Fostering a sense of belonging for our students is essential for their success, and we should be alert to incidents that put their belongingness at risk. Microaggressions are the most common way that discrimination is expressed daily, and counteracting this act is important for ensuring that our students are supported in our academic community.
We must strive to take tangible steps to improve our campus climate and continually reinforce our Principles of Community to do this. This resource provides potential responses, strategies, and ways to extend your learning on how to address microaggressions in the classroom.
What are microaggressions?
“Microaggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group” (Sue, 2010, p. 5).
They are almost always the result of stereotyping of certain groups, which is learned through our social conditioning, and we may be unaware of how these can affect others (for some examples, see Sue et al., 2009). Here are what microaggressions take the form of and their known effects.
They often take the form of:
- Casual remarks/‘Off cuff’ remarks
- Questions or comments that reveal assumptions based on stereotypes
- Marginalizing or erasing identities
- Denial of individual prejudice
- Questioning lived experience
Each microaggression on its own can seem minor and trivial. However, the cumulative effect is devastating but invisible to others who do not experience them. They have a mental, emotional, and physical effect on people, impacting their long-term health and well-being. Known effects are:
- Loss of self-esteem, feelings of exhaustion
- Damage to the ability to thrive in an environment
- Mistrust of peers, faculty, staff, and the institution
- Decrease in participation and ability to study
- Students drop out
Consider how you will respond
Whether you are concerned about maintaining a conducive learning environment, you anticipate difficult dialogues in class because of the course content, or you want to be ready in case external events make their way into the classroom, it is good to think ahead about how you would react in situations of heightened student emotions.
- Recognize that a microaggression occurred.
- Accept your feelings in the moment and outreach to someone you can talk to.
- Take care of yourself. Talk things over with peers and practice healthy sleeping habits and self-care strategies, such as mindfulness.
- Take a step back and think about how you want to respond. Consider the context. What is your relationship with the person? Decide how you want to respond.
- If possible, take the incident and turn it into a teaching/learning moment for the person who said the microaggression and the bystanders who did not address it.
Speak to the aggressor or ask a third party to do so if you feel uncomfortable and take action to protect yourself. Ask questions like:
- “This/that makes me feel uncomfortable.”
- “May I give you some feedback?”
- “I’d prefer you don’t use language like that.”
- “I’m offended by that.”
- “I know you didn’t intend this, but when you said __________, I felt _________ because ___________.”
- “I noticed you have difficulty pronouncing my name. Can I help?”
- Ask the party what happened, how the microaggression impacted them, and what help they may need.
- Share resources that may help them,
- Be responsive.
- Don’t try to speak on behalf of the person who has experienced the microaggression, doing so can itself be a form of microaggression.
- Reach out to the person who caused the harm and discuss why/what the intent behind their statement/action. Talk privately with the person who committed the microaggression.
- Take the event as a learning experience and develop ways to promote fair inclusivity through meaningful circles and discussions.
- Engage in a proactive, nonreactive strategy called “microresistance” (Ganote et al., 2016; Irey, 2013; Rockquemore, 2016c). It involves four steps:
- Observe: State in clear, unambiguous language what you see happening;
- Think: Using “I” statements – express what you think or what you imagine others might be thinking;
- Feel: Express your feelings about the situation; and
- Desire: State what you would like to have happened
- “I overheard you make the comment that _______________. I used to think that too, but then I learned _________________.”
- Engage in self-reflection.
- Become aware of your own biases, anxieties, and motivations behind the harm.
- Take accountability for your actions.
- Acknowledge the other person’s hurt, and apologize.
- Move away from shame, denial, and embarrassment.
- Educate yourself about your actions and take this as a learning experience to improve yourself.
- Engage in critical thinking.
- Seek help from others.
- Make things right by listening to the harmed.
- “Can you help me understand what just happened?
- “Thank you for letting me know how my comment made you feel. No one has ever brought this to my attention before. If you’re willing to talk more about it, I’d like to better understand the ways my comment was problematic so I can learn from this and help educate others. However, I recognize that it is up to me to learn more – not for you to teach me.”
