According to Sue and colleagues (2007) microaggressions are common verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile or negative slights to marginalized groups. Perpetrators of microaggressions are often unaware that they engage in such interactions when they interact with minorities.
Microassaults: Conscious and intentional actions or slurs, such as using racial epithets, or deliberately serving a white person before a person of color in a restaurant.
Microinsults: Verbal and nonverbal communications that subtly convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person's racial heritage or identity. An example is an employee who asks a colleague of color how she got her job, implying she may have landed it through an affirmative action or quota system.
Microinvalidations: Communications that subtly exclude, negate or nullify the thoughts, feelings or of a person of color. For instance, caucasion people often ask Asian-Americans where they were born, conveying the message that they are perpetual foreigners in their own land.
Simply stated, microaggressions are brief exchanges that send denigrating messages to marginalized groups. Any group can be guilty of delivering microaggressions, but the most painful and harmful ones are likely to occur between those who hold power and those who are disempowered. Often times, microaggressions are unintended or come from a place from good intentions. For instance, a professor who says to a student who speaks with a foreign accent "I'm impressed you speak English so well" is guilty of a microaggression because although the professor means that statement as a compliment, the statement assumes that people with accents do not normally speak English well. A further example would be a female physician who is wearing a stethoscope being mistaken as a nurse, with the underlying assumption being that women in hospitals are more likely to be nurses.
Microaggressions can be very harmful. For instance, research indicates that they create a hostile campus environment, lower work productivity and problem solving abilities, and create inequities in education. Below are some examples for how microaggressions may manifest themselves in the classroom (taken from University of Denver.)
Continuing to mispronounce the names of students after being corrected, or not bothering to pronounce the name correctly in the first place.
Making assumptions of students based on their race or ethnicity. (e.g."Are you here on an athletic scholarship?")
Hosting discussions in class that place students from groups who may represent the minority opinion in a difficult position
Assigning class projects that are heterosexist, racist, or make other assumptions of students:
"Write stories about what your father was like growing up."
"Write about a romantic relationship you had with a member of the opposite sex."
Using heterosexist or sexist language:
"Magnets are attracted to each other like males and females"
Assigning projects that ignore socioeconomic differences
"You are required to visit four art galleries downtown. There are entrance fees which I think you can afford."
"The textbook is expensive, but I'm sure you can afford it."
Singling students out because of their background:
"You're (member of minority group). Can you tell us about a time you were discriminated against?"
Assuming all students are from the US and familiar with American culture
"What do you mean you've never heard of this show?"
Asking people with disabilities to identify themselves
"If anyone has a special need and cannot take the test at the normal time please raise your hand"
Ignoring student to student microagressions:
"That party was so retarded"
Making assumptions about students and their backgrounds:
Assuming all Latino students speak Spanish:
"Can you translate this for me, Hector?"
Assuming all Asians are good at math
Assuming the gender of any student
Disregarding religious traditions or their details
E.g. holding a class that requires students to sample food during Ramadan
Assuming all students fit the traditional student profile and are proficient in the use of computers.
"I will post the class event on Facebook, as I assume that all of you are on Facebook."
Suggestions for addressing microaggressions in the classroom:
Do not expect students to speak for their entire group
Alternative: during class discussions allow students to join in if they wish, but do not pressure them into doing so.
Do not assume groups you are talking about are not represented in the classroom.
Alternative: speak carefully and sensitively about all groups even if they are not represented in the classroom.
Set high expectations for ALL students, regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities, or background.
Do not assume that all students have a close knowledge of U.S. culture.
Alternative: when referencing popular culture, consider explaining what the references mean rather than assuming that all students in your class are familiar with your references.
When you are holding a class discussion revolving around group identities or issues related to specific groups, do not lock eyes with a student whom you think represents one of those groups. Doing so makes an assumption about the identities/opinions of students, and potentially puts that individual on the spot.
Alternative: it is always a better practice look around the room and make eye contact with all students in the classroom, rather than focusing on a select few students.