Do you know what a microaggression is? How can you be an ally? As an organization, what can be done to systematically address microaggression in the workplace?
In this podcast episode, Joe Sanok speaks to Dr. Holly Sawyer about microaggressions.
Meet Dr. Holly Sawyer
Dr. Holly is a licensed therapist and owner of Life First Therapy where she provides psychotherapy to professional black women to help them navigate their life and career without using substances to cope with depression and/or anxiety when experiencing microaggressions in the workplace. She provides clinical supervision to new graduates and professional consultation to currently licensed therapists.
She is the author of “Let’s Talk About Trauma” – a workbook for those not quite ready to go to therapy, but are open to learning how to start their healing process.
In This Podcast
- Examples of microaggressions towards black women in the workplace
- What Dr. Holly’s work looks like
- Recommendations for white therapists working with someone when microaggressions come up
- Microaggressions in broader society
- Microaggressions in organizations
- What Dr. Holly wants every private practitioner to know?
Examples of microaggressions towards black women in the workplace
It wears so many different hats. It looks so different. But it’s basically looking at you as a black woman and just having this framework that you couldn’t have gotten where you are because you’re black or you can’t do certain things because you are black.
- Sometimes the promotion options are not there – a black woman who has been with a company for a long time, has the experience, and has the certification, is not being promoted
- There are times when black women are looked at as if they are single, although they may be married.
- One of Dr. Holly’s personal experiences is being in a meeting and having someone approach her supervisor to make a comment and joke that she could not see past Dr. Holly’s natural afro during the presentation. This was offensive and also a lie. It was very uncomfortable that someone looked at her natural features and felt like it was a place to make jokes.
What Dr. Holly’s work looks like
The first thing she does is have a very empathetic ear because a lot of times, clients will go to HR and HR is not very supportive. Sometimes her clients aren’t feeling comfortable about approaching their supervisor about experiences through microaggressions from the supervisor or colleagues. Dr. Holly listens, asks them to walk through the particular microaggression or aggression, and then they come up with a plan as to how it can be documented.
It’s important to have this documentation as she has had clients who have had to take cases to the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) due to HR not being supportive or supervisors becoming combative. After talking and walking them through a plan, Dr. Holly checks in with them to see how they are coping and makes sure that they are not relying on substances (alcohol, marijuana, overeating, etc.) to find comfort because they don’t have the internal tools to cope.
They then work to identify things that will allow them to feel safe within the workplace (e.g. switching offices or adjusting hours so that the contact is limited with the co-worker or supervisor who constantly presents these microaggressions.) and then give them tools that they can use outside of the workplace and outside of therapy in order for them to cope without abusing substances.
Recommendations for white therapists working with someone when microaggressions come up
Follow the previously mentioned framework and allow the client to be heard – don’t be dismissive or question the microaggression.
- Allow them to have that space, allow them to process it, and allow them to work it out. If you question it, it invalidates what the client is experiencing, what they are saying, and doesn’t make them feel like they are being heard or that they can trust you.
- Do ask questions but frame them in a way that doesn’t invalidate the client’s experience. If they are black and you are white, it’s going to look like, once again, they’re not being validated, they’re not being heard, and they’re not going to trust you because you’re pushing it back on them when they were the person who experienced the microaggressions in the first place.
Microaggressions in broader society
And a lot of times, people do assume, especially when they don’t have a lot of interaction with black people, a lot of times people watch the news and take it at face value for what it is. So, when they do interact, you know, with us on any scale or any level, then the microaggressions could kick in because they’re just making this assumption without getting to know us or even knowing us more than what they see at face value.
- Don’t make assumptions – Examples: (Someone dressed in a hoodie – don’t assume they’re going to rob you. You see a black woman with two children – don’t assume she’s a single mom on welfare)
A lot of microaggressions are basically making huge assumptions of who black people are as a people. It’s like judging a book by it’s cover without even opening it up and reading it. Just because someone looks a certain way, that doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s who they are.
- Stand up when it’s appropriate – At the grocery store, your peer is being mishandled by a clerk/cashier…you could step in, lend your support. each scenario and each person requires something different of an ally so ask them what they want from you, don’t just assume.
- Extend your voice.
- Ask how you can help.
- If you see something, say something. Being silent and not taking a stance on something that you see or hear is just wrong. Turning a blind eye or your back doesn’t help the situation, it just confirms it.
Microaggressions in organizations
Have training and a workshop on cultural competencies, not just as a new hire but also as a refresher after you have been there for months. A lot of times, people are not clear on what a microaggression is and don’t know that what they are saying is offensive. People need to be educated on this. Also, make sure that HR is supportive and not dismissive. Supervisors need to say that they are not going to tolerate this type of environment or behavior.
- What White Therapists Need to Know with LaToya Smith: Black Leaders Matter Series | Part 1
- LEARN: Listen. Empathize. Act. Resist. Never Stop. with William Hemphill: Black Leaders Matter Series | Part 2
- We Don’t Trust Therapy and What to Do About It with Dr. Connie Omari: Black Leaders Matter Series | Part 3
- Love People into Change with Dr. Bernice Patterson: Black Leaders Matter Series | Part 4
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This is the Practice of the Practice podcast with Joe Sanok. The Black Leaders Matter series.
Well, welcome to the Practice of the Practice podcast. We are so glad that you are here as part of this Black Leaders Matter series. We have Dr. Holly Sawyer today who has a practice in Philadelphia, Life First Therapy. She works with professional women dealing with micro aggressions in the workplace. Dr. Holly, welcome to the Practice of the Practice podcast.[DR. HOLLY SAWYER]:
Hi, Joe. Thank you for the warm welcome. [JOE]:
Yeah, well, I mean, we just went through about 20 minutes of tech issues. So, I just feel like we both, it’s like, for me just like take a deep breath, Joe. I’m so glad your sound is sounding so good now. Cool, cool. Well, why don’t we start with tell us how you got into this specialty area and then maybe we can go from there in regards to this specialty working with professional women. [DR. HOLLY SAWYER]:
Sure. Just years and years of going through my own experience of microaggressions in the workplace. And so, I knew that once I decided to be a therapist, that’s what I would focus on. Because a lot of jobs that I’ve had as a professional over the years, the degree I had, the many years of experience that I had, it just never seemed to be enough. And it drove me to experiencing a lot of depression and anxiety. And so, I wondered like, how many other black women also have, or are going through the same experience, but they’re suffering in silence? [JOE]:
Yeah. Will you take us through maybe some things that, you know, I’m a white man that lives in northern Michigan. What are microaggressions that maybe wouldn’t even come to mind for me or that you’re seeing these women you work with experience in the workplace? [DR. HOLLY SAWYER]:
So, what I’m seeing, or noticing is that sometimes the promotion options are not there. So even though you know, someone may have been with the company for 10-15 years, they have the experience, they have the degrees or certifications, they are not being promoted. There are times when they are looked at as if they are single, although they may be married. For example, I had an issue where I was in a meeting one day with me and all of my peers and a white supervisor, and she went back to my supervisor and, of course, I’m black. I have my hair in its natural state as an afro. And she went over to her and she said, oh my gosh, I never knew Dr. Holly’s hair was just so big. It was in my way the entire time. I could not see the presentation. And she chuckled. And so, my supervisor approached me about it, not in a demeaning or wrong way. But not only was I offended, but it was a lie. And it was very uncomfortable that someone looked at my natural features and felt like it was a place or a playground to make jokes. So you know, microaggressions could be, you know, not being promoted, it could be something as simple as your hair, or the way you maybe speak or look, and it being, oh, well, that’s great for a black woman, or, wow, I didn’t know that you were that smart or that you were able to, you know, code that well. So, it wears so many different hats. It looks so different. But it’s basically looking at you as a black woman and just having this framework that you couldn’t have gotten where you are because you’re black or you can’t do certain things because you are black. [JOE]:
Hmm. And when you’re working with clients, what are some of the things that are techniques you use? Or how you kind of affirm their point of view? What does that work look like? [DR. HOLLY SAWYER]:
So, the first thing I do is I have a very empathetic ear, because a lot of times my clients will go to HR and HR is not supportive. Sometimes they are not feeling very comfortable with approaching their supervisor, whether it’s verbally or in an email about something that they experienced either from their supervisor around microaggressions, or a coworker. So, when it comes to therapy, they’re very anxious or they’re very depressed. And so, what we do is, I listen again, and I ask them to walk me through the particular microaggression or aggressions, and then we come up with a plan as to how this can be documented. So one thing I do is make sure that even though they may not be able to express it verbally, but they continue to make some type of documentation, because I do have clients where it has gone so far, where they file cases with the EEOC, because HR has not been supportive or they have talked to their supervisors and the supervisors have been so combative. So after, you know, talking and walking them through a type of communication plan, I check in with them to ask them, how are they coping, and one thing that I try to do was make sure they are not relying on substances. A lot of times, that is their go to, so it could be, you know, an uptick in alcohol. It could be you know, an uptick in marijuana. It could be you know, an uptick in overeating, or any other substances that they have turned to find comfort because, again, they don’t have the internal tools to cope.
