This past week, I embarked on a memorable vacation to New Orleans with my son, immersing ourselves in the vibrant culture, rich history, and culinary delights of this unique city. Amidst the lively jazz music and colorful street performances, I encountered a recurring theme that echoed through various interactions: the subtle acts of exclusion. These experiences provided a profound reminder of the need to address such behaviors in our everyday lives and within organizational cultures.

The Experience

One of the most striking examples occurred while having casual conversations with white locals and tourists. Time and again, I was asked, "Where are you from?" Initially, I responded, "I’m from Wisconsin." However, this response often prompted further inquiries: "No, where are you really from?" This line of questioning continued despite my attempts to explain my residency in California before moving to Wisconsin. The persistent questioning implied that my answer was somehow insufficient, or that my identity was incomplete without a more "exotic" origin story.

This seemingly innocuous exchange left me feeling frustrated and disheartened. As an indigenous person from El Salvador, my cultural heritage is a vital part of my identity, but it should not serve as a prerequisite for validating my presence or belonging in any space. This experience underscored the subtle, yet pervasive, nature of exclusionary practices that many individuals with marginalized identities face regularly.

The Impact

The repeated questioning about my origins was not just a minor annoyance; it was a subtle act of exclusion. While those who engaged in these conversations may have believed they were asking engaging, well-intentioned questions to develop rapport, the reality was different. This line of questioning communicated that I was too different in appearance to be considered a part of the population of the USA. Instead of building rapport, these interactions led to feelings of exclusion and alienation. This experience is a poignant reminder of how unconscious biases can manifest in everyday interactions, making people feel like they don't belong.

Understanding Subtle Acts of Exclusion

Dr. Jana Price's book, Subtle Acts of Exclusion, eloquently captures this phenomenon. As she writes, "These are the subtle, confusing, insidious things that people say and do that end up excluding people with marginalized identities. This happens even though, for the most part, people are not intending to exclude others at all." The term "subtle acts of exclusion" (SAE) provides a clearer understanding of these interactions, emphasizing the impact over the intent behind such behaviors.

Addressing Subtle Acts of Exclusion

In reflecting on my experiences in New Orleans, it is evident that addressing subtle acts of exclusion requires a collective shift in both mindset and behavior. Here are actionable steps we can all take to foster a more inclusive environment:

  1. Self-Awareness and Reflection: Recognize and reflect on your biases and assumptions. Understand that good intentions do not negate the impact of exclusionary behavior. Ask yourself if your questions or comments may inadvertently put someone in an uncomfortable position.
  2. Intentional Language: Choose your words carefully. Instead of repeatedly questioning someone's origins, engage in conversations that allow individuals to share what they feel comfortable disclosing about themselves. Respect their initial response without pressing for more.
  3. Active Listening: Practice active listening by paying attention to both verbal and non-verbal cues. Acknowledge and validate the experiences and identities of others without making assumptions or judgments.
  4. Educate and Advocate: Educate yourself and others about subtle acts of exclusion and their impact. Advocate for inclusive practices within your organization and community. Share resources, such as Dr. Jana Price's book, to raise awareness and promote understanding.
  5. Set a Higher Standard: Hold yourself accountable to a higher standard of behavior. Strive to create spaces where everyone feels respected and valued. Recognize that fostering inclusivity is an ongoing effort that requires continuous learning and growth.

The steps above can aid us to move beyond merely avoiding harm and actively contribute to building inclusive, respectful, and collaborative environments. As I continue to reflect on my time in New Orleans, I am reminded of the importance of addressing subtle acts of exclusion—not just for ourselves, but for the broader community. Together, we can create a world where everyone feels a sense of belonging, regardless of their background or identity.

Further Exploration

Subtle Acts of Exclusion, Second Edition
An expanded edition of the first practical, nonjudgmental handbook for dealing with microaggressions, featuring examples, sample scripts, action plans, a new discussion and activity guide, and up-to-date suggestions for creating a culture of belonging in the workplace.Overt discrimination is relatively easy to spot. But the less obvious but more common actions that make people feel left out or stigmatized in our workplaces, commonly called microaggressions, can be hard to identify and even harder to deal with.The author use a clearer, more accurate term: subtle acts of exclusion (SAE). After all, people generally aren’t trying to be aggressive-usually they’re trying to say something nice, learn more about a person, or be funny. Bring accused of aggression shuts the conversation down, when you want to open it up. This book features examples, tools, sample scripts, and action plans to help readers prevent subtle acts of aggression from happening, or deal with them when they do. Updated throughout, this second edition features: A greatly expanded chapter on intentional acts of inclusion-actions for creating a sense of belonging. A discussion and activity guide ideal for book clubs and training sessions A new concluding chapter, Hope for HumanityWhether in the form of stereotypes, assumptions, backhanded compliments, or objectification, SAEs are damaging to our coworkers, friends, and acquaintances. This book is your friendly, accessible, non-judgemental guide to creating a welcoming workplace.