- “I want to make this right,” you might say. “If you have the energy or time, please let me know if there’s something I can do. I’d like to better understand the ways my comment was problematic so I can learn from this and help educate others. However, I recognize that it is up to me to learn more – not for you to teach me.” Pairing this with a sincere apology and a recognition of the labor that was already done on your behalf definitely doesn’t hurt.
- “I’m sorry that what I said hurt you. That wasn’t my intention, but I will be intentional about trying to avoid hurting others in that way in the future.”
- Since you’re more likely to give in to your biases when you’re under pressure, practice ways to reduce stress and increase mindfulness, such as focused breathing.
- Pause and reflect to reduce reflexive actions.
Strategies for responding during class discussion
As an instructor, be vigilant about the comments that may arise during the discussion, no matter the course modality. Research has shown that students will take their cues from the instructor about how to react to a hot moment or difficult dialogue – if the instructor ignores it, it can further marginalize students and squander an opportunity to dispel stereotypes and promote mutual understanding (Huston & DiPietro, 2007; Sue et al., 2009; Bergom et al., 2011).
Based on the context and your personal preference, consider using these eight potential strategies:
Collect your thoughts before responding.
Then, recognize that a microaggression occurred in the learning space. Take the opportunity to name what you noticed during class (whether in the moment or later). For example,
"I want to pause here because something is coming up in the class discussion that I think is very important for us to think about carefully together. Differing attitudes about people <> are something we should take up.”
Acknowledge [your] responsibility to help the group name and address microaggressions when they come up, regardless of who commits them.
"What was just shared is one example of how <> experience significant barriers in society. It is my job as the educator to notice when these kinds of examples come up and process them with the class. I think that it’s important for us to take a few minutes to talk about your thoughts... Ideas like this are common, and when they come up it can be an opportunity for the group to learn in a deeper way. Let’s think about how such a belief might impact this person’s ability to, for example, access <>."
Give students the benefit of the doubt. First, ask the student to clarify, elaborate, or further explain. This step will give you more information about where they are coming from and help the speaker become aware of what they are saying.
- “Could you please say more about that?”
- “Can you elaborate on your point?”
- “It sounds like you have a strong opinion about this. Could you please tell me why?”
- “What is it about this that concerns you the most?”
During the discussion and throughout the steps, your role is not to change any student’s views or make them all agree. Rather, your task is to name, take responsibility, and hold students accountable for the microaggression. Provide students an opportunity to reflect on their feelings about what happened from a different perspective, and attempt to understand it:
- “Could there be another way to look at this?”
- “Let’s reframe this to explore other perspectives/interpretations. Consider for a moment that… What if...?”
- “I’m wondering what message this is sending and how it’s received. Do you think you would have said this/drawn this conclusion if…”?
As noted above, this class discussion should not depend on the participation of the students directly involved with the microaggression, and the discussion should not endeavor to resolve conflicts or feelings between individual students.
Directly respond to student comments as problematic. Calmly and politely explain which specific words or phrases you experienced as disrespectful (or that someone else might have). Use an “I” statement to express feelings, as appropriate, rather than commenting on or labeling the speaker.
- “When you said X, I felt like Y. In the future, please Z…”
- “This seems like a good time to revisit and remind ourselves about the guidelines for discussion that we agreed upon as a class.”
Diffuse to allow effective re-engagement: Sometimes, a hot moment can get out of control.
- Ask students to pause and write individually for a moment about what just happened and how they feel about it.
- Use this time as an opportunity to formulate a strategy for re-engaging the hot moment in a productive, inclusive way.
- Remind your students which discussion guidelines are relevant to the situation.
Sometimes, one is caught by surprise, misses an opportunity, or wishes they could have a do-over in response to a microaggression or “hot moment”. Even if the moment has passed, it’s ok to go back and address it later in class. Research indicates that unaddressed microaggressions may cause a negative impact as the microaggression itself.
- “I want to go back to something that occurred previously in our class.”
- “Let’s rewind ___ minutes.”
- “I think it would be worthwhile to revisit something that happened ____.”
Engage the class in a discussion/reflection about moving forward as a group.
You may want or need to consult with a colleague and could choose to share a plan for consultation with the students.
- The response should be a contextually meaningful strategy to continue the group’s learning in response to the microaggression.
