Stay in Your Lane: Micro-aggressions and Aversive Racism Seek to Maintain the Status Quo

Stay in Your Lane: Micro-aggressions and Aversive Racism Seek to Maintain the Status Quo

“Stay in ‘Yo Lane” Sparks Conversations About Sexism and Racism

A lot has been in the sports media recently after Lavar Ball, dad to first team All-American basketball player Lonzo Ball, told reporter Kristine Leahy to “Stay in ‘yo lane” after she tried questioning him about his business marketing decisions related to his Baller brand and pricey sneakers. This was after Leahy also made comments about her perceptions of Ball’s relationship with his superstar son. I won’t go deep into the history of their conflict or their exchange. You can follow the trail of this verbal warring and the subsequent editorials from various sports and opinion journalists on YouTube. What is fascinating is that their exchange opened up the dialogue on sexism and racism – again. Why? Kristine Leahy is a White woman and LaVar Ball is a Black man. When a man, albeit a Black man, tells a woman, and specifically a White woman, to “Stay in ‘yo lane,” then it reminds us of historically preconceived beliefs about a person’s rightful place in society.

It’s interesting that neither Leahy nor Ball characterized their exchange as sexist or racist – at least not initially. Yet, that’s the conversation going on across media. Why? Because we live in a society where women were told to be seen and not heard and Blacks were told they could not challenge Whites because Blacks were inferior. Of course we know this is wrong, but it’s part of our long dark history. Thankfully, we have made some progress since those days. Still, when we hear a phrase like “Stay in ‘yo lane,” it dredges up those wounds that lie just beneath the surface.

Micro-aggressions and Aversive Racism

The “Stay in ‘yo lane” comment actually reminded me of my doctoral research. I studied The Impact of Racism on the Career Development of African American Professional Men in Corporate America. My research included the lived experiences of 14 African American men working in mid- to senior level management roles in companies located in the Atlanta, Georgia metropolitan area. Through my research I heard stories from these men about the racial slights and inequalities they experienced and how they learned to navigate through those experiences to have successful careers. Through my research I learned the terms micro-aggression and aversive racism.

Micro-aggressions. The overt acts of racial oppression, individual and institutional, have been replaced largely by racial slights and covert racism or micro-aggressions. Scholars and authors, Franklin and Boyd-Franklin (2000) found:

Microaggressions are subtle acts or attitudes that are experienced as hostile, and that fit a history and pattern of personal racial slights and disregard. They act as status reminders by their implicit suggestion of unworthiness, and have a leveling effect on the recipient (i.e., ―Stay in your place!) [Emphasis added]. They promote ―defensive thinking‖…and force the individual to remain vigilant in order to preserve personal dignity and self-respect. (p. 36)

Those scholars found that the everyday racism of micro-aggressions become a part of an individual‘s intrapsychic structure (existing or taking place in the mind, psyche or personality). These constant slights can lead to feelings of invisibility, disidentification and negative self-efficacy, which have tremendous implications for an individual‘s motivation, performance and career development.  Micro-aggressions tell a recipient to stay in your lane.

Aversive Racism. Similarly, researcher Ian Barrett studied the career experiences of Black human resource developers in the workplace. He found they experienced aversive racism, which had the effect of marginalizing them. Aversive racism is a term coined by American scholar and author, Joel Kovel. In its most simplistic definition, aversive racism is consciously espousing egalitarian beliefs, but subconsciously treating some groups differently based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Today, we understand this behavior as implicit or unconscious bias.

In Barrett’s study he cited the work of scholar Leroy Wells, Jr. Wells found that an African American in middle management may experience aversive racism because as he advances in an organization, Whites may feel threatened that he is encroaching on Whites’ rightful entitlement and privilege. Whites may then practice forms of aversive racism or unconscious bias to ultimately marginalize or disempower the African American middle manager. The actions basically tell the African American manager to stay in his lane.

