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3 Insights Into Microaggressions From a Leader at Johnson & Johnson 3 Insights Into Microaggressions From a Leader at Johnson & Johnson

“Microaggression” may be a buzzword these days—ahem, you could say it's all the rage—but how are these remarks and behaviors actually defined? How do they make people feel? And how should you respond if they occur?

At Johnson & Johnson, Renée Evans is elevating the conversation around microaggression to advance an inclusive culture where you truly belong. Here's an inside look at her important work.


What are Microaggressions?

Microaggressions are easy to define, hard to eradicate. In a nutshell, they refer to any speech or action that intentionally or unintentionally conveys inaccurate, hostile, derogatory or negative attitudes toward a marginalized group.

What do microaggressions look, sound and feel like in practice? Let's zoom in on a few microaggression moments to make that more clear.

  • "Where are you from? I mean, where were you born?”

    TRANSLATION: You don't look like me, and by extension, you don't look the way people from my country are supposed to look. I view you as a foreigner, regardless of your nationality.
  • "Karen, you don't mind taking notes again in this client meeting, do you?"

    TRANSLATION: Women in the workplace should play subordinate roles.
  • “People can accomplish anything they want. It's just a question of whether someone is willing to work hard enough for it."

    TRANSLATION: The world is essentially a meritocracy. Things like race, gender or sexual orientation don’t play a meaningful role in determining outcomes.
  • "Wow, you're so articulate!"

    TRANSLATION: It surprises me that you don’t conform to my stereotype. People with your background are usually less intelligent than people with mine.
  • "As a woman, I know exactly what you're going through right now."

    TRANSLATION: Gender oppression operates in the same way as discrimination against, say, members of the LGBTQIA+ community. You and I have had very similar lived experiences. I’m just like you!
  • "America is a melting pot. When I look at people, I don't see race."

    TRANSLATION: Assimilation into the dominant culture is a positive end goal, so I'm not going to validate the unique aspects of your cultural, racial or ethnic experience. In fact, I question the legitimacy of that experience.
  • "Your name is Akpanoluo? Wow, that's a mouthful. Is it cool if I just call you Ak?"

    Translation: You are fundamentally an outsider to this environment, so I'm not going to take the time and effort to learn to pronounce your name correctly. If you want to fit in, the parts of your identity that are connected to your heritage will have to be disguised or reconfigured.

    (Behaviors like these are sometimes classified “micro-invalidations.")

While some of these examples might seem fairly obvious, others are (hopefully) a little bit more nuanced.

Bear in mind, too, that context is often a key factor in moments like these. Microaggressions are less likely to occur in high-visibility spaces like town halls or all-hands-on-deck meetings than in the course of casual, semi-private moments at work. Think: an off-the-cuff remark from one colleague to another about a troublesome account, for example, or "witty" office banter that escalates into a risqué joke.

In either of these cases, harm, even if unintended, is inevitably the result. What can we do about it?


Renée's Mission

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Renée Evans and Tiffany Boyer enjoy a light moment. Together with colleague Glenn Wrightington, they're elevating the conversation around microaggressions at Johnson & Johnson.

Answering the above question is very much top of mind for Renée Evans, Learning Management Systems Team Lead at Johnson & Johnson. Alongside colleagues Glenn Wrightington and Tiffany Boyer, she recently led a broad-based educational initiative to increase awareness and dialogue around allyship, in connection with microaggressions, within and for our LGBTQIA+ community.

"In our educational initiative, we focused on a number of different scenarios, and how different individuals can react in those scenarios," Renée explained.

It was practical, actionable and outcome-oriented, in other words.

"We focused on how people can make use of this newfound knowledge and apply it,” Renée said. “And while I consider everyone at Johnson & Johnson to be an ally, this is ultimately a journey and education is a key component of it, regardless of where you are in your own journey."

In fact, she frequently hears that in feedback from participants. One regional manager wrote, "We’re still just a company composed of many humans. Our ability to be an inclusive and safe space depends on our desire and capacity to be inclusive in our words and actions. I sincerely appreciate the way you are both educating and encouraging those behaviors."

Which is something to keep in mind should a colleague (or perhaps even you) slip up: People, being people, are bound to make mistakes. The distance between where a remark is launched and where it lands—or the distance between intent and impact—is a challenge built into all human communication to some degree. But we can all do better, try harder and proceed with greater compassion and humility going forward.

For Renée, elevating the conversation around microaggressions and allyship has also been about having that conversation in the first place. She wants her global colleagues to know that support is available.

"Whether it's through your manager, HR, Open&Out—our Employee Resource Group for the LGBTQIA+ community—or the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, we have channels for individuals to go through so that they can continue to learn. Everyone across our entire organization needs to know that this is an inclusive, safe place. And at the end of the day, we're all still learning."

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You have helped me directly. I now understand that pronouns are not trivial. You helped me overcome one of my own prejudices and mental barriers.

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Ensuring the “How” of Inclusivity

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"This is an inclusive, safe place—and at the end of the day, we're all still learning," Renée said.

Speaking of learning, Renée certainly is. One recent conversation with a colleague about language and intersectional identity brought that point home for her.

"My colleague from Latin America observed that languages like Portuguese and Spanish are gendered in ways that English isn't. He shared some of the ways he's been struggling with gendered pronouns"—he/she, him/her, they/them—"as a result."

Renée admitted to her colleague on the spot: She hadn’t thought of that. And the realization prompted her to take action, too.

Today, Renee is once again teaming up with Glenn and Tiffany to promote greater awareness about the ways in which messages of inclusion (and exclusion) can be encoded in language.

“The idea and intention for us is to ensure the ‘how’ of inclusivity, both internally and externally,” Tiffany said. “We want to make sure that we’re reflecting and living into a true culture of inclusivity at Johnson & Johnson.”

Renée elaborated, "Glenn is really looking to globalize our educational content and cater it to the languages in all of the different regions around the world, while Tiffany and I are working on an initiative focused on driving inclusive language across our internal and external STEM2D engagements."

So microaggressions, be warned. "We're really taking this to the next level," Renée said.

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My passion for this training stems from conversations with colleagues and family about my involvement with Open&Out, where a reoccurring comment I heard was, ‘I wouldn’t know what to do.' I realized that there could be many other allies hiding behind that same comment and afraid to step out. Once we launched this initiative, we also realized we needed to expand globally with translations and updates to reflect regional laws and safety. We want to ensure that everyone can bring their best self to the workplace.

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