Am I Dumb? Combating the Microaggressions at Work that Question Your Intelligence
First, I’m so glad we have a space here to talk about this because I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. And, recently, when I read this article about how “well-meaning” liberals often dumb themselves down for our supposed benefit it all kind of clicked…
Let me start at the beginning—tell me have you ever experienced any of the following:
- You’re really good at your job, but it seems almost impossible to be assigned complex cases, important clients, or other glamour work and you’re not sure why?
- You give guidance, advice, input on cases, but colleagues, even subordinates, question or push back on your correct analysis? Or
- You’re speaking to someone, and you can hear yourself talking—you’re articulate, cohesive, and correct in whatever you’re saying, and yet the person you’re talking to is giving you this quizzical look like you’re speaking a foreign language?
If you said yes to any of those questions, then you, hermana, have experienced The Dumb Effect. TDE happens when you have a sudden realization that people are openly questioning your intelligence for no valid reason other than their presumptions. So, no—you’re not crazy—it really is happening. And it’s very likely that these hindrances and obstacles will continue to be placed in front of you simply because of your skin color or surname or accent.
Let me give a more concrete example: It’s 2009—I am a 3L taking a business course. The professor places us in small groups to work on a paper. The assignment can be broken up in three parts. I meet with my group of two white women and they tell me they’ve already broken up the assignment between them. I ask, “What’s my part?” And one of them says, “oh don’t worry about it.” And I’m left a little confused because why wouldn’t I be allowed to participate in a group project? Hadn’t I made dean’s list for the last year and half? Wasn’t I keeping up in class and always answering correctly when called upon? I started questioning myself and wondered what was it about me that would make them not want to trust me with part of an assignment. Then it hit me, they don’t think I’m capable because I’m Latina. It was like a blinding realization washing over me. Ohhhhhhhh. It has nothing to do with me and everything to do with their perception of me.
So what do I do? I prepare my own assignment (like I would let these two be the ones that determine my grade, tuh). They are “kind” enough to share it with me, and I wait until an hour before it’s due to flag the problem: Hey geniuses—the professor gave us a strict page limit and you’re off by two pages. But no worries, I have an alternative paper that I wrote, ready to go.
I’m sure it was a real Sophie’s Choice for them: submit something that was guaranteed to be docked major points or risk submitting the paper written by the brown girl.
They ultimately went with my paper.
I remember being so angry at the time (and still) because I knew I had the skills and talent to be part of a stupid group project and yet even with something so small, I was viewed suspiciously.
I’m sad to report, it gets worse as the stakes get higher. I am still, as a successful attorney who has been practicing for eight years, often furious at how people treat me because they think I’m dumb. There are days I want to snap and remind them: hello—I graduated from the same PWIs as you, finished the same legal programs, and have won as many complicated cases; all of this in the face of more financial, social, cultural barriers than you could ever survive, so who is really the superior person here?
Of course, I don’t recommend that route. I don’t recommend it because it’s hard to challenge microaggressions. And that’s what the TDE is—it’s a microaggression so small that the perpetrator may not even realize they are doing it.
And when you call out microaggressions, it’s a rare person that says, omg you’re right, let me correct my behavior. Instead, they get defensive and weirdly angry at you—and if the person has any say in your career growth, it can be a misstep to call them out.
So what can we do instead? Here’s what’s worked for me:
One. Keep track. It’s what I call my petty diary. I keep track of these behaviors so that I have data to back me up when it’s finally time to call someone to task. The reason for this is that we don’t die from one paper cut—so if you bring up some small slight, it will be difficult to prove the damage it’s done. But if you can have a conversation that shows a pattern of disrespect, it can’t be as easily dismissed.
Two. Prepare to be gaslighted. Again, it’s a rare person that will listen to what you’re saying and take accountability. Instead, you’ll be called too sensitive, or you’ll be asked to give someone the benefit of the doubt, or they’ll be a million excuses to the person’s behavior that of course has nothing to do with you! How could you even think that?! So, go in prepared to hear these excuses so that you maintain your cool and seem understanding and level-headed. Because their goal with gaslighting is to make you get so upset that no one could take someone so emotional as you seriously. And that’s why step one is important: “yes, boss I do want to give so and so the benefit of the doubt, but this is the fourth time they’ve done something like this, so now I’m sensing a pattern, aren’t you?” And ultimately, when you bring behavior like this to people’s attention, it’s more for them to realize that you are cognizant of what they’re doing that may lead to them changing their behavior—even if they never admit their actions.
Three. Seek support. It is exhausting to be exposed to this day in and day out. It chips away at you. It makes you question yourself and it makes you question your own experience. “Did that really happen?” “Maybe I’m reading too much into this?” “Maybe if I’m nicer, less assertive, quieter, keep my head down, they’ll recognize my skills.” Don’t go into the tailspin. Make sure you have a support system either in or out of work. A few professional friends that you can talk to about these experiences who will help walk you through solutions and remind you to not believe the constant arrows slung at you that say you’re not good enough.
As always, remind yourself of your worth. Remind yourself of your grit. Remind yourself how your intelligence and perseverance allowed you to earn the same jobs and law degrees as those who dare question your capabilities just because of your skin. You can’t stop them from questioning you, but don’t ever let that lead to you questioning yourself.