Have you ever stopped to think about the long-lasting impact of racist comments and microaggressions? I recently had a coaching client who opened my eyes to the lasting impact of these types of incidents.

I hesitated to share this but when my coaching client gave me permission, I felt it was important to share. She hoped that it would help others to feel that they are not alone.

She shared with me three incidents that occurred 10 years ago, and still had a huge impact on her self-perception and confidence. Two of the incidents were a direct attack on her, criticising her English language accent or skills by a client and a colleague. Another was where she heard culturally diverse members of the team being told to “go back where they came from”.

As she shared her story with me, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of sadness and frustration.

Here was a highly skilled and capable individual, who had allowed these incidents to shape her self-perception and confidence in such a negative way. In a safe environment, she was bright, energetic and open. Unfortunately, she had become self-conscious of her accent and communication style, and had harsh inner critics that regularly held her back. She would often remain quiet in meetings, hold back from stating her needs, and worried about what others would think of her.

Racism and microaggressions – and any form of marginalisation – can have a long-lasting and wide-ranging impact. The impact is felt by not only the person who was directly targeted, but also those around them who witness it. People who are in minority groups can internalise the messages of being inferior or not belonging. It can create a toxic and unsafe work environment and hinder team dynamics and productivity.

But what can be done about it? Is there a way to overcome the lingering effects of racism and microaggressions?

For individuals who have been directly targeted, and in some cases, those who are affected by witnessing an incident, it is important to find a safe and supportive space to process their experiences and develop strategies for coping with the lingering effects. This may include therapy, coaching, or support groups.

In our coaching, we worked on reframing the story she was telling herself about the incidents. As a result, these stories no longer had such a strong hold on her thinking. The good news is, my client has asked for and got a promotion as well as a big pay rise after the program with greater belief in herself and the value she contributed!

As leaders and colleagues, do you know what to do when someone shares difficult experiences like these with you? My coaching client described how she told her manager about the situations where she was targeted and how her managers felt sorry for her but they simply told her to not worry about it. It can be difficult to know what to do when you have not experienced something similar yourself.

Are you aware of those around you who may have had a difficult experience like this? What impact do you think it may be having on their thinking and behaviours?

Take a moment to put yourself in the shoes of those around you who may have had these experiences. Imagine what it might feel like, even if you haven’t had the experience yourself. If you know someone who may have had such experiences, listen to them, seek to understand what it’s like and what support would be helpful.

As I often say in my Quietly Powerful talks, it is not just introverts who are quiet. There are many reasons that people may be quiet, including past experiences of being marginalised and belittled. Unfortunately, we can internalise these experiences and stay quiet as a survival mechanism. I know this to be true, having experienced it in my earlier years. If you work with someone who appears quiet, please don’t assume it is because they are introverted.

Organisations and their leaders have a responsibility to create inclusive cultures by actively working to prevent and address racist and microaggressive behavior. They will also benefit from learning more from people with lived experiences about the effects and how to support them, as it will build psychological safety and enable more people to contribute their best.

By facing into the discomfort of listening to people with lived experiences of being marginalised, I feel we can go beyond hearing these stories and responding with “sorry to hear about your experience” or “that’s terrible, that kind of thing shouldn’t happen”.

What do you think it would take for us to face into it more?