Teaching About and Addressing Microaggressions
- Author: Elizabeth Harsma
- Many thanks to Angelica Aguirre, Jess Schomberg, Kerry Diekmann, & Laura Maki for serving as peer reviewers of this article.
This article is an overview of information to support teaching about and addressing microaggressions:
- What are microaggressions?
- What are examples of subtle acts of exclusion in higher education?
- Why teach students about microaggressions?
- Preparing to teach about subtle acts of exclusion
- Instructional techniques for teaching about microaggressions
- How to address microaggressions
What are microaggressions?
Microaggressions are brief, indirect verbal and non-verbal put-downs or insults that are expressed toward a marginalized group (Sue & Spanierman, 2020). Micro refers to the interpersonal and subtle nature of these acts and aggression points at the significant harm these exchanges cause (Sue & Spanierman, 2020; Reid, Scott, Dover & Berry, 2022)
Microaggressions have also been called “subtle acts of exclusion” which describe the “range of issues related to discrimination, offense, and exclusion against any marginalized group” (Jana & Baran, 2020, p. 13). This article uses the terms microaggression and subtle acts of exclusion interchangeably.
Subtle acts of exclusion can be related to:
- Sexual orientation,
- Social class, and
- among other identities.
Microaggressions are the result of implicit bias that everyone carries with them. Unexamined implicit bias causes us to form inaccurate assumptions about marginalized groups. As a result, subtle acts of exclusion are often committed unintentionally. They can even occur when someone is trying to be funny, demonstrate care, give a compliment, or be curious. Examples: “Where are you really from?” “You’re so well spoken!” These acts carry harmful messages like “you don’t belong” or “you are a curiosity” (CORA Learning, 2020; Jana & Baran, 2020; Sue & Spanierman, 2020).
What are examples of subtle acts of exclusion in higher education?
In higher education, microaggressions can be committed by students, faculty, staff, administrators. They can occur in the classroom, hallway, office spaces, during class – anywhere an interpersonal exchange may occur.
Microaggressions can occur in any class modality including:
- Synchronous online,
- Asynchronous online and
- other mixed modality courses (Sue & Spanierman, 2020; CORA Learning, 2020).
Common examples of microaggressions committed by faculty toward students in a teaching and learning context:
- Mispronouncing students’ names or using incorrect pronouns repeatedly,
- Calling on or responding in online discussions to more men and ignoring women -or- calling on or responding in online discussions to more white students and ignoring students of other racial identities,
- Scheduling projects and exams during religious or cultural celebrations -or-assigning projects that disregard socioeconomic status, and
- Absence or tokenization of diverse scholars or perspectives in curriculum, such as using heteronormative examples/assumptions,
- Expressing surprise at the quality of course work of students with marginalized identities,
- Speaking extra slow/loud or correcting pronunciation to “standard English,”
- Culture of mistrust, assumptions that some students are more likely to cheat or plagiarize, among other examples (Focused.Arts.Media.Education, 2017; CORA Learning, 2020; Sue & Spanierman, 2020).
Common examples of microaggressions committed by students toward fellow students in a teaching and learning context:
- Ignoring or devaluing the contributions of a specific group member in discussions/projects,
- Expressing surprise at the intelligence or achievement of students with marginalized identities,
- Sharing inaccurate, stereotypical, or biased content in a class or small group discussion, and
- Assuming a student will speak for, or act as a representative of, the marginalized group(s) they belong to, among other examples (CORA Learning, 2020; Sue & Spanierman, 2020).
Why teach students about microaggressions?
- Physical effects such as fatigue, decreased immune function, elevated blood pressure and heart rate, increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, asthma;
- Cognitive effects such as cognitive disruption, diverted attention, impacted learning and problem-solving, stereotype threat (See Steele, 2010; Schmader & Hall, 2014);
- Emotional effects such as anger, rage, anxiety, depression, hopelessness; and
- Behavioral effects such as hypervigilance, skepticism, avoidance, disengagement, and forced compliance to a normative standard (Sue & Spanierman, 2020; Jana & Baran, 2020)
Teaching about microaggressions can help prevent harm and be an important way to support students’ wellbeing, learning, sense of belonging, and success in academic spaces (Jana & Baran, 2020; Sue & Spanierman, 2020).
