Documentation:Inclusive Teaching/Microaggressions in the classroom

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What are microaggressions?

Microaggressions are brief and often subtle actions, remarks, or visual cues in our everyday interactions that communicate negative ideas about a group of people, usually a socially marginalized group (Sue et al., 2007). Microaggressions can be intentional or unintentional, but they have hurtful impacts regardless of the intent. The prefix “micro-” indicates that these acts happen at a micro level (e.g., daily interactions in relatively closed or private settings) as opposed to a macro level (e.g., publicly organized demonstrations of hate, institutional discriminatory acts). Yet, it does not mean that these acts are insignificant. In fact, the hard-to-name and often subtle nature of microaggressions is what makes them so harmful and persistent. Microaggressions are comprised of three categories: microassault, microinsult and microinvalidation.


Microassaults are usually conscious and deliberate acts that can be communicated verbally or non-verbally. Some examples of microassaults in the classroom are:

  • Hateful comments or graffiti left on the blackboard
  • Use of a derogatory or hateful term to refer to a group of people in class discussions
  • Student consciously avoids forming a group with peers of a minority group for a group assignment


Microinsults are subtle verbal or non-verbal communications that demean a social group or identity. Microinsults are often unconscious and unintentional, but the demeaning message is clear to the person on the receiving end. Some examples of microinsults in the classroom are:

  • Student questions the qualification or intelligence of a woman instructor of colour
  • Instructor gives an example that communicates a negative stereotype of a developing country
  • Student silences or alienates a peer in small group discussions with dismissive comments or ignores the peer’s opinions


Microinvalidations are communications that negate, dismiss, or deny a person’s world views, feelings or lived reality. Some examples of microinvalidations in the classroom are:

  • Instructor denies or dismisses an accusation of racism: “I don’t see race in my students”
  • Student negates a peer’s lived experience of discrimination as just a matter of perception: “You are oversensitive”
  • Instructor denies systemic inequalities by telling minority students: “You will succeed if you work hard enough”

Why do microaggressions matter to teaching and learning?

Microaggressions are common in the classroom: a recent study suggests that they happen in nearly 30% of college classrooms (Suárez-Orozco et al., 2015). They can happen not only in face-to-face classrooms but also in online classrooms (Clark, Werth, & Ahten, 2012).

No matter how subtle microaggressions may be, when students repeatedly experience invalidation, denigration, and insult, they are affected by disruptive emotions (e.g., frustration, anger) and a low self-esteem, resulting in the depletion of energy to fully engage in learning processes (Nadal, Wong, Griffin, Davidoff, & Sriken, 2014; Sue, Lin, Torino, Capodilupo, & Rivera, 2009).

Microaggressions inside and outside the classroom create an unwelcoming campus climate (Berk, 2017b; Yosso, Smith, Ceja, & Solórzano, 2009). Addressing microaggressions in your classroom is a small, and yet crucial, step toward creating learning environments where all students can feel a sense of belonging and thrive to their full potential.

What can instructors do about microaggressions?

As a witness

Instructors have a responsibility to respond — however small or imperfect the response may be. Doing nothing can send a message to students that microaggressions are acceptable.

You can follow the steps below — adapted from the A.C.T.I.O.N. framework by Cheung, Ganote, and Souza (2016). Writing down the steps on the blackboard can help guide the conversation with students:

  • Ask clarifying questions to the person whose behaviour you see as a microaggression in order to understand what happened. (e.g., “I want to make sure that I understand what you were saying. Were you saying that...?”)
  • Carefully listen to what they have to say.

  • Tell your observation in a factual manner (e.g., “I noticed that...”). Here, focus on describing what the person did, instead of evaluating the action or the person (e.g., “You are homophobic”).
  • Impact: Discuss the potential impact of the microaggression on others without singling out the person whom you think was affected by the incident (e.g., “How do you think this type of comment would make other people feel?”). Focus on the impact of the microaggression, instead of the intent.
  • Own your thoughts and feelings around the impact of the microaggression. (e.g., “When I hear your comment, I think/feel...”)

Next steps

Request or inquire desired outcomes (e.g., “What are some of the actions we can take to create a classroom environment where everyone can feel a sense of belonging and respect?”).

Even if you cannot remember these steps on the spot, you can disrupt the moment by disagreeing (e.g., “I must disagree with that”), questioning what happened (e.g., “Can you tell me how you know that?”) or delaying your response (e.g., “I’m not sure what to say right now, but I feel that this is something important. Let’s talk about this in our next class.”).

