Imagine (apologies to all you John Lennon fans) if you walked into a store to buy new furniture. You go to put an order in with the salesperson, and the moment arrives where you have to provide your details. Your first name is noted down incorrectly as the last name on the form. Your last name is commented on as having all the letters of the English alphabet.

To add further colour to the picture, the staff member is white, and you are entering the store as a person of colour with an atypical name to the British population. How would you address the situation? Would you call it out, or laugh it off and carry on?

Analysing the situation

Coming from a person of mixed-race heritage, most occasions result in the latter. Why? It’s easier to give the person the benefit of the doubt to avoid unnecessary conflict. However, what might deter that person from making similar comments in the future?

While on the face of it the situation may seem like an innocent mistake, an element of unconscious bias could unintentionally present itself as a microaggression. The question arises: Would those same actions and comments have been made toward a person with a long, anglicised surname?Image adobe express e1681251416325

Despite not explicitly exhibiting discrimination, it is still enough to make the person receiving the comment feel uncomfortable. There may not be any malintent, but we are all responsible for how we make people feel. Making someone feel like they do not belong does not establish grounds for a positive interaction.

Microaggressions can come from individuals that are prejudiced but also those that exhibit unconscious bias. While the above example is to do with race, an important note is that unconscious bias can occur for any characteristic (e.g., gender, age, social background, weight).

Addressing the situation 

How do we stop this phenomenon from carrying on? It involves having a difficult conversation, in two important ways:

  1. The person making the comment should take a step back and think about how that comment could come across. The question should be asked: ‘Would I ordinarily make this comment to someone of the same demographic as me?’
  2. The person that is on the receiving end, or any others around, should call out that behaviour so that the person making the original comment acknowledges and understands why their comment may be perceived in an inappropriate way.

Applying what we learnt 

While our first instinct may be to apportion blame, the better approach involves identifying the problem, coming up with a solution, and outlining the lessons learned. Taking the furniture store example, there are two potential ways the conversation could have gone: 

  1. The salesperson could be clearer in the ask and specify which name they are asking for in the first instance. When noting down the name, they could take a moment to reflect before speaking on whether this is an appropriate comment.
  2. The person on the receiving end could feel empowered to say something along the lines of, “I appreciate I have an unconventional name, but comments such as these make me feel uncomfortable. Would you make these comments to someone that had a long, anglicised surname?”  

These approaches could promote a different way of thinking for the salesperson and allow them to reflect for any future instances where this might come up. 

Having the difficult conversation gives you the opportunity to address any concerns, and it also presents the chance to improve relationships and promote diversity of thought. There are no winners in blame culture. We must work together for the greater good (the greater good…). 

For an easier conversation

Bright joined 4OC last year and is, as he says himself, “… passionate about delivering meaningful change, especially to a sector that is key to our everyday lives. Having gone through the Freshfields Stephen Lawrence Scholarship, I try to encourage others to apply themselves and take every opportunity given to them.”

If this is a topic you’d like to talk to someone about, feel free to get in touch with Bright at with any questions or issues you have.