It is important to note that the perpetrator may not know they are performing micro-aggressions or aversive racism. This is why unconscious bias training is helpful to make individuals more aware of their biases. Individuals have perceptions about who should be in power. They have a picture of who is a leader in organizations and most specifically, who is their leader. Without confronting stereotypes, bias, and micro-aggressions in the workplace, individuals can unconsciously seek to maintain the status quo. The status quo in corporate America is White male dominance in positions of greater leadership and authority. Therefore, as the men in my study found, their ascension in the executive ranks was met with increased micro-aggressions and aversive racism not only from White men, but women and even other African Americans were complicit in reinforcing the status quo.

Examples of Micro-aggressions and Aversive Racism

When a Black man is described as being articulate, but this is not something used to describe a White man, then this can amount to a micro-aggression. The implicit bias underlying this comment may be a belief that it is rare that Black men have the verbal skills to be effective communicators. In the eyes of the perpetrator, the recipient is unusual. The recipient may feel his other qualities (strategic, leadership, etc.) are not acknowledged.

When a White man and Black man are treated differently for similar behaviors that is an example where aversive racism may be at play. Dallas, a marketing executive who was one of the subjects in my research, described it this way:

It just doesn‘t make sense to me and it tells me there‘s some kind of something that‘s still there that gives White men pause and some kind of fear about Black men. We are strong, aggressive, angry…And so I‘ve learned over time to not take it personally when the [White] counterpart isn‘t called on the carpet for crap or challenged, but when I am. I have to take it and be positive and use all those things I‘ve learned in order not to appear to be aggressive or defensive or whatever words you want to use, because they use those words.  

“Those words” are racial slights. Black men are aggressive, angry, and defensive. Those stereotypes reinforce perceptions that Black men do not have the temperament to be executives and are therefore, unworthy of continued advancement and broader leadership roles. Those in power then make decisions about Black men’s rightful place in the leadership of the organization based on their underlying beliefs and acceptance of stereotypes regardless of their outwardly expressed belief in equality.

Bill, also from my research, is a human resources executive. He spoke about his experience. He said:

I think back to being in HR meetings or discussions where too often they were talking about African Americans and there would be these discussions of their style, and the reason why we can‘t give them the next job is, they are arrogant, or they are, and it‘s the same things that the White males tend to get viewed as being confident about, so confidence becomes arrogance. And, I saw that very specifically in some discussions about some African American males who had gotten to be in fairly senior jobs, and around discussions about their next steps. They got viewed as having more flash than substance, and the interesting part about that is we would always have to challenge them…and in many cases someone has to push that, but I am thinking okay, why does it always come up with us.

Martin, also one of the men in my research, used a racing track metaphor to describe how Black men‘s career development differed from their White counterparts. He said that African American men and White men are running the career development race, and both are advancing in comparison to other participants on the track with them. However, when African American men look across they see their White male counterparts running on a different track. In essence, their career development is not the same and will never be the same because they are inherently separate and unequal. Not only are Black men to stay in their lane, but they are also to stay on their separate track that does not yield the highest levels of accomplishment as the track White men are running on.

These are just a few of the examples of the stories I heard from the men participating in my doctoral study. They admitted that overt racism has been supplanted by micro-aggressions and aversive racism. And, although the subtle bias makes the experience more difficult to explain or prove, it is no less effective in impacting their career development.

Eliminating Micro-aggression and Aversive Racism in the Workplace

What can you do to help eliminate micro-aggression and aversive racism in the workplace? One of the things you can do is to implement or participate in a company-wide education program on unconscious bias. Discussions about tactics which unconsciously aim to keep women and minorities in certain positions can be difficult, but are necessary to create egalitarian workplace cultures. Training alone will not eliminate micro-aggression and aversive racism. However, unless individuals are aware of their biases, all other efforts will have limited success. We must address those implicit biases that have the cumulative effect of telling individuals to “stay in your lane.”


© 2017 Tonya Harris Cornileus

All Rights Reserved.

Comments (2)

  1. India
    Jun 01, 2017

    Good read. Thanks for the insight.

    • Tonya Harris Cornileus, Ph.D.
      Jun 02, 2017

      Thanks for reading the article, India. I’m glad you found it insightful. Keep reading.


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