If appropriate or necessary, you can follow up with students individually. For example, inviting the student who initiated a microaggression to come talk to you can help them reflect and grow. In addition, reaching out to the student who was targeted by the incident shows your care and support.

As a target

When you become the target of microaggressions in the classroom, you can also follow the A.C.T.I.O.N. steps above to help you navigate the moment.

Instructors can also experience microaggressions through negative student evaluation of teaching (Berk, 2017c). Especially, instructors of minority backgrounds tend to be put in a vulnerable position in their tenure and promotion processes as a result (MacNell, Driscoll, & Hunt, 2015; Wagner, Rieger, & Voorvelt, 2016). Seek support and advice from others, such as your mentor, colleagues, and the Equity & Inclusion Office.

As a perpetrator

One study found that instructors were the most common perpetrators of microaggressions, questioning the intelligence and competence of students (Suárez-Orozco et al., 2015). Because microaggressions are often unconscious and unintentional, we may not realize the impact of our behaviour until someone points it out. When someone questions your action or comment, you can follow the steps below to understand and act on your mistake (Utt, 2013):

  • Listen to understand the impact of your behaviour.
  • Reflect to gain some understanding of the harm caused.
  • Apologize without caveat. Focus on the role you played and the impact it had, instead of asking the person to trust that your act was unintentional.
  • Do better. Translate your learning into action, and continue to learn more about related issues (e.g., implicit bias, privilege) to avoid making the same mistake again.

Points for critical consideration

Because studies primarily rely on self-reports (Berk, 2017c), some people question the claims of harms caused. However, remember that we live in a society dominated by the perspectives of privileged groups (Rivera, 2010). Questioning the legitimacy of someone else’s experience can be a form of microinvalidation (i.e., invalidating their lived realities) and aggravate the damage.

Each act of microaggression may be minor and unintentional. However, consider the constant, cumulative, and corrosive nature of microaggressions. For those who continuously experience slights and indignities, even a small and unintentional incident can be felt like an ‘aggression’ and seriously damage their emotional and mental wellbeing (Berk, 2017a).

Works cited

Berk, R. A. (2017a). Microaggressions trilogy: Part 1. Why do microaggressions matter? Journal of Faculty Development, 31(1), 63–73.

Berk, R. A. (2017b). Microaggressions trilogy: Part 2. Microaggressions in the academic workplace. Journal of Faculty Development, 31(2), 69–83.

Berk, R. A. (2017c). Microaggressions trilogy: Part 3. Microaggressions in the classroom. Journal of Faculty Development, 31(3), 95–110.

Cheung, F., Ganote, C., & Souza, T. (2016). Microaggressions and microresistance: Supporting and empowering students. Diversity and Inclusion in the College Classroom, 15–17.

Clark, C. M., Werth, L., & Ahten, S. (2012). Cyber-bullying and incivility in the online learning environment, Part 1: Addressing faculty and student perceptions. Nurse Educator, 37(4), 150–156.

MacNell, L., Driscoll, A., & Hunt, A. N. (2015). What’s in a name: Exposing gender bias in student ratings of teaching. Innovative Higher Education, 40(4), 291–303.

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, 55(5), 461–474.

Rivera, D. P. (2010, October 11). The power to define reality. Retrieved November 24, 2017, from

Suárez-Orozco, C., Casanova, S., Martin, M., Katsiaficas, D., Cuellar, V., Smith, N. A., & Dias, S. I. (2015). Toxic rain in class: Classroom interpersonal microaggressions. Educational Researcher, 44(3), 151–160.

Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M. B., Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist, 62(4), 271–286.

Sue, D. W., Lin, A. I., Torino, G. C., Capodilupo, C. M., & Rivera, D. P. (2009). Racial microaggressions and difficult dialogues on race in the classroom. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 15(2), 183–190.

Utt, J. (2013, July 30). Intent vs. impact: Why your intentions don’t really matter. Retrieved November 27, 2017, from

Wagner, N., Rieger, M., & Voorvelt, K. (2016). Gender, ethnicity and teaching evaluations: Evidence from mixed teaching teams. Economics of Education Review, 54, 79–94.

Yosso, T., Smith, W., Ceja, M., & Solórzano, D. (2009). Critical race theory, racial microaggressions, and campus racial climate for Latina/o undergraduates. Harvard Educational Review, 79(4), 659–691.