Center for Teaching and Learning

Addressing microaggressions in the classroom

Teaching in Spring 2020: Macro/Microaggressions and COVID-19

Misinformation regarding the spread of the coronavirus has led to a rise in xenophobic and racist aggressions towards people of Asian descent. While this is happening on a national level, our UW students are experiencing these physical and verbal assaults (macroaggressions), as well as subtle, harmful comments or actions (microaggressions), too.

Feeling the immense pressure of a pandemic, instructors may be tempted, when seeing or experiencing blatant racism or subtle aggressions, to just “drop it.” Yet ignoring macro or microaggressions does further harm to the students who are targeted (Sue, Lin, Torino, Capodilupo, Rivera, 2009).

Anticipate the ways that bias is likely to arise in your online learning environment and consider the most equitable and educational ways to address it. The information and strategies here encourage instructors to address microaggressions before they happen, as well as when.

What are microaggressions?

Definitions

Microaggressions are: “Brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group” (Sue, Capodilupo, Torino, Bucceri, Holder, Nadal, et al., 2007, p.273). Although this definition focuses on racial microaggressions, microaggressions can target any marginalized group identity, such as race, socioeconomic class, gender, sexuality, nationality, citizenship, ability, etc. Microaggressions can cause students to experience serious cognitive, behavioral, and emotional reactions, making it very difficult for them to learn (Sue, Lin, Torino, Capodilupo, Rivera, 2009, pp.187-8).

In a KUOW interview, Derald Wing Sue noted: “All of us are socialized into the society, and it really is the height of arrogance or naiveté́ to think that any of us are immune from inheriting biases that are deeply embedded in this society and culture. They come out in ways that we’re not aware of.” In other words, we are all socialized to commit microaggressions, even if we have good intentions. Understanding microaggressions and the most effective ways to address them can help create and maintain classroom environments where all students can learn.

Common categories of microaggressions

  • Ascription of intelligence (e.g. unintelligent or smarter than average based on appearance or accent)
  • Denial of racial reality (e.g. dismissing claims that race was relevant to understanding a student’s experience)
  • Denial or devaluing of experience or culture (e.g. ignoring the existence, histories, cultures of groups of people – assuming that others are like you)
  • Making judgments about belonging (e.g. assuming people are foreign or don’t speak English well because of their appearance; questioning someone’s membership status such as “you don’t look disabled” or “you don’t seem that gay to me” or “if you were Jewish, wouldn’t you do x?”)
  • Assumption of criminality (e.g. guarding belongings more carefully when around certain groups or expressing fear of certain groups)
  • Assumption of immorality (e.g. assuming that poor people, undereducated people, LGBTQ people, or people of color are more likely to be devious, untrustworthy, or unethical)

Types of reactions that people targeted may experience in response to microaggressions

  • Cognitive – internal dialogue about whether to respond
  • Behavioral – careful attention to word choice, tone, posture, and body language
  • Emotional – exhausted, angry, anxious

Video examples of microaggressions

MTV series, “Look Different” (1-minute segments of microaggression examples):

“Your English is so good”
“I can’t tell Asians apart”
“How’d you get into that school?”

More videos:

“How microaggressions are like mosquito bites”
Derald Wing Sue, “What is a microaggression?”

Strategies for dealing with microaggressions in your online, hybrid, or face-to-face classroom

Before microaggressions happen

  • Recognize and reflect on your own biases, interactions, and behaviors.
  • Understand a general definition of microaggressions. Consider the various ways that they might manifest themselves, and the impact they will have on everyone in the learning environment.
  • Understand intent vs. impact: that good intentions can have harmful impacts.
  • Understand your own triggers and unpack them: what makes you uncomfortable, and why? How can you work with and through this discomfort?
  • In the beginning, focus on collaboratively establishing classroom norms for discussion or dialogue.

When microaggressions happen

  • Acknowledge the moment and immediately take the lead in addressing the situation (slow down or stop the conversation).
  • Breathe. Pause. Stay as calm as possible.
  • Return to the class norms. Hold everyone accountable for their actions and ask for clarification. Explain why the incident is problematic. Support students in critical reflection on the situation.
  • Acknowledge the emotions in the room, both visible and invisible. Ask students if they would like to stay in class or take a break/leave.
  • While acknowledging the impact, make sure to validate and support those who have been targeted.
  • Follow up as needed, e.g. revisit in next class and/or see individuals after class. Identify other people as sources of support.

See more on responding when microaggressions your students, guest speakers, teaching assistants, or others in your class commit a microaggressions

See more on preventing & responding to microaggressions committed by instructors

What to avoid when intervening in microaggressions

  • Taking a passive approach and letting the class direct the discussion.
  • Disengaging from the conversation by accepting superficial responses or dismissing the topic.
  • Responding with hostility.
  • Looking to marginalized students/instructors to be experts on issues related to their identity group.
  • Giving full attention to the perpetrator while ignoring the target(s) of the microaggression
  • Focusing on (or allowing a focus on) debates about:
    • The intent of the micro-aggressor
    • What each person said or did
    • Who’s right or wrong

Research on microaggressions

  1. Ladson-Billings, G. (1996). Silences as weapons: challenges of a Black professor teaching White students. Theory into Practice, 35(2), 79-85.
  2. Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R., Switzler, A.(2002). Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  3. Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M., Nadal, K. L., et al. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist, 62, 271-286.
  4. 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.
  5. Young, G. (2003). Dealing with difficult classroom dialogues. In P. Bronstein & K. Quina (Eds.), Teaching gender and multicultural awareness (pp. 337–360). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.