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Addressing microaggressions in the classroom

The term microaggressions refers to everyday comments and/or actions that express a prejudiced attitude or bias toward a member of a marginalized group. Microaggressions can target any aspect of a person’s identity, including their race, ethnicity, gender expression or identity, sexuality, nationality, citizenship, religion, ability, or socioeconomic status. These everyday expressions of bias can be intentional or unintentional and can impact instructors, staff members, students, and/or peers.

When instructors see or experience microaggressions in the classroom, they may be tempted to simply let the moment pass. But ignoring microaggressions can actually impose further harm on those targeted by the microaggressions (Sue, et al, 2009).

On this page you will find strategies for responding to microaggressions you witness or face in the classroom.

Types of microaggressions

Common categories of microaggressions

  • Ascription of intelligence – assuming someone is unintelligent or smarter than average based on their appearance or accent
  • Denial of racial reality – dismissing claims that race was/is relevant to understanding someone’s experience
  • Denial or devaluing experience or culture – assuming that others are like you and ignoring the existence, histories, and cultures of other people
  • Making judgments about belonging – 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 – guarding belongings more carefully when around certain groups or expressing fear of certain groups
  • Assumption of immorality – assuming that poor people, undereducated people, LGBTQIA+ people, or people of color are more likely to be devious, untrustworthy, or unethical

Video examples of microaggressions

Types of microaggressions

Addressing microaggressions in online, hybrid, or face-to-face classes

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 that good intentions can still have harmful impacts.
  • Understand your own triggers: what makes you uncomfortable and why? How can you work with and through this discomfort?
  • Be open with students about your expertise and your challenges.
  • Develop community agreements that set clear expectations and guidelines for students.
  • Invite students to offer clarification or ask questions when there is a potential communication issue.

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 your community agreements.
  • Ask for clarification and 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. Remember that some students may feel targeted, even if the microaggression is not directed at them specifically.
  • Follow up as needed (e.g., revisit the issue in the next class and/or see individuals after class). Identify other people who might serve as sources of support.
  • If you are the target of microaggressions
    • Be direct and share your own thoughts about the comment/behavior.
    • Provide information, clarification, and/or your perspective on the comment/behavior/issue.
    • Encourage students to think of other possibilities beyond the comment/behavior/issue.

What to avoid when facing microaggressions

  • Don’t take a passive approach and let the class direct the discussion.
  • Don’t disengage from the conversation by accepting superficial responses or dismissing the topic.
  • Don’t respond with hostility.
  • Don’t look to marginalized students/instructors to be experts on issues related to their identity group.
  • Don’t give full attention to the perpetrator while ignoring the target(s) of the microaggression
  • Don’t focus on debates about intent (of the micro-aggressor), what each person said, or determining who is right or wrong