By Christa M. Tinari, coauthor of Create a Culture of Kindness in Middle School
Microaggression. It’s one of those terms that can draw a lot of ire. But is it really “a thing”? According to Dr. Derald Wing Sue, “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.”¹ Marginalized group refers to people (in our case, students) of various identities who are commonly targets of prejudice and injustice.
Because microaggressions are often unconscious and not intended to be hurtful to others, punitive measures are not necessarily the best response. Punishing or shaming students who use microaggressions is not likely to bring more awareness or understanding to the situation. An educational approach will yield better results.
Many common microaggressions are assumptions based on negative stereotypes. Consider the following examples:
- “I’m surprised you’re so articulate,” said to an African-American student.
- “Wow, your English is so good,” said to an Asian student.
- “But you don’t seem Jewish,” said to a Jewish student.
- “I’m glad you don’t flaunt your gayness,” said to a gay student.
A Compliment or a Slight?
The examples above may be intended as compliments by the speaker. However, a closer look reveals a hidden meaning. For example, “I’m surprised you’re so articulate” implies that most African-American students are not articulate; being well-spoken is an exception to the stereotype. Students receiving microaggressions hear this hidden meaning. The students in these scenarios are well aware of the underlying stereotypes about their identity groups. When students receive these kinds of “compliments” frequently, they report feeling unseen, devalued, or unwelcome among their peers.
Exploring Assumptions with Students
I frequently use a guessing game activity to engage students in exploring the assumptions they make about their peers.² I intentionally use the neutral word guess in the title of the activity, rather than the negatively charged word assumption. I don’t want students to engage in self-censorship; I want them to honestly explore their own thought processes around the assumptions they make.
I begin the discussion by using myself as the first example. I say, “Take a good look at me. Do you think I prefer dogs or cats?” I ask for a show of hands for the cat and dog guesses. Then I call on three or four students to explain why they made their guess. Responses typically vary:
- “You showed me a picture of your dog, so I know you like dogs better.”
- “You’re wearing glasses that have that funny shape like a cat lady.”
- “You speak really calmly, and people who really like cats are calmer and shyer, like librarians.”
I then reveal my preference: I’m slightly more of a dog person. I really bonded with my special childhood calico cat named Kitty, but I currently have two pugs I adore.
We then take a closer look at the ways students made their guesses. We consider the relatively benign and nonthreatening cat/dog question first. Then I pair up students and ask them to consider other questions about each other, such as:
- Is your partner an early riser or a late riser?
- Is his or her bedroom messy or clean?
- What is your partner’s favorite music?
- Does your partner prefer movies or books?
- What is his or her favorite school subject?
- What is his or her ethnicity or race?
Afterward, we talk as a whole group about how the discussions went. During this conversation, students find that some of their guesses were based on stereotypes. I explain to students that making these guesses—also called assumptions—is a natural human tendency. Our brains prefer certainty over uncertainty. So when we have incomplete information—which applies to many social situations—we fill in the blanks. We often do this unconsciously, and we are particularly susceptible to using stereotypes during these times. I remind students that stereotypes are generalizations about people based on their identity group and are often negative. For example, “All girls are catty.” We can become less influenced by stereotypes when we:
A. become aware we are making assumptions about others, and
B. question those assumptions.
This guessing game activity invites students to explore both the assumptions they make and the stereotypes related to those assumptions. When microaggressions happen in the classroom, students can then use this same inquiry process to address them. After this exercise, students who are targets of microaggressions may feel more confident in raising their concerns. Offending students, who often do not intend harm, can take responsibility by questioning their assumptions and recognizing the unconscious stereotypes that influence their words and behaviors.
Becoming Aware of Our Own Assumptions
Here’s a simple exercise you can use to uncover your own unconscious assumptions. Call to mind a parent or student about whom you have made a negative judgment. For example, you might believe that “Mrs. Flores doesn’t value her child’s education.” However, has Mrs. Flores told you outright that she doesn’t value her child’s education? If not, consider that this judgment might be an assumption. What are the reasons you’ve made this assumption? Perhaps Mrs. Flores has not responded to your email about her child’s reading difficulties. She also did not attend any parent-teacher conferences.
Now consider that your assumption might be incorrect, and that the opposite may be true: “Mrs. Flores does value her child’s education.” Given this assumption, what other reasons could explain Mrs. Flores’s behavior? Perhaps she did not receive your email. Perhaps she did not realize you expected a response. Perhaps she works the night shift and is unavailable to attend evening school events.
How might questioning your assumptions change your attitude and your approach to Mrs. Flores and her child? Would you consider the possibility that your original assumption may have been influenced by an unconscious negative stereotype about Latinos? This powerful self-reflection exercise can bring new awareness to the unconscious stereotypes and assumptions that influence our daily actions with our students and their families. The more aware we become about our own assumptions, the better equipped we’ll be to recognize and address microaggressions among our students.
Fostering a Sense of Belonging
The purpose of identifying microaggressions based on assumptions is not to create a victim mentality. Instead, it’s intended to deepen our awareness of our unconscious bias and how that bias impacts our students. Dr. Sue points out that “Racial, gender, and sexual orientation microaggressions are active manifestations and/or a reflection of our worldviews of inclusion/exclusion, superiority/inferiority, normality/abnormality, and desirability/undesirability.” Practically, this means that microaggressions reinforce in-group and out-group cliques, putting marginalized students at a disadvantage and negatively impacting their sense of belonging.
The importance of a sense of belonging has been studied in risk and resiliency literature for many years. Studies have shown that a positive sense of belonging at school correlates with positive student outcomes, such as greater educational engagement and achievement and stronger self-esteem, and decreases in disciplinary referrals.³ Therefore, it is important for us to be aware of the ways our students feel validated or invalidated, affirmed or ignored. Microaggressions can chip away at our students’ sense of identity and belonging at school. This ultimately is harmful to our classroom cultures as well as to individual students. The good news is this: With intention and awareness, we can address microaggressions in a nonpunitive, educational way that helps us build a positive community that is welcoming to all.
Christa M. Tinari, M.A., is a bullying prevention, social-emotional learning, and school climate specialist. She speaks at educational conferences and provides training and consulting to schools across the country. Visit www.peacepraxis.com to learn more about her work.
1. From a presentation by Dr. Derald Wing Sue at the American Psychological Association’s Annual Convention, August 3, 2012.
2. This exercise is a modified version of an activity called “Checking It Out,” from Conflict Resolution in the High School: 36 Lessons by Carol Miller Lieber, with Linda Lantieri and Tom Roderick. Cambridge, MA: Educators for Social Responsibility, 1998.
3. “The Foundations of the Resiliency Framework,” by Bonnie Benard. Accessed January 16, 2017. www.resiliency.com/free-articles-resources/the-foundations-of-the-resiliency-framework.
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The work of Dr. Derald Wing Sue has contributed a great deal to our understanding of microaggressions and the impact they have on students. His books on this subject include:
Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation
Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestations, Dynamics, and Impact
You can access the presentation Dr. Sue made on microaggressions at the 2012 American Psychological Association’s Annual Convention here.
This short video, “How Microaggressions Are Like Mosquito Bites,” explains how the frequency of microaggressions makes them a much bigger problem than they might initially seem. Recommended for older middle school and high school students.