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February 17, 2021

3 Key Questions Educators Need to Ask About Microaggressions

Ever get that unsettling feeling after you have said something that didn’t sit right with your audience? Or experienced a time when you just said something and received a strong reaction that you didn’t intend?

Enter microaggressions. A microaggression is an intentional or unintentional comment or action, usually slight or subtle, that conveys negativity towards a marginalized person, group, or culture. The term ‘microaggression’ includes ‘micro’ to make it clear that these instances, as individual events, are not severe but that the repeated impact is exponentially cumulative and deeply damaging. It’s no secret that there is a lot going on in our world right now and the last thing we want to do is cause further trauma or harm. Let’s get clear on microaggressions and how we can work toward improvement.

Here Are Some Examples of Microaggressions:

  • A majority person comments to a minority person “You’re so articulate” or “You talk so well.”
    • The underlying message is that the majority person had low expectations of the minority person and expected them to be less capable.
  • A majority person confuses the names of minority persons.
    • The underlying message is that minority people are interchangeable or not worth investing in knowing at the individual level. Similarly, expecting a minority person to take a nickname simply because their given name is difficult for a majority person to pronounce.
  • A majority person asks, “Where are you from?”
    • The underlying message is that a minority person cannot be American or is not perceived as truly belonging to their country.
  • A majority person asks, “Why do you wear that?”
    • The underlying message is that a Jewish, Sikh, Muslim or other religion’s clothing is inappropriate, unprofessional, or distracting in the learning environment.
  • A majority person asks to touch the hair of a minority person or asks about hair care.
    • The underlying message is that something is wrong or lesser about minority hair texture, style, or care.
  • A majority person says, “I don’t see color; I treat everyone equally.”
    • The underlying message is that difference, personal identities, family upbringing, culture, and lived experience do not matter.
  • A majority student is asked “What’s the answer?” and a minority student is asked “What’s your guess?” or “Do you have an answer?”
    • The underlying message a minority student is presumed not to have the answer.

What’s the Impact of Microaggressions?

If students receive the message that they are in a gifted program or an advanced section of a course, they excel. In the same way, if students receive negative messages about themselves, their performance reflects those lower expectations. Microaggressions are steady, damaging messages to students about their value and potential. These experiences can result in poor academic performance, depression, anxiety, isolation, sleep difficulties, and marginalization.

What Can You Do Today?

If you are curious about a person’s personal characteristics, clothing, beliefs, or behaviors, you can research to educate yourself. Individuals are not responsible for enlightening you and certainly can’t be expected to use their academic or professional time speaking on behalf of an entire culture, religion, or group. Ultimately, even good intentions do not excuse racism, sexism, ageism, and other institutional or socially constructed beliefs. Majority persons are responsible for managing their own impulses, educating themselves, and accepting that individuals share about themselves on their own terms. Impactful educators are continuously improving their practice. Building awareness of microaggressions and working to eliminate them will lead to greater equity in our teaching and learning experience. We all have more to learn and being open and active is where we can begin to make change.

In the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

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