Microaggressions are a form of oppression that uphold the inequitable power structure of the society we live in. Sue and Spanierman (2020) write that when microaggressions are ignored, minimized, or dismissed that “denial of power and privilege is really a denial of personal benefits that accrue to certain privileged groups by virtue of inequities. The denial that we profit from [racism, sexism, ableism, etc…] is really a denial of responsibility” (p. 53). Teaching about and addressing microaggressions is one way to accept responsibility and act to uphold a more equitable power dynamic in your courses.
Preparing to teach about subtle acts of exclusion
Prioritize a culture of care.
Because of the harmful impacts of microaggressive stress on targets/subjects and on observers/allies, it is important to prioritize a culture of care in the classroom. Further, implicit bias is most likely to drive behavior in situations where there are one or more of these factors:
- Ambiguous/incomplete information. Example: Text-based communication that does not include indicators of tone or emotion of the message; Use of idiomatic expressions or devices such as sarcasm or irony, that may have more than one meaning/interpretation.
- Time constraint. Example: Working under a quickly approaching deadline
- Compromise to cognitive control. Example: High stress, lack of sleep (CORA Learning, 2020).
So, it is also important for potential initiators/perpetrators to attend to mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing as a step to avoid committing harmful acts (Aguirre, 2022; Reid, Scott, Dover, & Berry, 2022). Some ways to prioritize a culture of care:
- Engage in self-care. Engage in your own self-care practices such as therapy/counseling, regular activity, adequate sleep, social connections, spiritual practices, and more.
- Share resources. Share and regularly remind students of University resources to support wellbeing.
- Revisit policies. Consider flexible attendance, due date, and evaluation policies.
- Normalize help seeking. Normalize help seeking and well-being checks in your courses, offer multiple modalities to seek help such as in person, synchronous and asynchronous online, as well as anonymous options when appropriate. Consider open ended questions and/or choose selected response questions such as Likert scale to assure feasibility in larger courses.
- Follow-up on feedback. When you ask students to check in, be sure to share a response. If it is not feasible to respond to every student check-in individually, address the class in general and point to specific resources and answers to frequent questions. If gathering feedback, address what you plan to change or if you are not planning to make a change, share why not.
Establish shared expectations and values
Another step to proactively teach about microaggressions is to establish community/class expectations for behavior at the beginning of the semester:
- Establish expectations. Share expectations as an inclusive teaching stattement or class policy. You might co-create expectations with students. Establish clear outcomes/consequences for not meeting expectations.
- Prepare for collaboration. Consider engaging students in practicing conflict management and effective collaboration skills as preparation for discussions or group work.
Be sure to take time to explain expectations, review them regularly, and point out their alignment with the program, college, and/or University policies and goals for equity and inclusion (CORA Learning, 2020).
Raise sociopolitical and racial consciousness
Addressing microaggressions in the classroom requires that individuals engage in ongoing learning to build capacity in recognizing subtle acts of exclusion and in managing their own implicit bias (Sue & Spanierman, 2020; Jana & Banan, 2020).
- Personal/professional development. Engage in your own personal and professional development around implicit bias and social justice in the context of your discipline,
- Guide students. Support students in raising sociopolitical and racial consciousness through social justice focused content, examples, case studies, discussions, reflections, assessments or projects, research ethics, etc…
Prepare for difficult conversations
There is also a need for educators to take steps to prepare themselves for difficult or challenging conversations when teaching about microaggressions, including steps such as:
- Create definitions. Creating your own way to define and understand subtle acts of exclusion and challenging conversations on race,
- Understand your lenses. Understand your racial/cultural lenses and to avoid imposing your values or biases on situations,
- Manage bias. Acknowledge your own biases and prejudices that are a result of social conditioning,
- Build comfort/skill. Build emotional comfort in dealing with race and racism and cultivate skills in recognizing and managing your own emotions, and
- Manage process, not content. Learn how to control the process, not the content of difficult dialogues – such as recognizing and addressing defensiveness, minimization, or blaming when discussing race (Sue & Spanierman, 2020).
Instructional techniques for teaching about microaggressions
Sue and Spanierman (2020) reported that faculty who educate their students on microaggressions used a variety of instructional techniques:
- Class discussions,
- Small group discussion, and
- Sharing personal narratives/examples, among other approaches.
Regardless of instructional approach, faculty reported the most successful experiences occurred within an established learning community of respect and accountability that prepared students for difficult dialogues in the classroom (Sue & Spanierman, 2020).
