4 Ways Teachers Can Address Microaggressions in the Classroom

I grew up in southern California, where the weather was beautiful and I went to schools that provided me with a strong foundation.

I had very supportive parents, and I was an involved student who got good grades. But when I think back on my experiences, I know I was affected by the fact that I didn’t have the opportunity to go to schools that I would consider “diverse.” In most cases, I was the only black person in my elementary and high school classes. Sometimes, I was the only person of color at all. It was difficult to not have other students who I felt could understand what I was going through.

My race came up in different ways as I interacted with my classmates and teachers. I remember a friend telling me that I wasn’t like “the others” —meaning other black people — and that she never thought of me as being black. People were curious about my hair — they wanted to touch it and know why I didn’t wash it every day or wear it in a loose ponytail. Some classmates explained that the punchlines of the racist jokes they told weren’t meant to offend me.

The first day of each year, I could see the slight surprise on my teachers’ faces when I walked into my honors or AP classes. And when we talked about slavery in history or English, I could feel all eyes on me, and I could certainly expect to be asked about my perspective.

What are microaggressions?

These experiences always left me a bit bewildered and confused. Sometimes, they made me angry or frustrated. I now understand that they bothered me because they are a form of marginalization called microaggressions. Microaggressions are brief, everyday interactions that signal that a person’s identity or social group is less valued or perceived negatively.

Researchers like Daniel Solorzano, Derald Wing Sue, Tara Yosso, Guy Boysen, Kevin Nadal, and others have found that students of color regularly experience microaggressions inside and outside of the classroom. Some examples include asking Asian students where they are really from, assuming Latin@ students speak Spanish, expecting black students to be better athletes than academics, expecting that a female student wouldn’t be interested in the most rigorous math and science courses, and asking students to speak on behalf of their whole community during class discussions.

Some have argued that microaggressions are the new face of discrimination. They are often unintentional and unconsciously committed by offenders, and they tend to be subtle rather than obvious insults or acts of violence. In some ways, the subtle nature of microaggressions is the most tricky thing to deal with because it is their pervasiveness that can make them so exhausting.

Microaggressions are similar to “death by a million tiny cuts.” By nature, they don’t seem like a big deal and hardly worth getting upset about, which makes sharing experiences more difficult and frustrating. I remember not knowing how to talk about what I experienced, or how it made me feel because comments and questions could easily be explained away by my sensitivity, or the other person’s good intentions or curiosity.

But each incident, each small cut, has an impact. Over time, these microaggressions can build up and have a long-term effect on students’ mental health, motivation, commitment, and achievement. Researchers have found that individuals faced with microagressions “are likely to exhibit negative mental health symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, negative affect (or negative view of the world), and lack of behavioral control.”

Researchers have also documented students’ encounters with microaggressions in all kinds of situations. Students experience them with people whom they are close to, like friends and classmates, and sometimes with teachers and school administrators. Therefore, as educators, it is critical to address situations where we observe students engaging in microaggressions, as well as to not commit them ourselves.

How can you address and prevent microaggressions?

There are some steps that we can all take to be more aware of and address the microaggressions that take place in our classrooms:

1. Understand the difference between intention and impact.

Microaggressions are often unintentional. Those who commit them may have no idea that their comment was offensive or that they did something that would offend someone else. Microaggressions, however, can create discomfort, anger, and other forms of long-term damage for students who experience them. It is important to focus attention on the way the act made the other person feel and address their needs and pain.

2. Don’t be afraid to talk about it.

If a student shares an experience about microaggressions or you observe a situation that has made a student uncomfortable, don’t avoid it or pretend it didn’t happen. Talk to the student in private about her feelings and why the comment or behavior was troubling. If the she is comfortable with it, take the time to facilitate a conversation between the student and whomever committed the microaggression, with the goal of coming to a deeper understanding of where these thoughts and behaviors come from and how damaging they can be.

3. Be aware of your assumptions.

We are constantly confronted with images in movies, ads, and TV shows that put our students in particular categories. These images often unconsciously guide our expectations and the way we treat our students. While it can be difficult, consider your expectations of your students, and how much they are governed by stereotypes.

At some level, do you expect that your Asian American student will never struggle academically, and will be quiet and shy? If a black student looks bored in class, do you assume it is because she doesn’t understand the material, or that she isn't being challenged enough? Assumptions can lead us to miss important signals, and it is important to ask questions and be open to each student’s unique needs and experiences.

4. Be aware of how colorblindness can make students feel.

Some may argue that our nation is postracial, or that we would be in a better place if we didn’t recognize differences and just see each other as “people.” But when you tell a student “I don’t think of you as Latin@,” or “I don’t see you as American Indian, you’re just like all the other students in the class,” you are minimizing that student’s cultural background, even though it may be very important in her life. It also implies that there may be something wrong with a student’s background and heritage; otherwise, why would it be necessary to ignore it?

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, taking more time to be aware of our students’ needs and feelings, as well as our own biases and perceptions, can create more healthy learning environments in our classroom so everyone can feel appreciated and included.

Want to learn more about how colleges can foster inclusion and demonstrate an appreciation for diversity? Check out: Increase Diversity on Campus Beyond the Buzzwords.

Sources:

Allen, A., Scott, L. M., & Lewis, C. W. (2013). Racial microaggressions and African American and Hispanic students in urban schools: A call for culturally affirming education. Interdisciplinary Journal of Teaching and Learning, 3(2), 117-129.

Boysen, G. A. (2012). Teacher and student perceptions of microaggressions in college classrooms. College Teaching, 60(3), 122-129.

Kohli, R., & Solórzano, D. G. (2012). Teachers, please learn our names!: Racial microagressions and the K-12 classroom. Race Ethnicity and Education, 15(4), 441-462.

Nadal, K. L., Wong, Y., Griffin, K. E., Davidoff, K., & Sriken, J. (2014). The adverse impact of racial microaggressions on college students' self-esteem. Journal of college student development, Journal of College Student Development 55(5), 461-474.

Nadal, K., Griffin, K., Wong, Y., Hamit, S., & Rasmus, M. (2014). The impact of racial microaggressions on mental health: Counseling implications for clients of color. Journal of Counseling and Development, 92(1), 57-66. Retrieved September 9, 2015.

Solorzano, D., Ceja, M., & Yosso, T. (2000). Critical race theory, racial microaggressions, and campus racial climate: The experiences of African American college students. Journal of Negro Education, 60-73.

Sue, D. W., & Constantine, M. G. (2007). Racial Microaggressions as instigators of difficult dialogues on race: Implications for student affairs, educators, and students. College Student Affairs Journal, 26(2), 136-143.