How You May Unintentionally Discriminate with Language

Be more inclusive with your communication at work.

Posted Jan 13, 2021

Photo by Alex Andrews from Pexels
Source: Photo by Alex Andrews from Pexels

In my last post, I described examples of how we may unintentionally discriminate against others. The language we use is a big component of where issues arise. Some common communication issues are microaggressions. Microaggression is a term used for brief/commonplace verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities (whether intentional or unintentional) that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative attitudes toward stigmatized or culturally marginalized groups1.  Microaggressions can also be intended as a surface-level compliment or positive conversation but the underlying impact is ostracizing, generalizing, or insulting.

One example of a microaggression is when you have difficulty pronouncing someone's name, so instead of feeling awkward about saying it, you give them a nickname that is more pronounceable to you. Other common microaggressions include asking where someone (but only BIPOC people) is 'really' from, or saying, "You're not like most ____". These comments ostracize someone either from you and/or from their community.

Commonly, we do not see ourselves as discriminatory, so if faced with feedback that suggests otherwise, we get defensive. For instance, "I'm not racist, I have a ___ friend". This type of phrase is also discriminatory as it is stereotyping. One person does not represent an entire group or your feelings about that group. You can be friends with someone from an equity-seeking group but still support underlying discriminatory policies. For instance, I could be a misogynist while also being a woman and being friends with women.

Another typical defense is "I don't see colour". Why this is discriminatory is that this actually minimizes people's unique and individual experiences. It's important to remove bias from your decisions and consider everyone equally, but ensuring you first see potential inequalities and then make fair and just decisions.

Even if people aren't being discriminatory, we can be defensive with the premise that we have it better than others. For example, "I'm not privileged. I grew up…" or "I may be white, but I'm a woman and I've experienced equal discrimination as such ...". Everyone has privileges in certain aspects. For instance, most of us have able-bodied privilege where we haven't had to worry whether a store or office will be accessible. We just don't recognize these privileges (until maybe you break an ankle) because the world is designed to accommodate you. Taking another person's perspective to see where the world wasn't designed for them helps you identify where your privilege lies.

Microaggressions require microinterventions1. That is, microaggressions require subtle, more mindful solutions. Here are some tips:

  • Pay attention to people's body language when you are communicating with them. Are they closing up - crossing their arms, slumping, etc.? Are they riled up - is their brow furrowed, chest puffed, etc.?
  • If you see a body language reaction that doesn't match your intention, ask, "Did I say something out of line?" or "What are your thoughts on this?"
  • Ask yourself whether your statements actually added to the conversation. For example, what is your intention behind saying something like "You're not like most ___"? Is it to compliment the person's skills? Then you can do this without demeaning their identity group. Simply state the skills they excel at.
  • Clarify by communicating what you intended to communicate. For instance, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to phrase it that way. My intention was to get to know you better".
  • Speak up when you see someone else display a microaggression and educate them on why it was inappropriate. This is especially important at work. The burden of speaking up cannot always fall on equity-seeking groups. Show that you are at the same level as those aggressed upon.
  • If you are uncomfortable challenging the person, you can disarm the microaggression by humourously communicating why it's offensive. For example, "Hey, you never asked me but my family is from Ireland". 
  • Show employees/colleagues that when they are communicating, you are listening before speaking. Do not be defensive or flippant. If people challenge you, recognize that it's not about shame; it's about growth and learning. 
  • Remember, your job is not to control others' reactions; it's to learn and adjust. It's not their fault if they misread your comments. It's yours. We can only control ourselves, not others. We all have different experiences, histories, etc. So how we react to different scenarios will be different. That means what is okay with some isn't okay with others. Determine how to communicate with one another on an individual basis. 

Ultimately, you want people to feel strong, included, and embraced. Communicate in a way that supports these values. 


1) Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation. Wiley. pp. xvi. ISBN 978-0-470-49140-9.