Research reporting on faculty teaching about microaggressions found curriculum included topics such as:
- Definition and identification of microaggressions,
- Impact of microaggressions,
- Difficult dialogues about race and other identities,
- Implicit bias,
- Multicultural training, and
- White fragility (Sue & Spanierman, 2020).
Additional techniques for teaching about microaggressions included:
- Work to sustain dialogue. Don’t let conversation to stall or brew in silence. Instead consider one of three options:
- Tell the group that they will continue the conversation in the next class session to allow everyone to process thoughts and emotions,
- Personally intervene to engage students to paraphrase what was said back to one another, and/or
- Ask the class to reflect or paraphrase back what they heard: “What do you see happening between these students?” (Sue & Spanierman, 2020)
- Validate student efforts. Express appreciation and validation of students’ courage and willingness to share and engage in challenging conversations throughout the class (Sue & Spanierman, 2020).
- Offer opportunity for rehearsal of intervention skills. Engage students in rehearsing their intervention skills. Provide ways students can practice identify and address subtle acts of exclusion through case study analysis, discussion, and other techniques (Parsons, Rollyson & Reid, 2012; Parsons, Rollyson & Reid, 2013).
- Build in feedback to hone skill. Build in various ways students can receive feedback on their rehearsal/practice through self-reflection/assessment, structured peer feedback, and/or instructor feedback (Parsons, Rollyson & Reid, 2012; Parsons, Rollyson & Reid, 2013).
How to address microaggressions
To reduce potential harm, it is important to consider ways to address or take action when a microaggression has been committed. Here we share some ways to address microaggressions when they occur. These strategies could be used as an intervention or one way to teach students how to intervene when they observe microaggressions.
What if I notice I’ve committed a microaggression?
When you’ve notice you’ve committed a subtle act of exclusion, avoid defensiveness, minimization, and blaming. Instead, stop and address it. You might say something like: “I am so sorry. I am very certain that I’ve just said something that hurt you, and I think I know why. But I’d like to hear from your perspective what just happened here” (Focused.Arts.Media.Education, 2017).
It is important to note that apologizing can be an important step, however, an apology may also become a microaggression if the target/subject becomes obligated to comfort and/or accept an apology from an offender.
If someone else has given you feedback about a microaggression you’ve committed, avoid defensiveness, minimization, or blaming. Listen, thank them for educating you, and address the feedback. You might say something like: “Thank you for sharing that feedback with me. I see that I caused harm when I [briefly describe what occurred]. In the future, I will [explain an inclusive alternative to what was said or done.]”
If you recognize you’ve committed a microaggression after the exchange has occurred, you might address this the next time you meet with the class or individual. In online asynchronous courses, you might post a brief de-brief video or explanation. You might say something like: “I am sorry. I didn’t show up or act the way I hoped to, and I am certain that I caused harm by saying/doing [explain what was said/done]. I would like to correct this to be in alignment with our class expectation of [explain shared value], and instead say/do [explain an inclusive alternative to what was said or done.]
What if I notice a student in my class has committed a subtle act of exclusion?
If you notice a microaggression has occurred in your class, the RAVEN approach can help you respond and to address the behavior proactively (CORA Learning, 2020). You could find additional ideas in this article 10 in the Moment Responses for Addressing Microaggressions (Pittman, 2021).
The steps in the RAVEN approach may be combined or completed non-sequentially. They are meant to serve as a guiding framework for intervention:
- Redirect: Intervene as soon as possible to stop further harm from taking place.
- In a face-to-face or synchronous online classroom, this might mean pausing the class session and questioning or correcting an incorrect statement.
- You might say something like: “I think we just had a difficult comment made in the room” and open a class discussion about the issue (Focused.Arts.Media.Education, 2017).
- You might also pause and have a brief, individual conference with the perpetrator/initiator.
- Asynchronous classes might require deleting a comment and then setting up a meeting with the initiator to discuss then de-briefing with the whole class later.
- Ask: Ask clarifying questions to assure you understood what occurred and to make visible the invisible message of the microaggression: “I think I heard you say…. What did you mean by that?” “I want to make sure I understand what you were saying, where you saying that…?”
- Values: Clarify shared values to remind the individual that their behavior is not in alignment with the values of the class, program, or department and it is not appropriate to act in that way:
- “You know, in this [department/class/program] we work hard to create a space that is safe and welcoming for all students.”
- “What you just said is not in alignment and/or is inconsistent with our [institutional/department/program/class] values that prioritize equity and inclusion.”