- You could plan for a follow-up discussion during the next class session, or you might change subsequent course content (e.g., additional reading or guest lecture from someone with expertise about the barriers) to deepen and redirect the discussion in the next class session.
Remember, the response should be relevant to your course content and deepen the group’s learning in response to the microaggression.
After class, talk with the student(s) that experienced the aggression. Let them know that you value their experiences and perspective and see if they have any suggestions about better supporting them in class.
Use a positive 'microaffirmations' strategy
As a positive strategy to prevent microaggressions, you can use “microaffirmations,” or small acts that foster inclusion, listening comfort, and support for people who may feel isolated or invisible in an environment (Rowe, 2008). These can include welcoming facial expressions, making concerted efforts to use correct names, pronunciations, and pronouns, affirming students’ feelings and experiences, and rewarding positive behaviors. Consider using “affirming messages” such as these from Powell, Demetriou, and Fisher (2013):
- “I’m glad you’re here.”
- “I see you’re making progress in this area.”
- “I’m concerned about you. Please come visit me during my student office hours.”
- “What do you think you did well in this class/situation/assignment?”
- “What will you do differently next time?”
- “Have you thought about utilizing ___ (campus resource)? Many successful students find this resource helpful.”
It should be noted that intentionally incorporating microaffirmations into regular practices does not mean ignoring challenges or avoiding unpleasant conversations addressing negative student behaviors or academic outcomes.
Extend your learning
Important: Anyone encountering a situation that requires immediate police assistance, medical or other emergency services should call the Iowa State University Police Department (ISUPD) at 515-294-4428 or 911.
- ISU Ombudsperson: The ombuds are an independent, neutral, confidential, and informal resource for ISU staff, faculty, and the graduate community. The ombuds supplements but does not replace ISU’s formal administrative channels at ISU or talking with your manager, supervisor, etc.
- Office of Student Assistance (undergraduate, graduate students, and professional students)
- Office of Equal Opportunity (all university community members)
- Download CELT’s Navigating controversial topics in the classroom (PDF)
- Read and bookmark the Helping Students Manage Traumatic Events page
- Review the Managing Disruptive Conduct in Learning Spaces page
- Microaggressions in DEI Read & Learn (ISU Library)
- Review the Speak Up: Responding to everyday bigotry page (Southern Poverty Law Center)
- Download The NAME Steps: How to name and address anti-LGBTQIA2S+ microaggressions(PDF).
- Bergom, I., Wright, M. C., Brown, M. K., & Brooks, M. (2011). Promoting college student development through collaborative learning: A case study of hevruta. About campus, 15(6), 19-25.
- Burton, S., & Furr, S. (2014). Conflict in multicultural classes: Approaches to resolving difficult dialogues. Counselor Education And Supervision, 53(2), 97-110.
- Ganote, C., Cheung, F., & Souza, T. (2016, April 7). Micro-aggressions, micro-resistance, and ally development in the academy. Invited workshop presented at the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, Detroit, MI. https://www.facultydiversity.org/webinars/microaggressions
- Huston, T. A., & DiPietro, M. (2007). In the eye of the storm: Students perceptions of helpful faculty actions following a collective tragedy. In D. R. Robertson & L. B. Nilson (Eds.) To Improve the Academy. Vol 25. Resources for faculty, instructional, and organizational development (pp. 207-224). Bolton, MA: Anker.
- Irey, S. (2013). How Asian American women perceive and move toward leadership roles in community colleges: A study of insider counter narratives, PhD. Diss., University of Washington. https://digital.lib.washington.edu/researchworks/handle/1773/22898
- Powell, C., Demetriou, C., & Fisher, A. (2013, October). Micro-affirmations in academic advising: Small acts, big impact. The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal. Retrieved (August 5, 2020) from https://journals.psu.edu/mentor/article/view/61286/60919.
- Rowe, M. (2008.) Micro-affirmations and micro-inequities. Journal of the International Ombudsman Association, 1, 45–48.
- 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.
- Sue, D. W., Lin, A. I., Torino, G. C., Capodilupo, C. M., & Rivera, D. P. (2009). Racial microaggressions and difficult dialogues on race in the classroom. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 15(2), 183-190.
- 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.