So, besides listening and coming up with a communication plan, we identify things that will allow them to, I don’t wanna say get along, but be able to feel safe within the workplace. So, if it’s maybe asking if they could maybe switch offices, or just their hours so that they’re not in much contact with the supervisor and or coworkers who are, you know, constantly presenting these microaggressions. But we kind of go to the drawing board of different things that they can do to feel safe within their workplace, and then different tools that they can use outside of the workplace and outside of therapy in order for them to cope without again, abusing and misusing substances.[JOE]:
Hmm. Thanks for walking through that framework. That’s, that’s really helpful. Now, if there’s, say, white therapists that are working with someone and microaggressions come up, would you recommend they kind of follow that same plan that you just outlined? Or would there be kind of extra things that you would want them to do or say to be sensitive in that situation? [DR. HOLLY SAWYER]:
Well, yes, I would definitely recommend that they do start with their framework, as well as just allow the client to be heard and not dismissive, don’t even question the microaggression. So, you may have some people who will say, well, are you sure that it wasn’t something else? Or are you sure that they didn’t mean XYZ? Don’t question; if they are giving you the microaggression experience, and they’re telling you what it is, don’t question it. Allow them to have that space. Allow them to process it, allow them to work it out. But the one thing that we, you know, we don’t want white therapists to do is to question it, because when you question it, then that invalidates what we’re experiencing what we’re saying, it doesn’t make us feel like we’re being heard, or like, we can trust you, if we’re bringing this to you, but you’re questioning the validity of our experience. [JOE]:
Are there other things like that, that maybe you’ve heard that white therapists maybe unconsciously do or that you would recommend that would kind of be on that same list of things to really be cognizant of? [DR. HOLLY SAWYER]:
Yeah, I do. I do believe for the most part that it is something unconscious because as a therapist, that’s what we do; we listen attentively, or at least some of us. And as a follow up, we do ask questions. So, I don’t personally know if a therapist is doing it in a way to disqualify someone’s experience. But, again, we want to be cognizant that if we do ask questions, that the question be framed in a way that again, doesn’t invalidate the person’s experience when it comes to you to talk about the microaggressions because if they’re black and you’re white, then it’s going to look like as if, once again, they’re not being validated, they’re not being heard. And they can’t trust you because you’re pushing it back on them when they were the person who experienced microaggressions in the first place. So if you do have questions, you know, just be cognizant of how they are framed so that it doesn’t look as if this is something made up, this is something that’s crazy, or within this person’s mind, that just didn’t happen. [JOE]:
Yeah, I’m wondering if we can zoom out from the individual therapy, to maybe broader society and kind of framing out types of microaggressions even outside of the workplace in, you know, even general social situations or for people to just understand the concept but then also to be able to address it or speak up for people if they notice something, or, you know, if I were in a social situation, if I have a better radar of what a microaggression is, how I should appropriately handle that, how I should speak up for it. Like if we kind of zoom out into broader society, what would that look like? What would you advise people to do? As someone that’s an ally you know, I want to do things right. I want to be able to do it in a way that’s not offensive, but also that is standing up for hey, like, that’s not okay, what you just did. What would you advise? What would you teach us there? [DR. HOLLY SAWYER]:
