What are microaggressions?
Faculty in the Department of Religious Studies are committed to fostering an anti-racist environment in our classrooms and programs. Microaggressions are often expressions of “secret, hidden, unconscious biases,” that stem from racist, ableist, sexist, and other biased thoughts (Berk 2:74). Derald Wing Sue defines microaggressions as, “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights, invalidations, and insults to an individual or group because of their marginalized status in society” (qtd. Berk 1:64). Sue and colleagues identify three forms microaggression commonly take: microinsults, microassaults, and microinvalidations (Diab and Godbee 461). An example of a microinsult and microinvalidation Diab and Godbee share is when someone says, “’You cannot have written this paper by yourself. Who helped you?’ Assumed incompetence is a form of microaggression that informs these assertions and makes them insulting, hurtful, accusatory, and pernicious, even when held unconsciously” (461).
Microaggressions can occur as microinsults, “rude and insensitive communications that demean the victim’s racial heritage, identity, or other characteristics,” and as microinvalidations, “communications that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings or experiential reality of the victim” (Berk 1:66-67).
Microaggressions in the classroom
In the classroom, microaggressions can be directed at students by the instructor or by other students and they can be directed at the instructor by students. Some examples of common microaggressions in students’ experiences include:
- Hearing or reading stereotypes in an instructor’s presentation or discussions with students;
- Being overlooked by an instructor;
- Hearing students and faculty perpetuate stereotypes;
- Being called on to represent the perspective of an entire culture group, gender, or religion;
- Having one’s name mispronounced repeatedly or not being called on because of one’s name;
- Hearing only heteronormative examples in class;
- Assuming that students of other ethnicities speak other languages; and
- Having exams or assignments scheduled during religious holidays.
Some microaggression buzzwords include, “you people,” “highly qualified,” “articulate,” “reverse discrimination,” and “preferential treatment” (Berk 2:75).
Responding to microaggressions
When bystanders say nothing, the experience of victims of microaggressions compounds. Student and faculty bystanders are responsible for identifying and responding to microaggressions. To identify and respond to microaggressions, having a sense of one’s own implicit biases is important. Students can take implicit bias assessments online to raise their own awareness of their biases.
Bystanders or observers can engage in a “proactive, nonreactive strategy called ‘microresistance’” to respond to microaggressions (Berk 2: 76). The steps include:
- Observe: State in clear, unambiguous language what you see happening;
- Think: 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 had happen (Berk 2:76).
Microaffirmations are “small acts, which are often ephemeral and hard-to-see, events that are public and private, often unconscious but very effective, which occur whenever people wish to help others succeed (Rowe 46). Microaffirmations may look or sound like:
- Leading rather than pushing;
- Opening doors of opportunity;
- Fostering inclusion and caring;
- Building as sense of community;
- Listening carefully and attentively;
- Giving credit to others;
- Providing comfort and support when others are in distress; and
- Building on strengths and successes instead of focusing on faults and weaknesses (Berk 2:78).
As Mary Rowe, a professor of conflict management and ombudsperson, has written, “Micro-affirmations lie in the practice of generosity, in consistently giving credit to others—in providing comfort and support when others are in distress, when there has been a failure to the bench, or an idea that did not work out, or a public attack. Micro-affirmations include the myriad details of fair, specific, timely, consistent and clear feedback that help a person build on strength and correct weakness” (Rowe 46). Recognizing microaggressions and intervening when they occur is essential to changing behavior. Pairing this work with microaffirmations creates a hospitable and welcoming environment for learning, teaching, and working.
If you experience microaggressions . . .
Please speak to your instructor, the Director of Undergraduate/Graduate Studies, or another faculty or staff in the department.
· Implicit bias assessments: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html
- Berk, Ronald A. “Microaggressions Trilogy: Part 1. Why do microaggressions matter?” Journal of Faculty Development. 31(1), 2017: 63-73.
- Berk, Ronald A. “Microaggressions Trilogy: Part 2. Microaggressions in the Academic Workplace.” Journal of Faculty Development. 31(2), 2017: 69-83.
- Diab, Rasha and Beth Godbee, “Do We Really Understand Microaggressions?” in Ms. Magazine, published 3/4/2022.
- Rowe, M. “Micro-affirmations and micro-inequities.” Journal of International Ombudsman Association. 1(1), 2008: 45-48.