They referred to him as a "33."
A few months into a construction job, Rob Cintron said he was working on a house with his crew chief and a younger co-worker, who were both white. The crew chief would giggle after repeating an unusual phrase around Cintron.
“He’d say, ‘Yeah, them 33s.’ It just sounded suspect. I felt like he kept saying it around me like it was a secret,” said Cintron, of Magnolia, Delaware. The supervisor would casually drop “33s” into a sentence that was directed at his white, younger co-worker.
Cintron asked the younger guy what the phrase meant.
“He said, ‘It’s code for the color Black. But it’s not like a racist thing.’ But he never explained to me what it meant,” Cintron said.
What are microaggressions?
What Cintron experienced was a microaggression — "the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership," according to Columbia psychology professor Derald Wing Sue.
Microaggressions can happen in any workplace setting. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was accused by three women of sexual harassment and unwanted sexual contact. A psychology professor told USA Today that some of Cuomo’s behavior can be understood in the context of microaggressions.
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Many reference Sue’s 2010 book, "Microaggressions in Everyday Life," when discussing today's definition of microaggressions. Different forms of microaggressions have also been identified: microinsults, microassaults and microinvalidations.
Mental toll of microaggressions
Within a month, Cintron overheard the young man say the N-word. He told him to stop.
“He said, 'I’ll say it around you because you’re not ‘Black, Black.’ He tried to tell me I’m not Black enough,” said Cintron, who’s Puerto Rican and Black. “I guess to him I wasn’t considered [fully] Black. It made me feel funny because I thought I was cool with him.”
Cintron didn’t report this to his supervisor, he said, because the crew chief was friends with the young man who used the slur. Not to mention, the crew chief was the same guy who kept saying “33s,” he recalled.
Racial Justice speaker and trainer Dr. Monea Majeed, based in York, Pennsylvania, said microaggressions can be racist, but they also can allude to a person's age, gender, abilities or lack thereof.
“One of the things that a lot of people don’t understand is that [microaggressions] can be intentional or unintentional, but the impact is still the same. It’s still harmful,” she said.
Patrice Casey, 28, of Smyrna, Delaware, said she experienced discrimination at her previous job selling cars. Although her hair was cut low, she said she still felt targeted by management.
"I was basically told I wasn't allowed to get lines cut into my hair by the barber,” she said. “Because I was the only Black person there who did anything like that, of course, I felt offended. I understood what he was trying to say, but I definitely felt there were white guys who got their hair cut and got parts cut in. But it was only a problem when I did it,” she said.
Jayme Ganey is a licensed professional counselor and cultural competence program manager at Family Connections in northern New Jersey. She says the workplace is an environment that opens up a space for microaggressions to be exchanged among co-workers due to its hierarchical structures.
“What we are talking about in the workplace, the devaluing that happens with microaggressions can devalue the employee in the eyes of people who can either forward their career movement or who can denigrate it,” Ganey said.
Ganey explains that when an individual of multiple marginalized identities starts to recognize that those microaggressions can affect the amount of money they can make or the opportunities they will be offered to advance, they may feel their future is threatened.
The pressure to navigate the workplace their livelihood depends on, while being on the receiving end of microaggressions on a regular basis, can have a very unhealthy effect on a person's mental health, experts say, especially if they see no resolution in sight.
“The brain says, 'I can’t really escape this stressor or this threat,''' Ganey said, "and it’s consistent: It produces a response that is caught in a loop.”
Cintron experienced that for a while.
“This job was paying my bills,” Cintron said. “I had to keep a job. My wife at that time was pregnant. I just left another job, and I came there to get more money. I was getting paid good, but it was a lot of BS.”
He stayed at that construction job for three years.
In 2020, Cintron decided to strike out on his own. He got into the ice cream business and created Snowy Daze. It’s a full-service entertainment company where he brings his ice cream truck to day care centers, as well as weddings, birthday parties and other events.
The business is doing well enough that it’s become his primary source of income, Cintron said.
Promoting a healthier work culture
Ganey said employers cannot separate employees from their emotional well-being. She calls upon top leadership to support open conversations about microaggressions and mental health, the only way real change is really going to take hold, she said.
“Whole people are coming to work, including their mental health, so how do we organize ourselves to work together and exist together in these spaces where we are looking at ways to protect each other from harm, traumatic stress, microaggressions, whatever you want to label it, because it’s very real for people? It takes everyone, but it absolutely takes leadership to set that tone.”
Majeed’s training involves a "Boots and Sandals" exercise where "privilege is a heavy pair of boots that keeps you from feeling when you’re stepping on someone’s feet or they’re stepping on yours, while disadvantaged people are only wearing sandals." The exercise walks participants through different reactions if one were to step on their toes or if they were to do the stepping.
She says the most common response in her training is that people admit to experiencing microaggressions. Not many people admit to committing them, though.
If you know you have committed a microaggression yourself, even unwittingly, it's important to call it what it is, Ganey said.
“The first thing other than apologizing is to acknowledge it, not just to yourself, but to the other person. You have committed an offense that has removed value so you immediately need to acknowledge that you have done that,” said Ganey.
Majeed also likes to educate participants about how to mindfully apologize when it comes to microaggressions.
What not to do in a conversation about microaggressions
In the workplace, she says, there needs to be a space for “courageous conversations to be had” when these types of things occur.
Majeed recommends that workplaces offer an anonymous complaint option, so people feel comfortable coming forward with their concerns without fear of retaliation.
“It’s more of being proactive versus reactive because you can almost guarantee that this stuff is happening,” she said.
Majeed also incorporates a short video with a mosquito bite analogy, portraying the effect of microaggressions as something that can be compounded over time.
Although Cintron was able to eventually escape his unhealthy workspace, he still feels there was a deeper meaning to "33s" than what his old co-worker shared with him.
During a phone interview with Delaware Online/The News Journal, Cintron decided to research it and discovered the number "33" has ties to the Ku Klux Klan, according to the Anti-Defamation League, a leading New York-based, anti-hate organization.
What to do if you experience a microaggression
Majeed suggests considering a few questions when faced with a microaggression and weighing how to proceed.
Ganey agreed that checking in with yourself should take priority.
“Take care of yourself first. If sharing isn’t in your capacity to do right now, if you don’t feel like it's a safe environment to share, don’t do it. Do what’s best for you,” she said.
And, if you'd like to be open about your feelings, Ganey said, you should try to start a conversation with hope for eventual repair.
“Think about how you are going to share in a way that produces a reparative relationship.”
Jasmine Vaughn-Hall is a reporter for the USA Today Network in central Pennsylvania. Contact her at email@example.com or (717) 495-1789. Follow her on Facebook (@JasmineVaughnHall), Twitter (@jvaughn411), and Instagram (@jasminevaughnhall).