Use microaffirmations every day to build inclusion

Semple: Small gestures can make people feel welcome

Noam Chomsky once said: “A language is not just words. It’s a culture, a tradition, a unification of a community, a whole history that creates what a community is. It’s all embodied in a language.”

Over the past few years, the language of diversity has changed.

You may have noticed the changes; maybe you embraced the new terminology and found it easy to expand your vocabulary. Or perhaps you are wondering how to keep up with the ever-changing landscape.

We examined why people found understanding and using diversity words challenging, particularly when it came to words and black people. There were four reasons why people were cautious:

● The fear of offending: people worry about saying the wrong thing. If the incorrect terminology is used there is a fear of judgement or criticism.

● Personal biases: everyone has them. As these affect attitudes towards others, there is a fear of confronting what these biases are; introspection can be uncomfortable.

● A lack of confidence: normally due to a lack of knowledge. This can create feelings of inadequacy resulting in an unwillingness to participate in diversity discussions.

● Cultural differences: having a limited understanding of the different black communities and cultures. There is a fear of being labelled insensitive.

Being equipped with the appropriate terminology increases confidence when having conversations about race. Racially inclusive words promote respect.

For example, using the term ‘black’ to describe someone who identifies as black, instead of an ethnic minority or a person of colour, is a sign of respect. People who feel respected are more likely to remain with an organisation.

Read more: What do inclusive cultures really look like?

It would probably be fair to assert that most people in their professional capacity will have heard of microaggressions and know that they are everyday slights, put-downs and insults in the form of statements, actions or incidents that are indirect, subtle or unintentional against members of a marginalised group. However, how many of us understand microaffirmations?

Microaffirmations are small and often subtle actions of inclusion that give the receiver a feeling of being valued and a sense of belonging.

A person who consciously uses microaffirmations has a mature understanding of diversity, equity and inclusion.

They know that a smile, a nod of recognition, saying thank you does not take much effort and that these subtle acts of appreciation signal acceptance and respect for others.

They build trust, foster positive relationships and contribute to a more inclusive and supportive culture, particularly in professional contexts.

Another consideration is the ‘Halo Code’ which was introduced in the UK in 2020. It is a campaign pledge that guarantees black people the freedom and security to wear their hair without restriction, judgement or discrimination.

Read more: Diversity in HR: why we need majority support

The Code has encouraged race conversations in the workplace and many companies have adopted it.

These companies know that when meeting someone for the first time, it only takes a few seconds to assess them, and a feature of the assessment is how the person looks.

Hair is part of that appearance. While hair means something different to each of us, being black with afro-textured hair has a uniquely meaningful history.

Inclusive language and behaviour play a key role in one’s sense of belonging and feelings of safety. It is the way people communicate with one another that build relationships and create cultures of trust.

The language of race is constantly evolving. Some words are no longer used, they have become outdated or may now be offensive. Keeping up to date is the starting point to affecting change, a continuous process that requires commitment.

Maggie Semple is co-author of My Little Black Book: A Blacktionary

This is part one of an article that appears in the September/October 2023 print issue.

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