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Are Microaggressions Really "Micro?"

Submitted by Dr. Patricia Russell, AFT Seattle Federation L1789

Often times I smile when I hear the word “microaggression.” I find them to be anything but “micro.” What are they?

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. In many cases, these hidden messages may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment. (Sue, ¶2, 2010)

The impact of microaggressions can hardly be described as subtle. According to a presentation by Sue (2014), microaggressions have an impact on faculty of color and women that could hardly be described as “micro”:

  • [Faculty of color and women] experience the campus climate as isolating, alienating, extremely stressful, risky and invalidating (Harlow, 2003; Stanley, 2006; Turner, Gonzalez & Wood, 2008);
  • We more likely experience being “the only one” that leads to feelings of isolation and loneliness (Alexander & Moore, 2008);
  • There are a lack of mentors who possess knowledge of the “minority experience”(Stanley, 2006);
  • We have our research and scholarship devalued and considered illegitimate (Guzman, Trevino, Lubuguin, & Aryan, 2010);
  • We have our racial or gender identities assailed (Harlow, 2003);
  • We experience elevated levels of stress and distress (Johnson-Bailey & Cervero, 2008);
  • We can be subjected to biased promotion and tenure decisions (Fenelon, 2003),
  • We have many more students and colleagues question our qualifications or credentials to hold the status of “Professor” (Harlow, 2003).

As an African American woman, I can tell you that my experience teaching is reflective of the above cited research. Once, in a student evaluation, I was strongly criticized for insisting I be referred to as doctor; the student wrote this as though it were a legitimate and substantial complaint. Student evaluations have an impact on tenure, and other academic tracks. They are records we leave for decision makers who have impacts on our careers moving forward, or moving at all.

Another example of the impact of a microaggression being less than micro was in a class I was teaching that was brutally disrupted when a white student decided that it was her/his right to use the “N” word as we were discussing the changes in the way in which people racially identify. Immediately there was a palpable tension in the room. As soon as I recovered from the shock of what felt like an assault, I explained the history of the word and told my students that it was never to be used in my class. Period. But the damage was done. Students rightfully wanted to discuss what had happened, so we lost valuable classroom time. Ultimately, some students refused to work with him/her in a class that called for working in dyads and groups. The ultimate irony of this incident was that the student didn’t feel the need to apologize. Instead he/she asked me if I could be fair in my grading since he/she had used the “N” word, going as far as to accuse me of a grade on a paper that he/she felt was unfair because I had based it on my biased feelings towards him/her, not the work itself. I then had to worry about a student complaint that may have adversely affected my career.

Microaggressions can and do impact careers and classrooms in ways than can be disruptive. However, if microaggressions are acknowledged and discussed, they can be instructional – a tool that we can use to teach the difference between being “PC” and inflicting emotional and psychological pain that impacts every aspect of our academic lives.

If we are silenced, how do we teach, and how can our students learn? Microaggressions are not minor insults that hurt our feelings; they are major assaults that hurt our students, our classrooms, and our careers. We cannot afford to move back to a time that allows us to be punished for others’ ignorance.

Accessed February 7, 2016 from: