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Four comment bubbles that show examples of common microaggressions: 1. You speak English so well! 2. Where are you from originally? 3. This writing doesn't sound like you. 4. You don't write with an a


Mon Jan 13, 2020 at 07:30 AM

Microaggressions are the ways language, behavior, and climate subtly communicate prejudice and other biases. While those who deliver microaggressions might not be aware of their actions, they still communicate to certain groups that they are looked at as “other.”

Researchers offer different ways to classify and define types of microaggressions. Sometimes microaggression come out in well-intended compliments (“You speak English so well!” and “You don’t write with an accent.”) or simply trying to get to know someone (“Where are you from originally?”). The trouble arises in the assumptions one makes based on someone’s appearance. These examples are microaggressions one might experience if their name or race seems foreign.

Other microaggressions may be less complimentary, such as words used to identify groups also used as derogatory terms (“That’s so gay.”) to holding lower expectations (“This writing doesn’t sound like you.”). Even these microaggressions may not be malevolent or intentional, but they can still offend marginalized group for valid reasons.

Criticisms claim that fixation on microaggressions can create a “victimhood culture,” which could cause students to dwell on the harm such intentional or unintentional comments could cause them (if they are, indeed, microaggressions) rather than brushing them off and moving on. Some also fear that by making people afraid of committing microaggressions, people in turn will be less likely to engage with people unlike themselves for fear of saying the wrong thing. Moreover, some claim “microaggressions” is a problematic term--an oxymoron of sorts--while the problem is interpreted differently: Lillenfeld (2017) claimed “aggression” is the problem, while Kendi (2019) claimed that calling these aggressions “micro” misrepresents the significant harm.

Research in a range of disciplines has substantiated concerns about the impact of microaggressions on mental and physical health, which is generally deemed damaging. For instance, studies have found exposure to microaggressions to contribute to considerable psychological and emotional pain, including anxiety, depression, sleep difficulties, isolation, diminished confidence, loss of drive, and feelings of helplessness and despair. (Select sources: Mohajeri, forthcoming 2020; Murphy, 2012; Ong & Burrow, 2017; Sue et al., 2007)

Applications for Faculty

Faculty want their students to learn in an environment that is welcoming and inclusive but not at the cost of discussing challenging ideas. Faculty are not expected to perfectly know how to define and navigate microaggressions, but they should be prepared to detect and act when microaggression takes place before it disrupts the learning environment.

Suggestions for Faculty

  1. Suspend assumptions about students. Even if we are committed to treating students fairly and not discriminating, it is hard to guard ourselves from making assumptions about students from the first time we read their names in the class roster. Always suspend judgment until you have clear evidence of someone’s learning and abilities.
  2. Relate microaggressions to your courses. Consider whether certain microaggressions are likely to arise based on your discipline, discussions, activities, and typical student population.
  3. Mentally walk through a plan for handling microaggressions. What would you do if a student-to-student microaggression occurred in class? Imagine the situations that could arise and how you would deal with them. If you witness one in class, when would it warrant an open discussion with the class versus talking with the student outside of class? When does a microaggression warrant consultation with the Dean of Students? Hypothesizing these situations could help you make calm, sound judgments in a potentially tense moment.

Columbia’s Inclusive Teaching online course offers helpful modules on microaggressions, with many videos featuring Derald Wing Sue among other influential voices and valuable perspectives on microaggression:

Reflect on your vulnerability. Everyone carries cultural biases with them. Reflect on whether things you say or judgments you make could make a student feel uncomfortable. Such practices could include assuming that a student of another race, gender, or other group can speak for that entire group (called a “token minority”). Microaggressions can surface with benign or even benevolent intentions, so we should not underestimate their power to seep into our communication with students.

References and Resources

Kendi, I. X. (2019). How to be an antiracist. New York: One World Publishing

Lillenfeld, S. O. (2017). Microaggressions: Strong claims, inadequate evidence. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12(1).

Mohajeri, O. (Forthcoming, 2020). Microaggressions. In The SAGE Encyclopedia of Higher Education, M. J. & David, M. E. (Eds.). 5th ed. Volume editor: Rebecca Ropers-Huilman.

Murphy, M. C., Richeson, J. A., Shelton, J.N., Rheinschmidt, M. L., & Bergsieker, H.B. (2012). Cognitive costs of contemporary prejudice. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 1-12.

Nigatu, H. (2013 Dec 9). 21 racial microagressions you hear on a daily basis. Buzz Feed.

Ong, A. D., & Burrow, A. L. (2017). Microaggressions and daily experience: Depicting life as it is lived. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12(1).

Runyowa, S. (2015 Sep 18). Microaggressions matter. The Atlantic.

Sue, D. W. et al. (2007 May-Jun). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist, 62(4), 271-286. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.62.4.271

Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, gender, and sexual orientation. John Wiley & Sons

Zamudio-Suaréz, F. (2016 Oct 28). “Not your language”: How a classroom interaction led a student to speak out on microaggressions. The Chronicle of Higher Education

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About the Author

Written by Christina Moore, Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and Adina Schneeweis, associate professor of journalism at OU. Others may share and adapt under Creative Commons License CC BY-NC

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