- Emphasize: Express empathy about the situation by emphasizing your own thoughts and feelings:
- “When I hear your comments, I think/feel…”
- “Many people might take that to mean…”
- “In my experience…[when someone says or does this, these are the consequences]”
- Next Steps: End the conversation with concrete feedback and next steps to assist the perpetrator/initiator in what to do differently.
- You might refer them to resources or training that can help them build capacity to avoid this in the future
- “The next time you encounter this situation, you may want to consider doing…[share an alternative inclusive behavior, training, resources]” (CORA Learning, 2020; Sue & Spanierman, 2020).
Example of a RAVEN intervention
The table shares an example from CORA Learning (2020) of a RAVEN intervention for the following microaggression committed in an online text-based discussion.
Example: In a sociology class, when responding to a prompt about race as a social construct, a student wrote in a discussion post: “We should get rid of the concept of race. If no one has to identify as a race then there isn’t room to be racist and minorities can stop playing the race card” Another student responded saying that race isn’t the problem, racism is, giving an example. The original poster said that the example was a “figment of imagination” and that “people like them” were overly sensitive and need to stop whining about everything (CORA Learning, 2020).
|R – Redirect||Address the behavior with a comment/reply in the discussion and/or by deleting the comments, communicating with the student privately.|
|A – Ask||In the discussion you might ask the student: Are you suggesting that racism really doesn’t exist and that people of color are not affected by it? -or- Wouldn’t you agree that being able to ignore or disregard race is a privilege that only afforded by white folks, because people of color are reminded everyday of their status in the United States?|
|V – Values||Remind the student of community norms and expectations, something like “It’s ok to critique ideas, but isn’t acceptable to use personality attacks or attack others based on their identity.”|
|E – Emphasize||Express empathy by sharing how the comment impacted you: “I find myself frustrated when people who haven’t walked in my shoes and experienced some of the days I’ve had to deal with tell me to get over it.” -or- I would imagine that many people who deal with difficult situations because of racism, would feel frustrated when others tell them to stop playing the race card and get over racism.”|
|N – Next Steps||Direct the student and/or the entire class in reading, video, or other resource to learn about systemic racism.
Approaches for educating an initiator
Sue and Spanierman (2020) suggest some specific ways you might educate initiators when addressing a microaggression:
- Help perpetrators differentiate between good intent and harmful impact: “I know you meant well or meant it as a joke, but it really hurts/really offended [name of target/subject/me].
- Contradict the group-based stereotype with opposing evidence by personalizing to specific individuals: “Are you talking about someone in particular?” or “Actually, I’ve met many individuals [of that identity] and they [give counter example].”
- Appeal to values and principles: “I know you really care about [initiator’s value/principle], but acting in that way undermines those intentions.”
- Point out commonalities: “That is a negative stereotype about [marginalized group]. Have you talked to [other student in class with this identity]? You two have a lot in common like, [share commonality].”
- Promote empathy: “The majority of [marginalized group] want the same things as you. Do you know how [Name other student in class with this identity] must feel being described that way? How might you feel if someone said or did the same thing about you? Can you place yourself in their shoes?”
- Point out initiator’s benefit: “I know you are studying [subject]. Learning why these stereotypes are harmful can help you be a better [career choice].”
It may also be important to check-in with the whole class or privately with specific individuals or groups, such as targets and observers of the microaggression to de-brief with them about the intervention and encourage help seeking, should they need additional support.
Considerations for intervening
It is essential to consider context when as an observer/ally you are considering intervention. An observer may infringe upon a target’s privacy if they do not carefully consider the context of the situation. Sue & Spanierman (2020) discuss five things to consider:
- Pick your battles. Microaggressions occur frequently and for self-care and security, consider if the subtle act of exclusion warrants action.
- Consider where and when you choose to address the offender. When called out, perpetrators/initiators often respond with defensiveness, minimization, or blaming that can cause further harm. To minimize additional harm, consider if intervention should be in public or private; in the moment or at a later time.
- Adjust your response as the situation warrants. Does the situation require education or confrontation? Consider a collaborative tone/approach to lower defensiveness.
- Be aware of relationship factors and dynamics with perpetrators. The relationship between subject and initiator influences how to respond. Education may be more of a priority for a colleague or student than for a stranger.
- Always consider the consequences of intervention, especially when a strong power differential exists between initiator and subject. Intervention can lead to putting the target, observer/ally at additional risk or negative outcomes.
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