Why Workplace Microaggressions Are a Big Deal

christian dow

Microaggressions are the everyday, subtle comments or actions that communicate negative, derogatory, offensive or insulting attitudes toward socially or culturally marginalized groups, including people of color, LGBTQIA+, and those who are disabled. While microaggressions can be deliberate, most of the time they are unintentional, say three material handling industry pros who have experienced such incidents both personally and professionally. The trio, each of whom works for an MHI member company, shared their experiences and offered suggestions for reducing the occurrence of microaggressions in the workplace.

Mercedes Barragan, diversity, equity and inclusion manager at MHI member Dematic, recalled experiencing a microaggression incident early in her career. Just before presenting to a large executive leadership meeting, a human resources director mocked the pronunciation of Barragan’s Mexican surname by raising her fists in the air and shaking them. That prompted a VP participant to comment about shaking maracas.


“I typically ‘Americanize’ the pronunciation of my name, but as I was being introduced, a VP asked how to pronounce it properly,” she said, explaining that in Spanish the Rs in Barragan are rolled on the tongue. “It’s a little hard to do if you’re not a native speaker, so I was trying to make a joke of it to lighten up the situation. I was three months into the job, very nervous, and very young—I wasn’t even 30 yet.”

So, when the maracas comment occurred, Barragan recalled her face flushing in embarrassment and fighting to keep her composure.

“After that, I have no recollection of what happened. It shook my confidence, and I don’t know if my presentation went well or was awful,” she recounted, adding that she ultimately found the focus of her career in diversity and equity and inclusion while working at that organization.

As Hispanic, female and lesbian—and, for a period of time, a single mother—Melissa De Jesus, strategic sales manager at MHI member Phoenix Lighting, has experienced microaggressions across the board.

“I truly think these are off-the-cuff comments that aren’t intended to be derogatory to anybody, but those who say such things are coming from their perspective and how they were raised,” she noted. “Mostly I hear things like, ‘What a great success for a woman to achieve.’ Just say, ‘Congratulations!’”

Likewise, Gerry Paci, market manager for material handling and AGVs at MHI member Pepperl+Fuchs, has heard many microaggressions that were likely intended as compliments.

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Looking for more recommendations on ways to eliminate microaggressions in your workplace? Connect with MHI’s DEI Committee at mhi.org/about/dei and through me at [email protected].