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Why employers need to know about microaggressions

Supporting and retaining diverse talent requires a willingness to challenge one’s own biases.

Ingrid Sabah, Olivia House and Jocelyn McQuirter conducted a breakout session titled "Cultural competency: intent vs impact."
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

With the help of five youth organizations that are committed to supporting a more diverse workforce talent pipeline, more than 2,000 low-income high school students in the Twin Cities metro area have already begun settling into summer internships.

For many of these interns, the opportunity to explore career paths that they’d never been exposed to, or encouraged to consider before, can drastically alter the course of their lives.

Fatima Ahmad, an intern alumna with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and Piper Jaffray who’s now studying at the University of Minnesota, says the professional experience she gained as a high school student bolstered her self-confidence.

“My supervisors taught me that I deserved to be there. I wasn’t there by accident, by any means,” she said to room filled with intern supervisors Thursday morning. “You guys are shaping the way that this person sees the workforce in the future. You’re shaping what kind of cultures they want to be a part of, what industries they want to be in.”

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Since many of the interns placed through STEP-Up Achieve, Right Track, the BrandLab, Genesys Works and Brooklynk bring a number of unique assets to their work environments — everything from foreign language skills and a heightened level of cultural competency to a deeper understanding of adversity — many employers wind up eager to retain them.

Supporting and retaining diverse talent, however, requires a willingness to challenge one’s own biases, to build authentic relationships and to create more inclusive work cultures.  

It’s an area of growth recognized by many local employers, which is why about 100 managers and supervisors representing Twin Cities-based banks, advertising agencies, government entities and more attended a diversity training in St. Paul Thursday morning. 

Hosted by the five organizations mentioned above, this training exposed participants to a range of important topics like cultural competency and how to give feedback to youth who have experienced trauma. 

Cultural competency: intent versus impact 

Not all racist comments are overt. It can be a tough pill for people to swallow, but even well-intentioned comments and gestures can evoke feelings of inferiority and isolation. These more subtle, yet more pervasive, sources of racial tension are called microaggressions.

“Microaggressions are the ‘ouches’ in conversations,” Jocelyn McQuirter, a facilitator with the BrandLab, explained, noting they’re often unintentional and well meaning. “But they set marginalized groups back in making them feel like the other.”

Inviting participants to delve a bit deeper into the topic, the presenters offered a couple of examples that illustrate how something done or said with good intentions could negatively impact the recipient.

Projecting an illustration of a white male asking an African-American female if he can touch her hair at the front of the room, they asked the supervisors in the audience for their reactions. Most agreed his question was born out of curiosity. It may even have been intended to be a compliment, they offered (even if the gender and age dynamic did make it seem a bit creepy as well). But they concluded that the way this gesture likely made the woman in the illustration feel — uncomfortable, less human — certainly didn’t justify his actions.

A second scenario provoked a bit more discussion. When people of color, especially those who are English language learners or bilingual, call Minneapolis or St. Paul their home, they’re often pressed to reveal where they’re “really from,” meaning the country they, their parents or their grandparents emigrated from.

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In this case, what may have been an attempt to connect can reinforce a sense of otherness.

Rather than ask someone to defend their citizenship, one Somali-American participant suggested, ask them about their ethnicity or where their parents were born if the intent is to engage in a deeper conversation around identity.

Giving trauma-informed feedback

Educators are talking more and more about the realities of supporting youth who have experienced trauma. But it’s something that employers need to be more mindful of as well, if they’re truly vested in supporting a more diverse workforce.

Trauma can stem from living under the duress of sustained poverty, from encountering prejudice on a daily basis, or from any other number of stress-inducing environmental factors. It’s an issue Darlene Fry, executive director of the Irreducible Grace Foundation, knows all too well.

In a prior career phase, she worked for the St. Paul Public Schools district as the director of its college and career readiness office. When she started digging into the data, looking for a common factor among those who weren’t on-track to graduate, she says she realized the vast majority of these students were in the foster care system.

“The kids were off track because a social worker took them out of a bad home, but they didn’t get their backpack, so they didn’t have their books and got behind in class really easily,” Fry said, offering an example of the added challenges highly mobile youth are up against. “The most heartbreaking thing was when kids were taken away, their stuff really was put in trash bags, so they felt like throwaway kids.”

In response, she left the district to start the Grace Foundation to help these youth work through their trauma so they could better focus in the classroom. Employers who are welcoming youth who have experienced trauma into their workplaces can utilize the same strategies Fry and her volunteers use to establish trust and facilitate healing.

Through a series of skits, the presenters illustrated a number of lessons: if a young intern experiences a trigger at work and clams up offer them an alternative way to express themselves like a writing prompt; don’t presume to know why an intern may be late because not all youth are coming from homes with reliable transportation and meals; and set high expectations and boundaries, in conjunction with a compassionate relationship, so these youth have the opportunity to rise above their circumstances.