouldn't hire people who hold bigoted views – because they don't adhere to basic human and RCMP values.

Psychological trauma causes the same harm to Black people as it causes anyone else. We suffer depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, nervous breakdowns and panic attacks. We lose social well-being: friends, colleagues and family. We lose professional standing, which can lead to income loss. It has negative effects on our households and can result in divorce and domestic violence. Sometimes, it even leads to suicide. Once trauma becomes multi-generational, it has a butterfly effect, a small change can have far-reaching consequences.

Mental injuries harm the individual, the RCMP and Canadian society. No one who's suffering a mental or physical injury can function at their best, and the cost of their injuries is passed on to taxpayers through lost productivity, medical and recovery costs, investigations and legal settlements.

As police officers, we often find ourselves in life-threatening situations so we have to be certain that we can trust our colleagues for back up. As a Black individual, or a member of any marginalized group, microagressions make it hard for us to trust that our human lifeline will be there when we need it. It's no secret that some police officers have withheld backup to their colleagues on operational calls due to what can only be described as discrimination. I've seen it myself.

I've had colleagues exhibit racist and discriminatory behavior in front of me, I've also been the target of that behaviour. I wouldn't want my family or friends from marginalized communities to be left alone with these people as authority figures.

How should I interpret the validity of complaints about a colleague when I've seen that colleague exhibit discriminatory behaviour?

These are some of the internal dilemmas we face when the RCMP allows discriminatory behavior to persist. I need not remind anyone of the harm it can cause, as seen worldwide during the summer of 2020.

How should microaggressions be stopped?

We should stop them by treating them as a basic breach of core human values. We need to identify microaggressions when they happen, confirm them and hold people accountable.

It's often said that the RCMP is a reflection of Canadian society. Everyone admits that some degree of bigotry or bias exists within our organization, but we insist the problem isn't wide spread. The problem may not be wide spread, but it's a matter of perception. How do we define wide spread? Is it one racist person per watch, per detachment, per district or per division? It's a subjective calculation.

Over the years, I've met, befriended and worked with some of the best that Canada has to offer, that's why I find it so disheartening when I encounter people who exhibit racist and discriminatory behaviour in our organization. To allow them to remain, and in some cases to flourish professionally, damages the RCMP's reputation and the credibility of all its good members.

As a Black individual, I think the "one bad apple" theory is akin to avoiding accountability and justice. Like stray bullets, it takes only one to inflict permanent damage.

As members of the law enforcement community, we're often among the first to denounce Canada's criminal justice system when it fails to meet the threshold for accountability or justice.

Let's consider acts of commission versus acts of omission. Both can be equally damaging. We all know what acts of commission are, but acts of omission are more covert. Some people confuse them with implicit or unintentional bias, but the two concepts are distinct from one another. It's unfair when a system allows the excuse of an unintentional breach due to this confusion. I'd like to provide a few examples that illustrate how an act of omission can be strategically deployed to inflict harm.

I've already referred to withholding backup and not supporting your colleagues, your RCMP family members, as an act of omission. What about when a team member invites the team for coffee, tea or lunch, but excludes one member of the team? That would be an act of omission, an intentional bias, discrimination.

If someone invites me to a barbecue and serves me hot dogs on paper plates, I'd be grateful and would feel the gesture was that of a friend. However, if everyone else was served T-bone steak on fine dinnerware, I would feel the opposite of gratitude.

This is a more covert example of an act of omission and there are countless other examples currently being practised. It's so much more than being called a racial slur, although I've had and seen my fair share of those, both inside and outside the RCMP. Again, like water torture. Being educated to identify, confirm and take action against microaggressions in all their forms is key. They make up one of the most covert forms of racism, discrimination and bullying.

What about the employees who reflect on the RCMP's supposed by-gone glory days, when the majority of its officers were good 'ole hard-working Saskatchewan farm boys?Footnote * I and many others, can recognize dog-whistle coded language. Thank you for disparaging and excluding the contributions of many different Canadians in one short phrase. Damage accomplished! This same type of individual will then say the RCMP is only hiring females and people of colour. Again, dog-whistle statements that are meant to encourage and enflame anti-whatever feelings. This is an act of commission, considered minor, that's often looked over in today's environment. When we leave these behaviours unchecked, it emboldens the individuals who exhibit them to display more negative behaviours, which become entrenched and affect everyone in their sphere of influence.

When a situation deteriorates to the point where it has a negative legal impact on the RCMP, or when it calls our integrity, professionalism and credibility into question, the systemic response to these incidents and behaviours must examined. This is an example of how systemic, not systematic, discrimination and racism are allowed to persist and circulate in our workplace and society.

We cannot begin to heal as a nation until we have accountability and justice. As we've seen recently, the phenomenon of unprofessional workplace behaviour has negatively affected some of Canada's highest public offices. In this regard, we cannot continue pointing arrogantly to the United States as being inferior.

I have yet to see one professional opinion that would agree with this statement: "Individuals who exhibit bullying, bigoted, sexist and/or racist behavior, have a place in policing."