So, the first thing that I would suggest is don’t make any assumptions. If someone is dressed in a hoodie, don’t assume that, you know, they’re coming to rob you or that they’re a bad person. Don’t assume because you see, you know, a black woman with two children that she’s a single mom who’s on welfare. So, a lot of the microaggressions are basically making huge assumptions about who we are as a people. So, it’s like looking at a book and just judging it by its cover without even getting to know or open up the book and reading it. Just because someone looks a certain way or presents a certain way that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s who they are. So, if I have on a hoodie, I could just be cold or running an errand really quick. So, I just grabbed the closest thing which was a hoodie. I have two children and that does… you can see me and just because my husband isn’t with me doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m a single mom on welfare. If we’re in these spaces where we’re interacting with a coworker, or if we’re in a grocery store, or whatever your setting is, just really don’t assume; I think that’s like the first basis. And a lot of times, people do assume, especially when they don’t have a lot of interaction with black people. A lot of times people watch the news and take it at face value for what it is. So when they do interact, you know, with us on any scale or any level, then the microaggressions could kick in because they’re just making this assumption without getting to know us or even knowing us more than what they see at face value. [JOE]:
Yeah. And in regards to noticing it in other people, you know, I think even just thinking about neighbors or thinking about family, are there specific ways that allies and people that want to help influence social change that they can advocate differently? [DR. HOLLY SAWYER]:
Sure, I think one of the things that allies can do for people who are in close proximity, like their neighbors, or if they have, like friends or coworkers, ask. I don’t think that it’s safe for allies to assume what we want as a people because your neighbor, your coworker, your peer, we’re all different. So, two of us would need something different. So instead of just saying, oh, well, I’m going to go and process with you, okay, your neighbor may want to process but that doesn’t mean that’s the stance that your coworkers taking, your coworker may want you to stand up when they are experiencing a microaggression in the workplace and you’re idly standing by and you can hear the microaggression but you’re not supportive. Your peer, you know, you could be in a grocery store, you’re being mishandled, you know, by the clerk or the cashier. You could step in and you could lend your support and say something. So, each scenario and each person requires something different of the ally. And so, I think the best way to go about it is just to ask, but just don’t assume. [JOE]:
Yeah, so it sounds like making sure that we don’t judge the book by its cover. We’re seeing the nuance between different people’s points of view. And then stand up when it’s appropriate. [DR. HOLLY SAWYER]:
Yes, stand up, exactly, stand up when it’s appropriate. Because at the end of the day, if you were in, you know, the reversal role, you would want somebody to stand up for you, or at least you would not want to experience that type of microaggression, whatever it is. So again, be an ally by extending your voice, you know, be an ally by saying, okay, how can I help? If you see something, then you say something. But again, being silent, not taking a stance on something that you see, and you hear that is just wrong. And it’s just turning a blind eye or your back and not doing anything; that doesn’t help the situation. It just confirms it. And so, I don’t think, you know, that’s a way to build a good alliance. [JOE]:
Now I’m thinking, you know, oftentimes personalizing these big issues helps us really understand and put ourselves in other people’s shoes to think through like, what would that be like if I had to go through that? Are there stories that for you represent microaggressions that you could share, whether it’s kind of client stories, obviously confidential, or your own stories or stories you’ve seen in your community that would help the audience really kind of be able to understand this and then kind of decide how they want to start taking more action. [DR. HOLLY SAWYER]:
I’ve had someone tell me that, in the workplace as a licensed therapist, that I articulated myself very well for a black licensed therapist, so that was a microaggression there, because anyone should be able to articulate themselves and not relate it back to me being black or to a race. I’ve had the experience of someone attacking my parents, you know, like I gave a scenario earlier with my hair. I’ve had people even though I’m appearing black, I’ve had people ask me what my nationality was, or what am I? As if I were a dog, versus having just a conversation around race. And sometimes again, that can be very offensive. Oh, well, Dr. Holly, what are you? Very offensive. An earlier scenario I brought up about my children where I don’t have photos of my family in my office, but when I did work in community health, people will ask me if I’ve had children, I’ll