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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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):
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).
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. https://doi.org/10.1097/NNE.0b013e31825a87e5
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. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10755-014-9313-4
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. https://doi.org/10.1353/csd.2014.0051
Rivera, D. P. (2010, October 11). The power to define reality. Retrieved November 24, 2017, from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/microaggressions-in-everyday-life/201010/the-power-define-reality
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. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.62.4.271
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 https://everydayfeminism.com/2013/07/intentions-dont-really-matter/
Wagner, N., Rieger, M., & Voorvelt, K. (2016). Gender, ethnicity and teaching evaluations: Evidence from mixed teaching teams. Economics of Education Review, 54, 79–94. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.econedurev.2016.06.004
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. https://doi.org/10.17763/haer.79.4.m6867014157m707l