To correct the situation, we need robust systems that define, identify and hold people accountable when they exercise these behaviors. These systems should be deployed unapologetically and inflexibly, without fear or favour. In other words, there should be no discrimination based on an employee's professional status, contacts or associations. Why should a Constable or an Administrative Assistant be sanctioned harshly while a Superintendent or Executive receives only a minimal reprimand?

Third-party supervisors and managers must also be held accountable in a substantive way if they're found to have delayed, ignored, disrupted or manipulated the spirit of the RCMP's systems.

It's not fair to a supervisor or manager, nor is it fair to staff who report to them, to administer negative consequences impartially. To deny this is to deny that we are all human. Isn't this why the RCMP resists having its members work in their home communities? An impartial and robust system would order a person in authority to report to an independent third party or unit for an investigation and eventual decision. The individual's only other involvement should be if they are called upon as a witness to the allegations. This system of justice should not be influenced or compromised in any way by the chain of command.

Within the RCMP's present system for dealing with complaints, the responsibility on direct supervisors, all the way up to Commanding Officers, puts everyone in authority in an unenviable position. Should one risk a unit's operational effectiveness by giving an accused person too much credit just because they have professional or personal capital? Should their rank be considered? Are they "good members" or "bon gars? Again, these are coded dog-whistle terms. Does the RCMP want to risk losing a specialized member's experience? Do we look the other way or delay the process, for example by waiting for a key witnesses to retire, so a complaint becomes moot? Does a supervisor simply transfer or promote an individual away and close the allegation without justice or accountability? The possible acts of omission seem endless.

It's not always about the player, but it's always about the game – the systems and policies. The system we now have puts the RCMP's supervisors in a compromised position: if they take action, they take a professional risk. To avoid it, some will act in a way that allows for deficiencies, which paralyse the system.

We have to shed our "all or nothing" culture of accountability. The RCMP uses either slap on the wrist measures, such as minimal loss of pay and/or suspension, or, at the other end of the scale, they jump over many moderate options and go directly to termination by way of requested retirement or outright firing. By then, the organization's integrity, professionalism, credibility and reputation have been publically damaged.

To achieve justice and accountability, we need to consider a more nuanced range of sanctions: demotion, removing supervisor or managerial privileges, a moratorium on the ability to promote and freezing pay levels within the achieved rank. There should also be no possibility of someone continuing their bad behaviour by being re-hired as a public service employee or reservist after they've left as a regular member under negative circumstances.

These and others sanctions are examples of justice and accountability. Right now, the RCMP's system is too heavily weighted towards re-educating people about bias, cultural awareness and sensitivity training. These are basic core values that should be verified before someone is hired as a police officer

This leaves us with a system in which the fate of "Maintiens le droit" is left to individuals who may be unable, incapable or unwilling to do what's right. This is an act of omission, which can also be rooted in bias. True justice and accountability should be standard to the RCMP's internal human resources and to our external public complaints.

Why would this work?

It would work because clear rules of comportment, accountability and basic human decency eventually sink in and take effect. It would work for the same reason we now see so few people driving impaired or without a seatbelt, or smoking in a grocery store or restaurant.

Reforming the RCMP's systems would help to transform our culture, making it into the kind of workplace for which we all strive.

Joy, a regular member in Alberta

What are microagressions? How often would you say you experience them?

Microaggressions may be unfamiliar to some, but they are a daily experience for members of marginalized groups. A microaggression as it relates to race can be defined as a verbal insult or indignity directed at a member of one racialized group by another. It is most often a member of a dominant group who commits the microaggression. Whether overt or subtle, microaggressions are often disguised as compliments. "Micro" doesn't mean the aggression is small, it refers to the person-to-person level on which the interaction takes place.

An example of an overt microaggression would be closely watching or following a person of colour in a store, airport etc., for potential theft or suspicious activity. An example of a subtle microaggression would be telling a Black person they are the most intelligent / funniest / prettiest / insert adjective here, Black person they know. Asking someone to speak on behalf of their entire race, for example, asking, "Why don't Black people do _____?" is also a microaggression.

Why are they so harmful?

Many times, when you call someone out for a microaggression, they're judged to be minor, not a big deal, or the recipient is told they're being too sensitive. We often refer to microaggressions as "death by a thousand cuts" and the impact they have on Black, Indigenous and other folks of colour is significant. Microaggressions carry hidden messages that reinforce the recipient's historically perceived lesser societal status, which further contributes to the othering of racialized people. Constant, repeated interactions experienced day after day are cumulative. They assail and effectively wear down the recipient's mental health.

How should microaggressions be stopped?

Recognition and education are key. Each individual must decide whether or not this is an important issue and then take steps to educate themselves. For someone on the receiving end of microaggression, it can be an emotionally taxing assignment to have to carry both the burden of their impact and the responsibility for providing a solution. To learn more about microaggressions and working towards change, here are a couple of resources:

  • Dr. Derald Wing Sue's book "Microaggressions in Everyday Life"
  • The #CitylineReal on Race podcast "Microaggressions – The Do's and Don'ts"

Editor's note

As the discussion around systemic racism continues in the RCMP, there is an expectation that all employees pay attention to not committing microagressions. The topic will be further explored in the coming months.

Date modified: