Microaggressions in the Classroom

Discussion and disruption to reduce and end harmful language and behaviors

As a white, privileged, cisgender, heterosexual male, I can walk into most situations with people of my own race, or with mixed race, gender, sexual orientation, or socio-economic status groups, and not have to be on my guard. I do not have to worry if others think I legitimately belong there because of course I do. Nobody wonders how I got my job, and my input is most often given credibility. I do not spend excess energy in the form of stress hormones, which affect the body and emotions in a myriad of negative ways, worrying about any of that, nor do I have to deflect little, perpetrator-unaware “digs” at me based on skin color, culture, socio-economic status, or sexual orientation. I can go through life fairly oblivious, assuming others experience interactions, privileges, freedoms, and status as I do.

This leads to deeply hurtful things, of course, dismissed or furthered by me and my kind, including a very real “blindness” to what others suffer through every day and sometimes hourly. And here I claim to be a conscientious educator. Hmm.

Becoming keenly aware of the microaggressions students and colleagues suffer daily, and committing ourselves to reducing and ending them, is a good use of conversation and extended action. It is not political correctness run amok, though most claims of such are the lament of those who don’t realize that society is maturing and trying to be more respectful of others for our collective good. For whites, males, and heterosexuals, try driving, shopping, banking, jogging, investing, renting, managing, traveling, dating, or practicing religious faith while Black, Asian, Hispanic, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, a woman, homosexual, transgender, or any other kind of perceived other: It’s sobering.

Defining Microaggression

Let’s explore what we mean by the term, microaggression:

  • We demonstrate surprise when a boy has good handwriting or prefers theater to sports, or when a girl is good at calculus and engineering.
  • We express confusion when a group of students of Asian descent aren’t good at math.
  • We tell obese students that they lack self-discipline or don’t care enough to make better meal choices.
  • We scoff at an overwhelmed new teacher in the first week of school who has not yet read the classic novels she will be teaching this year.
  • We assign a project that requires the purchase of supplies, though some families do not have the money to spend.
  • We fake-smile (it doesn’t reach our eyes) in the company of a student, but our body language says we’d rather be somewhere else.
  • We don’t try to pronounce a student’s name correctly as it is from a culture with which we are not familiar. Instead, we decide to call him, “Sam,” because it’s just easier to remember.
  • We use a derogatory term for Native Americans for the name of a sports team, or revere statues of military leaders who led the fight to oppress a race of people. (Okay, some of these aren’t so micro.)
  • We schedule debates and field trips on days that are major holidays for some students.
  • We require students to complete online modules after school hours, assuming all students have access to the Internet at home.
  • Our required reading list for each grade level is made of books focusing only on white protagonists or is devoid of authors of color.
  • Our classrooms, school publications, and teacher trainings use pictures of students from one race, and none show children with varying disabilities and genders.
  • We use an incorrect pronoun to refer to a transgender or gender-fluid student, even after being told by which pronoun he/she/they identify.
  • We vent in the teacher’s lounge about how hard it is to discern between students’ cultures, declaring, “Muslim, Hindu – They’re all the same.”
  • We state that a students’ parents can’t volunteer because they don’t speak English very well.
  • In a room full of students only half of which practice a Christian faith, an administrator leads a non-denominational prayer before a celebration, but ends with, “We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.”

The University of Denver Center for Multicultural Excellence provided further examples in their publication, Microaggressions in the Classroom (http://otl.du.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/MicroAggressionsInClassroom-DUCME.pdf):

  • Setting low expectations for students from particular groups or neighborhoods.
  • Calling on and engaging one gender, class, or race of students while ignoring other students.
  • Anticipating students’ emotional responses based on gender, sexual orientation, race, or ethnicity.
  • Using inappropriate humor in class that degrades students from different groups.
  • Using the term “illegals” to reference undocumented students.
  • Denying the experiences of students by questioning the credibility and validity of their stories.
  • Using sexist language.

Though we claim to be non-racist and unbiased, we can perpetuate diminishing, hurtful microaggressions and outright bias with and without meaning it. Here are a few I’ve heard from teachers and colleagues while in the teaching field:

“They may be a little late to our meeting – They are on Mexican time, if you know what I mean.”

“Would you please get your kind of people to join in more?” (said by a white American administrator referring to Korean colleagues)

“Well, Jews are good with money, you know.”

“They’re just having babies to get on welfare and not have to work.”

“He plays for the other team, if you know what I mean.” (accompanied by knowing smirk)

“He’s a gamer, no social skills there.”

“This gender switching thing is just a phase.”

“Speak English. This is America.”

“I wasn’t being racist. That’s just how they interpreted it. I can’t help that.”

“So, it was off-color a bit. Learn to take a joke.”

“So many of our students are white, I don’t think an African American principal would understand our needs and do very well here.”

According to Dr. Derald Wing Sue of Columbia University who popularized the awareness of microaggressions,

“Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership … [T]hese hidden messages may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment … microaggressions are active manifestations … of our worldviews of inclusion/exclusion, superiority/inferiority, normality/abnormality, and desirability/undesirability.




Consider that last line again, that microaggressions express our unspoken, maybe unaware, views of who and what are preferred or normal and who and what are not. Remember the deeply offensive, slightly pink crayon in the crayon box identified as “flesh”? It’s as if we’re saying, “Your food/church/culture/hairstyle/clothing/customs/skin color are not my own, and mine is the dominant culture, so yours are not normal or worthy of my full respect. You don’t belong.” It reminds me of the oft-said line by comedian, Larry, the Cable Guy, “I don’t care who you are, that there is funny.” Sometimes, it’s not.

Dr. Sue claims that the most troublesome element of microaggressions is that we are unaware we are making them;

The most detrimental forms of microaggressions are usually delivered by well-intentioned individuals who are unaware that they have engaged in harmful conduct toward a socially devalued group … [N]one of us are immune from inheriting the racial, gender, and sexual orientation biases of our society. We have been socialized into racist, sexist and heterosexist attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. Much of this is outside the level of conscious awareness, thus we engage in actions that unintentionally oppress and discriminate against others.

On February 28, 2018, USAToday ran a piece by Alia E. Dastagir describing microaggressions occurring in our communities daily (https://tinyurl.com/y4pgv3g6). Among other examples, Dastagir included such actions as “complimenting” a gay person by saying, “but you’re not gay gay”; mistaking a female physician for a nurse; a Conservative Political Action Conference speaker, “declaring that Michael Steele only became Republican National Committee chairman in 2009, ‘because he was a black guy,'” and, “a New York Times editor tweeting, ‘Immigrants: they get the job done,’ with a video of Olympic figure skater Mirai Nagasu, who was born in California.”

In the same article, Dastagir connects the dots for us educators cogently:

A lot of people hear “microaggressions” and they think, “Oh, it’s just the little things that hurt people’s feelings,” said Roberto Montenegro, a chief fellow in child and adolescent psychiatry at Seattle Children’s Hospital. He studies the biological effects of discrimination. “It isn’t about having your feelings hurt. It’s about how being repeatedly dismissed and alienated and insulted and invalidated reinforces the differences in power and privilege, and how this perpetuates racism and discrimination.”

In her highly recommended book, So You Want to Talk about Race (Seal Press, 2018), Ijeoma Oluo, makes these aggressions real and jarring:

[B]eing a person of color in white dominated society is like being in an abusive relationship with the world. Every day is a new little hurt, a new little dehumanization. We walk around flinching, still in pain from the last hurt and dreading the next. But when we say, “this is hurting us,” a spotlight is shown on the freshest hurt, the bruise just forming. “Look at how small it is … Why are you making such a big deal about it? Everyone gets hurt from time to time” – while the world ignores that the rest of our bodies are covered in scars … [R]acial oppression is even harder to see than the abuse of a loved one, because the abuser is not one person, the abuser is the world around you, and the person inflicting pain in an individual instance may themselves have the best of intentions…

Imagine if you were walking down the street and every few minutes someone would punch you in the arm. You don’t know who will be punching you, and you don’t know why. You are hurt and wary and weary. You are trying to protect yourself, but you can’t get off this street. Then imagine somebody walks by, maybe gesticulating wildly in interesting conversation, and they punch you in the arm on accident. Now imagine this is the last straw, that this is where you scream. That person may not have meant to punch you in the arm, but the issue for you still is the fact that people keep punching you in the arm.

Regardless of why that last person punched you, there’s a pattern that needs to be addressed, and your sore arm is testimony to that. But what often happens instead is that people demand that you prove that each person who punched you in the arm in the past meant to punch you in the arm before they’ll acknowledge that too many people are punching you in the arm.—(Oluo, p. 19)

In The Culture Code (Bantam, 2018), Daniel Coyle reminds us of the 1965, “Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition” research by Harvard psychologist, Robert Rosenthal in which researchers identified the names of students who were special; they, ” … possessed ‘unusual potential for intellectual growth.’ (Students were not informed of the test results.)” (p. 164) These students did much better academically, were tenacious in their learning, and were enjoyed by their teachers to a higher degree. The test was bogus, of course, and the students were randomly assigned categories of special versus not-special, yet why did the students identified as special do better in almost all elements?

Coyle says the success was due to, “tiny behaviors over the school year,” clarifying,

Each time the student did something ambiguous, the teacher gave the student the benefit of the doubt … Each time the student made a mistake, the teacher presumed that the student needed better feedback … Together, they created a virtuous spiral that helped the student thrive in ways that exceeded their so-called limits.—(Coyle, p. 185-186)

It’s the little, interpersonal, systemic actions and words filtered through the lens through which the teacher sees the world that build up over time that harm or, in the bogus Harvard Test case, develop students and colleagues, not so much one overt, traumatic act. It’s death by a thousand cuts.

The American Psychological Association has several articles on microaggressions, including “Unmasking ‘racial micro aggressions'” by Tori DeAngelis (https://www.apa.org/monitor/2009/02/microaggression). She opens the piece with a real example of a white flight attendant asking two passengers at the front of the plane—one Asian-American and one African American—to move to the rear of the plane for weight and balance measures before take-off. There are several white men sitting in front of these two passengers, but she asks them to be the ones to move to the back of the plane. The two passengers are offended by the request to, “move to the back of the bus,” seeing it as racist, and they complain.

Researcher Dr. Sue, who was mentioned earlier, was the actual Asian-American in this incident. DeAngelis summarizes his insights:

[T]he onus falls on the flight attendant. In his view, she was guilty of a “racial microaggression”—one of the “everyday insults, indignities and demeaning messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of the hidden messages being sent to them,” in Sue’s definition. In other words, she was acting with bias—she just didn’t know it, he says.

It’s a monumental task to get white people to realize that they are delivering microaggressions, because it’s scary to them,” he contends. “It assails their self-image of being good, moral, decent human beings to realize that maybe at an unconscious level they have biased thoughts, attitudes and feelings that harm people of color … Microaggressions hold their power because they are invisible, and therefore they don’t allow us to see that our actions and attitudes may be discriminatory.”

What Can Educators Do

Over time, serial microaggressions become macro-hostilities, and they drain everyone. They are education pathogens, so tiny that we become aware of them only after they have colonized and begun cumulative effect, and our ego-driven “immune” systems are ill-equipped to deal with them without powerful interventions. So, what can we do in schools?

First, get up to speed. Put it on the radar, reading multiple pieces on microaggressions, implicit bias, equity challenges, racism, sexism, classism, and similar material. Not only will we become more aware, we also develop the vocabulary to talk about microaggressions more effectively with one another, and thereby, affect change. Microaggressions in Everyday Life (2010) by Derald Wing Sue is a good place to start, as are these videos on YouTube:





Second, remaining attentive to microaggressions means looking for it in our instructional practice with students and in relationships with colleagues and students’ parents. So, let’s actively audit our daily practices and interactions, looking for, and even logging, incidents perceived as microaggressions, either identified by us or identified in us by others. If we feel comfortable, we can invite students and colleagues to share anything they perceive as a microaggression from us. Even better, we can conduct ourselves in such a manner as to be not just open to, but inviting of, correction. This way, we become aware of the limited nature of our self-perceptions, and we learn to express gratitude when others care enough to help us become the people we want to be.

Third, let’s develop as much empathy as we can for those not in our identified groups. If we’re a seasoned education veteran, for example, we spend time remembering what it was like to be a first-year teacher (and we care for them accordingly). If we’re a supporter of one particular political party, we spend time in discussion with individuals from other political parties. If we’re white and that is the predominant group with most perceived power in the community, we actively seek what it’s like to be non-white. If we’re heterosexual, we spend time and energy trying to understand what it’s like to keep secret something so basic to our nature and to receive daily messages that this thing we find natural and an important part of our identity makes us targets in society and unworthy of some basic rights as citizens.

Fourth, let’s purposefully suspend our defensive stance when confronted with a personal or categorical slight we committed. If someone indicates that we have offended them or expressed a microaggression or hurtful bias toward another, we stop and listen, giving it real thought. We accept such statements and the hurt we’ve caused as legitimate, regardless of what we intended, and we make amends.

Finally, let’s be a worthy ally to those suffering microaggressions daily. It’s hard to summon professionalism, friendliness, creativity, and hope, let alone keep up the fiction that all is well, when we bear by ourselves the burden of others’ complicit silence in the presence of clear evidence of a hurtful worldview that we don’t belong. In addition to comforting those experiencing the ceaseless “cuts” from unaware individuals, we speak up about microaggressions, even when it is not politically expedient. And yes, we, too, may have a rocky time of it when we do, alienating friends and colleagues for a period of time, but the alternative, letting such things continue, is not acceptable: It diminishes our humanity and undermines our whole enterprise: education for all.

Our whole effort in teaching is to help others cultivate meaningful lives, and each one of those lives is legitimate and valuable, even those for whom our own life experience has not found familiar. We can’t help anyone, however, if we ceaselessly communicate that students and colleagues are somehow, “less than.” In opening ourselves to others and reining in the unintentional afflictions we create, we become bigger than our egos, and communities evolve. The positive changes that come for all students and colleagues, not just those in our particular groups, are worth it.