Microaggressions and Microresistance: Supporting and Empowering Students

In 1970, Chester Pierce, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard University, coined the word “microaggression” to describe relatively slight, subtle, and perhaps even unintentional “offensive mechanisms…as opposed to a gross, dramatic, obvious macroaggression such as lynching” (p. 266). Whereas Pierce originally used the term to name offenses relating to race, we now apply it to offenses targeting women, LGBTQ individuals, and others vulnerable on account of their minority or oppressed status. Such microaggressions can contribute to stereotype threat, which Claude Steele and others have shown can negatively affect students’ learning and performance in academic and other settings. Even seemingly small offenses like reminding women of the stereotype that they aren’t mathematically inclined or black people of the stereotype that they aren’t rational can put a “threat in the air” that leads to their decreased performance on tests and other measures of success (Steele, 2010, p. 5). Omissions can have a negative impact as well. For instance, not including female writers, LGBTQ scientists, and artists of color on a syllabus can signal to students from these groups that they don’t belong and reduces their chances to thrive (Steele, 2010, p. 146).

As the diversity of our student populations continues to increase, we must work harder to include all learners by raising our own awareness of microaggressions, preventing them whenever we can, and stopping them when they occur. Reading Claude Steele’s accessible and erudite Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do is an excellent start to raising awareness. Preventing microaggressions can begin with a reexamination of our own syllabi and teaching practices. Have we included a diverse range of scholars on our reading lists? Can we make women more visible by referring to authors not as B. D. Tatum but as Beverly Daniels Tatum? Are we really calling on everyone in class or are we unintentionally preferring some students? What practices might we consider adopting to combat our own unconscious biases, like grading anonymously or putting everyone’s ideas on the board (Cook-Sather, et al., 2014)?

Practice microresistance

Stopping or addressing microaggressions when they occur in the academic context may be trickier, but as responsible leaders of developing learners, we ought to do something. We can practice and encourage our students to practice microresistances. According to Sayumi Irey, director of the Faculty Commons at Bellevue College, microresistances are “incremental daily efforts to challenge white privilege” as well as other kinds of privilege based on gender, sexuality, class, etc. They help targeted people “cope with microaggressions” (Irey, 2013, p. 36). When we, as teachers, intervene by practicing microresistance on behalf of our students, we do so not to “save” the underprivileged but because it is the right thing to do. This is a matter of social justice. Also, by choosing to practice microresistance, we are decidedly not giving up on macroresistance. It’s just that the revolution can be long in coming, and we—our students and ourselves—need to survive one day at a time. Further more, we can choose to calibrate a smaller or gentler response to suit a subtler or even unintentional offense.

How can we serve as allies to students experiencing microaggressions? What do we do when we witness students who are the targets of microaggressions? To some degree we can shield ourselves and our students by practicing forms of microresistance and ally behaviors when we see, or hear of, students targeted. We can give students tools to respond as well. Space limits our description of the many ways that microresistance can be practiced, but here are a few actions we can take ourselves and/or can encourage from our students.

Increase personal and emotional strength by:

  • reminding yourself what you value (Steele, 2010, pp. 174-75);
  • practicing self-care; as Audre Lorde wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” (Lorde, 1988, p. 131);
  • taking power poses, especially before potentially stressful situations (Cuddy, 2012);
  • and thinking about the “bigger fish you have to fry” (Madden & Gillespie, 2014, pp. 147-48).

Increase social resources by:

  • building your network of mentors (Rockquemore, 2014)
  • practicing gratitude (Wood, et al., 2008)

Take A.C.T.I.O.N.

Speak up when microaggressions occur; doing nothing can do more damage than a less-than-perfect response. The steps below provide a guide on how to take A.C.T.I.O.N. when you witness a microaggression.

  • Ask clarifying questions to help you understand intentions. “I want to make sure that I understand what you were saying. Were you saying that…?”
  • Carefully listen.
  • Tell others what you observed as a microaggression in a factual manner. “I noticed that…”
  • Impact exploration: ask for, or state, the potential impact of such a statement or action on others without putting the target of the microaggression, if someone else, on the spot. “What do you think people think when they hear that type of comment?”
  • Own your own thoughts and feelings around the microaggression’s impact. “When I hear your comment, I think/feel…”
  • Next steps: Request appropriate action be taken. “Our class is a learning community, and such comments make it difficult for us to focus on learning because people feel offended. So I am going to ask you to refrain from such comments in the future. Can you do that please?”

In this article we examined the ways we can practice forms of microresistance and ally behaviors when we see, or hear of, students targeted, and give them tools to respond as well. This focus on empowerment allows us to take action in our local academic environments, thereby lessening the impact on students when microaggressions occur.

Floyd Cheung is an associate professor and director of the Sherrerd Center for Teaching and Learning at Smith College. Cynthia Ganote is an associate professor and the director of faculty development at St. Mary’s College of California. Tasha Souza is a professor and the associate director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Boise State University

Cook-Sather, Alison, Bovill, Catherine & Felten, Peter (2014). Engaging students as partners in learning and teaching: a guide for faculty. Hoboken: Jossey-Bass.

Cuddy, Amy (Jun. 2012). Your body language shapes who you are, TED, https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are?language=en.

Irey, Sayumi (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.

Lorde, Audre (1988). A Burst of Light: Essays. New York: Firebrand.

Madsen, William & Gillespie, Kevin (2014). Collaborative helping. Hoboken: Wiley. Pierce, Chester (1970). Offensive mechanisms in Black Seventies, ed. Floyd Barbour, Boston: Porter Sargent.

Rockquemore, Kerry Ann (10 Feb. 2014). When it comes to mentoring, the more the merrier,” Chronicle of Higher Education, https://chroniclevitae.com/news/326-when-itcomes-to-mentoring-the-more-the-merrier.

Steele, Claude (2010). Whistling Vivaldi: how stereotypes affect us and what we can do New York: Norton.

Wood, Alex M. et al. (2008). The role of gratitude in the development of social support, stress, and depression. Journal of Research in Personality 42, 854-871.