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Workplace Microaggressions in Canada: A “Subtle” Problem

The fear of workplace microaggressions in Canada for black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC) employees is creeping in as more individuals come back to the office because of the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions.

But what is microaggression? Well, it is defined as a “comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority).”

It could be an offhand question to someone about where they really come from. Or, commenting about how difficult it is to pronounce a colleague’s name. 

Fewer Opportunities for Workplace Microaggressions in Canada  

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the workplace has moved from the office to the respective homes of the employees. Working from home was a different experience for everyone. Some preferred it because it meant spending less time on their daily commute or having the flexibility to squeeze in a workout in the middle of the day. 

On the other hand, some felt that it blurred the line between home and work. Without social cues from colleagues or physical separation from the workplace, some employees end up working as the sun rises and even after it sets.   

But it wasn’t just that. Working from home also provided respite from the experience of workplace microaggressions in Canada for BIPOC employees. Without having to interact with colleagues face-to-face, there were fewer opportunities to be subjected to such treatment. At the same time, their homes were safe spaces where they could be more comfortable with themselves.

Mila Olumogba, a marketing executive, shared that “I would say that on Zoom, I didn’t really have the thought like, ‘Oh, I’m the only woman of colour here.’ And maybe that’s because I felt safer in my own space.”

In a research published by KPMG Canada, it was found that 44% of Black Canadians did not experience microaggressions or racial discrimination in the past 18 months. 24% also said they had fewer experiences of such. However, the same is not true for the 14% who experienced the opposite. Around one-third of those surveyed said that they experienced more of such treatment. 

Despite the situation seemingly turning for the better, some are still worried about what exactly has brought about this change. Was it the shift in work arrangements that caused the decrease in racism and workplace microaggressions in Canada, making it just a result of circumstance? Or, was it because of behavioral and structural improvements that promoted inclusivity and equality?

Because of this, they wonder if the same positive environment will continue to exist once they return to in-person work or if it will just be short-lived.

Robert Davis, the Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer at KPMG Canada, said that “while overall, Black Canadians are facing less racism at work, it is still an ugly reality for many.”

“Many are concerned that the downturn was driven less by changing perceptions and understanding and more by the fact that many Canadians have been working virtually during the last 18 months. They are worried about what will happen when they return to the office,” he adds.

Feelings of Anxiety as Employees Return to the Office

With the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, more institutions are welcoming back their employees on-site. However, BIPOC employees carry with them feelings of anxiety as they go back to this working arrangement.

Nadine Spencer, CEO of the Black Business and Professional Association, said that “the fear now comes back and that lack of confidence now comes back to individuals who are going to be working in an environment where they might experience these microaggressions.”

“It’s been tough. In the workplace, I still have a lot of anxiety. It’s exhausting,” Olumogba adds. The comfort she felt at home went away as she returned to the office in August of last year. She feels cautious about being in a place where she could experience microaggressions again. 

“Often, it’s just not feeling respected. And to not feel like you’re respected in the workplace, especially, when you’re doing good work, can be very demoralizing,” said Monnica Williams. She is the Canada Research Chair for Mental Health Disparities in the School of Psychology at the University of Ottawa. 

Examples of microaggressions in Canada

Because of this, experiences of workplace microaggressions in Canada can negatively affect the well-being of BIPOC employees. It can affect not just their performance at work, but their overall quality of life as well. 

Williams said that a single event of microaggression is unlikely to result in serious mental health concerns right away. But this does not mean that it has no bearing at all. It can add up to the fear they have developed over the many more experiences of racism that they go through in their daily lives.   

In relation to this, Dr. Helen Ofosu, a psychologist in Ottawa, said that “when our mental health is very fragile, we can’t really tolerate some of the bumps and bruises at work as long as we could otherwise.”

Change Starts with  Awareness

One of the initiatives taken to address not just workplace microaggressions in Canada, but in the rest of society was the creation of “The Micropedia of Microaggressions.” It was developed by Stephanie Yung, Executive Creative Director, and her team at Zulu Alpha Kilo Inc. 

They collaborated with various organizations to help citizens unlearn biases and prevent themselves from committing such actions. By doing so, everyone can work together to build a more inclusive and respectful community.

Individuals can visit the page to learn more about what statements and actions are actually practices of microaggressions. There are volumes for different sectors, such as 2SLGBTQ+, age, class, disability, ethnicity, gender, and indigenous people.

The initiative has been met with a lot of support from individuals and institutions alike. People may not always be aware that their simple comments or actions are actually a form of microaggression. However, changing their behavior for the better starts with knowing that what they say or do is discriminatory against others.

Yung said, “How can we change something that we don’t know?”

“Research shows that while less obvious than overt forms of discrimination, [microaggressions] really take a significant toll both mentally and physically. The last three years has been really challenging for so many different reasons. And I feel like mental well-being is top of mind for everyone,” she adds.

Wendy Cukier, an Academic Director at the Diversity Institute of the Ted Rogers School of Management, similarly said that “there’s  no doubt in my mind the first step is naming the problem.”

What are Some Examples of Workplace Microaggressions in Canada?

Some comments and actions considered discriminatory against an individual’s ethnicity are the following:

  1. Asking Muslim women if their dad made them wear a jihab
  2. Describing a situation, person, or any other unrelated context as reminiscent of a “Nazi”
  3. Asking someone else where they really come from
  4. Claiming that someone doesn’t act like a Black person
  5. Asking someone else if you could touch their hair and actually touching it 
  6. Expecting colleagues of a different race to be in charge of preparing lunch, cleaning up after activities, and performing administrative tasks such as making copies of a file 

Similarly, the following continue to promote a negative view of Indigenous peoples:

  1. Using the phrase “that’s my spirit animal” to describe one’s or another’s personality
  2. Telling someone that they do not look like an Indigenous person
  3. Commenting that they are lucky to be exempt from paying taxes
  4. Imitating and mocking the accent of another culture
  5. Being surprised that they are articulate    
  6. Saying that their names are hard to pronounce and suggesting a different nickname for one’s own convenience 

The aforementioned examples are not exclusive to each category. Moreover, the list is not exhaustive. There are many more ways in which microaggressions are practiced. 

Since they are particularly “micro,” the one doing it may not always catch themselves promoting this behavior. At the same time, the person receiving these comments or actions may doubt whether or not what they just experienced can be considered a form of microaggression.

Despite this, it starts with knowing that microaggressions do exist. Words and actions, no matter how simple or common they may seem, could actually be offensive. However, it should not be considered merely a new learning for the day. As the famous words go, “knowledge is power,” but “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Because of this, knowing what is right and wrong should be followed through with a change in behavior. This can help create a more conducive working environment for everyone, not just for a selected few. Differences in race, religion, or anything else should not be an impediment to pursuing one’s career, feeling safe at the workplace, and obtaining fulfillment from work.



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