Introduction

"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" (Sue, 2010).

The many incidents UWL students of color describe in their film "Inclusive Negligence" are common examples of microaggressions. The prefix "micro" can imply that these incidents are so small as to be unimportant or easily overcome -- but they are neither small nor "easy" because they tend to take up mental space in the target person's mind even when that person is trying very hard to "get over it." That's just how minds work for all of us. Some microaggressions are never forgotten. They damage not only the recipient, but our reputation as educators.

Please watch the film to understand the impact on students of microaggressions in educational settings and what students expect instructors to do about them.

Summary of Research

If you have explored the IG2IE section on Developing as an IE Practitioner, you have already learned about stereotypes, implicit bias, and stereotype threat. Microaggressions are a related concept.

Research on microaggressions has focused first on defining their various forms, then on the relationship between microaggressions and implicit  (unconscious) bias, on the range of groups most likely to experience them, their impact on those who experience them, and even on those who commit them. 

The forms include

  • microassaults: usually intentional, small acts intended to excludes, marginalize, or intimidate, such as the use of a racial or gender slur, or displaying an object intended to intimidate a particular group, like a swastika or a Confederate flag
  • microinsults: statements or acts that are, consciously or unconsciously, rude or disparaging to a person's group or that demean that group, such as praising an apparently Asian American student's English or asking a student who appears to be African American how they got into UWL
  • microinvalidations: statements or acts that, consciously or unconsciously, deny the thoughts or experiences of someone based on their membership in an historically marginalized group, such as ignoring a transgender student's request to use the pronouns they choose or telling a student seeking a  disability accommodation that you don't believe in that particular disability

Researchers are clear that microaggressions can target other groups too. The most common targets are people of color, women, and LGBTQ people, but even if you do not personally identify with any one of those groups, you very likely can recall a microaggression that targeted some group membership of yours that was marginalized perhaps just in a specific setting. Chances are, that one incident has bugged you all your life -- so no surprise that a student from a structurally-marginalized group not only experiences many more incidents, but can easily recall them and how they felt years later. 

Researchers have also examined the rates and impacts of microaggressions, both in everyday life and in educational settings.  Those studies indicate that members of certain groups are more likely than others to experience multiple microaggressions in a single day -- people of color living in and working in historically white spaces, for example. National, local, and regional political climates do affect these rates, including in educational settings.  Other studies focused particularly on students indicate the educational cost of microaggressions as a trigger for stereotype threat, in which the distraction of having to process an incident contributes to cognitive load and results in reduced cognitive space for the thinking we want students to do. The result can be underperformance.

Psychologists and medical researchers are also mapping the health consequences of microaggressions and other stressors that stem from socially structured inequality. The picture emerging is not pretty.

Strategies

Effectively addressing microaggressions that may affect our students and colleagues requires us to address three aspects of the problem:

  1. our own potential biases that may lead us to commit a microaggression and/or fail to recognize them
  2. effectively responding to microaggressions, whether as an instructor or as a bystander
  3. our own experience of microaggressions

The key to recognizing microaggressions lies in recognizing the socially-defined power relationships between groups. We are more likely to commit a microaggression around a social identity where we are privileged (e.g., gender if we are male; race if we are white). Engagement in Inclusive Excellence requires lifelong learning about social hierarchies in general and how they affect you in particular.

But recognize that you (and others) will make mistakes. It's how you respond that matters most.

If you are called out for committing a microaggression:

Try to do this:

Try not to do this:

Apologize and move on. The person you've harmed likely knows that you've acted on a stereotype. Your apology is sufficient acknowledgement of that.

Make the issue about you, rather than the person you offended. E.g., crying, asking for explanations, seeking for the other person to validate your goodness, asking for forgiveness and expecting a positive response, badgering until you get one.

Commit to doing better in the future. Read something. Talk with a support person on campus (meaning, someone whose job includes conversations about racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.). Watch a film. Try to notice microaggressions more than you currently do, your own and those of others.

Attack.  "How dare you call me a racist! I'm a good person!"  Or, substitute your privilege for the other person's perception: "That wasn't homophobic! What are you even talking about?!"

 

If you don't know what you did that is being perceived as upsetting: ask, respectfully. "Clearly I did something that angered you, and I'm sorry for that, but I honestly don't understand what hit you wrong. Are you able to tell me?" Or ask one of our campus experts (meaning, someone whose job includes conversations about racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.). Get defensive (minimize, deny the incident, or substitute your own perception for the target of the microaggression). E.g., when the microaggression is pointed out to you, you respond with "You know I didn't mean it that way!"

If you witness or experience one:

The following chart is based on Sue (2019).
Make the invisible visible: point out the stereotype that has just been invoked. E.g., "So if you're saying you don't see color, does that mean you don't see me?" Ignore the microaggression.
Disarm the microaggression: say or do something that lets the recipient (especially if it is you yourself) know you recognized the problem -- It can invite others to support you. "Ouch" can be very effective here, but there are many other possibilities. Or, panic first, and then ignore it. E.g., thinking "OMG, what's happening in my class?! I'm not a therapist! I don't know what to do!" And then saying, "OK, let's move on."
Educate the perpetrator: e.g., "Maybe you don't know this, but . . ." This is the preferred strategy for microaggressions that occur between students. Make excuses, e.g. for another student or colleague (or yourself): e.g.,"I'm just really terrible at names" when you have substituted the name of a familiar person of color for someone you don't know as well. Remember that the recipient knows the stereotype that's operating subconsciously for you.
Seek external reinforcement or support. Contact Student Life, your chair, your dean, one of the offices in Diversity & Inclusion. Flounder: sputter, struggle to recover, etc. Just apologize.

Resources/References

Hoskins, D. (2018). Stereotypes and Implicit Assumptions. In Instructor's Guide to Inclusive Excellence. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from https://www.uwlax.edu/catl/teaching-guides/instructors-guide-to-inclusive-excellence/the-context-of-inequality/stereotypes-and-implicit-assumptions/
 
Sue, D. W., Alsaidi, S., Awad, M. N., Glaeser, E., Calle, C. Z., & Mendez, N. (2019). Disarming racial microaggressions: Microintervention strategies for targets, White allies, and bystanders. American Psychologist, 74(1), 128–142. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000296
 

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. http://dx.doi.org.libweb.uwlax.edu/10.1037/0003-066X.62.4.271


Hoskins, D. (2020). Teaching Inclusive Courses: Address Microaggressions. In Instructor's Guide to Inclusive Excellence. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from https://www.uwlax.edu/catl/teaching-guides/instructors-guide-to-inclusive-excellence/teaching-inclusive-courses/address-microaggressions/