By Deputy Ministers Deborah Richardson and Shawn Batise

  • “We have to circle the wagons.”
  • “I really don’t see colour.”
  • “I have a lot of Indigenous friends.”
  • “You don’t look Indigenous.”
  • “We should be treating everyone fairly.”
  • “You’re so lucky to be First Nations.”
  • “The low man on the totem pole.”
  • “Too many Chiefs and not enough Indians.”
  • “Off the reservation.”

These are all phrases that we have heard right here in the Ontario Public Service.

These are known as microaggressions. On the surface, these phrases or “expressions” may not seem overtly offensive. But for many Indigenous people, including ourselves, having to hear these statements over and over again, among friends, acquaintances and co-workers alike, is truly hurtful, demeaning and generally creates a harmful and unsafe working environment.

Microaggressions are indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative inferences towards a group of people. Microaggressions are particularly damaging to Indigenous, Black, racialized and LGBTQ2S+ communities, as well as people with disabilities and women, as they subconsciously add to the racist, discriminatory and stereotypical discourse that we face.

We shouldn’t have to break these down. After all, “we should be treating everyone fairly,” right? But when this phrase is used to challenge policies advancing Indigenous rights or equity programming, it infers that Indigenous people are getting an advantage over others.

When we hear, “you don’t look Indigenous,” it tells us that our complexion isn’t as dark as expected. It suggests that there is an accepted, singular look of an Indigenous person. There is no such thing.

Have you ever been told by a colleague, “But, you aren’t like ‘them,’” in reference to you identifying with a cultural, ethnic or religious group?

This is an example of biases based on stereotypes and being viewed as the token exception.

I hope that we public servants can see how the cumulative impact of these seemingly innocuous comments are hurtful and harmful.

Microaggressions by their very definition are “small” and subtle – they can go unnoticed. The person making the microaggression may be completely unaware of what they did and the impact it had. But for the target, the constant barrage of microaggressions feels like an assault by a thousand little knives.

Another common microaggression is when Black leaders are described as, “so articulate!” While it may seem to be framed as a compliment, it is actually insulting, condescending and demeaning. This is because it implies surprise that a Black leader can engage in intelligent communication. In fact, why do our figures of speech so often rely on “black” to express something negative (black balled, blacklist, black sheep, blackmail, black mark, etc.)?

Microaggressions can also be faced by women and people living with disabilities.

There is one common microaggression that is particularly damaging: “She has sharp elbows.” It diminishes leadership competencies by suggesting that a woman leads in an aggressive way, as opposed to an assertive way. Men would never be described in this manner. It also diminishes a woman’s humanity, especially those who demonstrate being a kind and empathetic leader.

Sadly, far more microaggressions go unaddressed. For example, there were dozens of people on a recent video call when a fellow OPSer was described as being the “iron lady,” a so-called compliment referring to her ability to use “handbag diplomacy.” This is an unflattering reference to former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Silence places an unfair burden on ourselves and other racialized people. Sometimes you can’t ignore the ignorant.

For example: “That’s not right. There is no one look for First Nation, Métis or Inuit people. The Indigenous community is incredibly diverse.”

You know there is a lot of work to do when the term “whipping boy” was used in very a recent conversation. Thankfully, that one was also called out and addressed. 

How to change workplace culture

We are all human beings. We may not always be aware that the things we say, and the way we say them, can constitute a microaggression. But we are all blessed with the ability to learn. We must be willing to listen and strive to be more conscious of how our words impact others.   

We encourage you, when you hear or experience a microaggression, to call it out. It may be uncomfortable and take a whole lot of courage, but those who use microaggressions must be corrected. 

And we can all do it by starting with one simple phrase: “That’s not right.”

The other key to changing our workplace culture and addressing microaggressions is building self-awareness. We must challenge the use and assumptions of some of the colloquialisms and analogies we use. We must create an awareness of microaggressions, especially when they target Indigenous, Black and racialized people, women or people with disabilities.

We all have the right to a safe workplace. We all can play a role by taking personal, sustained action and calling out microaggressions and other forms of racism and discrimination.

Deborah Richardson is the Deputy Solicitor General of Ontario. She is Mi’gmaq from Pabineau First Nation in New Brunswick. Shawn Batise is the Deputy Minister of Indigenous Affairs Ontario. He is Anishinaabe from Matachewan First Nation in Ontario.