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Addressing Microaggressions

What are microaggressions?

Microaggressions are: "Brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group" (Sue, Capodilupo, Torino, Bucceri, Holder, Nadal, et al., 2007, p.273).

Common categories of microaggressions

  • Ascription of intelligence (e.g. unintelligent or smarter than average based on appearance or accent)
  • Denial of racial reality (e.g. dismissing claims that race was relevant to understanding a student’s experience)
  • Denial or devaluing of experience or culture (e.g. ignoring the existence, histories, cultures of groups of people – assuming that others are like you)
  • Making judgments about belonging (e.g. assuming people are foreign or don’t speak English well because of their appearance; questioning someone’s membership status such as “you don’t look disabled” or “you don’t seem that gay to me” or “if you were Jewish, wouldn’t you do x?”)
  • Assumption of criminality (e.g. guarding belongings more carefully when around certain groups or expressing fear of certain groups)
  • Assumption of immorality (e.g. assuming that poor people, undereducated people, LGBTQ people, or people of color are more likely to be devious, untrustworthy, or unethical)

Microaggression Guidance

Before microaggressions happen:

  • Recognize and reflect on your own biases, interactions, and behaviors.
  • Understand a general definition of microaggressions. Consider the various ways that they might manifest themselves, and the impact they will have on everyone in the learning environment.
  • Understand intent vs. impact: that good intentions can have harmful impacts.
  • Understand your own triggers and unpack them: what makes you uncomfortable, and why? How can you work with and through this discomfort?
  • In the beginning, focus on collaboratively establishing classroom norms for discussion or dialogue.

When microaggressions happen:

  • Acknowledge the moment and immediately take the lead in addressing the situation (slow down or stop the conversation).
  • Breathe. Pause. Stay as calm as possible.
  • Return to the class norms. Hold everyone accountable for their actions and ask for clarification. Explain why the incident is problematic. Support students in critical reflection on the situation.
  • Acknowledge the emotions in the room, both visible and invisible. Ask students if they would like to stay in class or take a break/leave.
  • While acknowledging the impact, make sure to validate and support those who have been targeted.
  • Follow up as needed, e.g. revisit in next class and/or see individuals after class. Identify other people as sources of support.

What to avoid when intervening in microaggressions:

  • Taking a passive approach and letting the class direct the discussion.
  • Disengaging from the conversation by accepting superficial responses or dismissing the topic.
  • Responding with hostility.
  • Looking to marginalized students/instructors to be experts on issues related to their identity group.
  • Giving full attention to the perpetrator while ignoring the target(s) of the microaggression
  • Focusing on (or allowing a focus on) debates about:
    • The intent of the micro-aggressor
    • What each person said or did
    • Who's right or wrong