say yeah, I have children. Oh, okay. Where’s your husband? Or are you married? Now, those questions may seem like very light questions, but under the assumption that again, I’m a single parent, who is basically, you know, here in this environment, and I’m not married. Now, as far as my other counterparts who are white, they don’t get asked the same questions. There’s not an issue with the way they articulate themselves. It’s not an issue around how they groom their hair or how they look. So again, microaggressions are questions that are asked usually by white counterparts to black coworkers or friends or people in a community that usually only relate to their expertise or how they look and they only got there because of maybe again, them being black, or something related to that. So, they don’t feel good. They feel very attack-ish. And a lot of times it leaves us on edge where we cannot trust our white counterparts because we have no idea why we have only gotten to, you know, being the CEO or the president of something because we know someone or because we attended a certain school. Why couldn’t we have gotten here because we actually have worked very hard to get to where we are. [JOE]:
Yeah, yeah. I’m wondering, when you think about microaggressions through websites or podcasts like this, or other types of organizations? What are things that organizations can start to address systematically to make sure that they’re not having microaggressions as part of what they put out into the world and in the way they do business? [DR. HOLLY SAWYER]:
You know what, that’s a very good question, Joe. And I was just talking to my client about this because she’s probably going through this in her nonprofit where, although they serve the black community, she has a lot of white coworkers. She said, you know, I’m thinking about creating a cultural competency workshop, and I said, I think that’s a great idea. So, although, you know, when you are initially hired at a company, they talk about not being discriminatory, they talk about sexual harassment and things like that. But I do think it’s the responsibility of an agency, whether it’s a private practice, whether it’s a big corporation, something like Walmart or Home Depot, where they actually have a training and workshop on cultural competencies. And not just when you’re a new hire, but also addition to after you’ve been here 3, 6, 9 months as a refresher, because a lot of times people don’t know that what they’re saying is offensive. A lot of times people are not clear on what a microaggression is and how it can be a microaggression. So, we want to educate everybody. So, if you’re saying it, you know that it’s offensive, and at the same time, we also want to make sure that if someone is coming to report it, that HR is supportive as well and not dismissive. It could just be having a simple conversation with the two people that have experienced the microaggression, the person who said the microaggressions so that the person is feeling supported and feeling heard. But I do think that it’s twofold. It has to be a training there, with cultural competence, and then the support of HR and supervisors to say like, we’re not going to tolerate this type of environment or behaviors. [JOE]:
Yeah, thank you for that. So, the last question I always ask is, if every private practitioner in the world were listening right now, what would you want them to know? [DR. HOLLY SAWYER]:
What I want them to know is basically what I said early on, just don’t assume. Asking the right type of questions that are supportive and empathetic will be very helpful to anyone that is coming to you and experiencing microaggressions, or any type of racism, in any way that is making them anxious or feeling depressed. [JOE]:
It’s so good. Dr. Holly Sawyer, thank you so much for being on the Practice of the Practice podcast. If people want to connect with you, connect with your work, what’s the best place for them to connect with you? [DR. HOLLY SAWYER]:
The best place to connect with me is my website, which is lifefirsttherapy.com, and that again lifefirsttherapy.com. [JOE]:
Awesome. Well, Dr. Holly, thank you so much for being on the Practice of the Practice podcast. [DR. HOLLY SAWYER]:
Thank you for having me, Joe. [JOE]:
Just a reminder that we are not doing sponsors during any of this. Instead, we are encouraging you to donate to your favorite charities that can help in regards to the protests, in regards to diversity, in regards to the change that you want to see in the world. So, thank you so much for listening to this series and for letting me into your ears and into your brain. Have a great day.
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