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Microaggressions: Definitions and Higher Education Applications

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Wanda Tyler

on 12 October 2016

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Transcript of Microaggressions: Definitions and Higher Education Applications

Often conscious and deliberate

Considered “old fashioned” discrimination; usually happens
• when the perpetrator can guarantee their anonymity (ie via article comment sections);
• when they’re in the presence of people who agree with them; and/or
• when they lose control (ie due to frustration, alcohol…..Michael Richards n-word rant; Mel Gibson homophobic, anti-Semitic, racist comments)

Includes explicit, derogatory words or actions meant to hurt the intended identity group(s)

Often unconscious

Includes words and subtle snubs which convey rudeness and insensitivity and demeans a person’s background or identity


Ascription of Intelligence
-“You’re a credit to your race!”
– compliment BUT
– People of color are generally not as intelligent as Whites.

a math/engineering/science major?” (to a female student)

– women are not as smart as men in the “hard” sciences.

Second-Class Citizenship

Often unconscious

Involves words and actions that exclude, negate or nullify the experiences and sometimes presence of people from underrepresented identity groups

• Denial of Individual Discrimination

-This is often used when someone is confronted about their potentially discriminatory words or actions
-“I can’t be racist…I voted for Obama!”
-“I’m not homophobic…some of my best friends are gay and I’m a big fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race!”

• Invisibility
- Professors not taking the time to learn the names of international students
- People of color regularly being confused for one another

“Microaggressions are
environmental indignities
, whether
, that
communicate hostile, derogatory or negative racial, gender, sexual orientation and religious slights and insults to the target person or group
.” (Sue, Capodilup, et al., 2007)
Can also be directed at other target groups such as members of the
trans* community
people with physical, learning or emotional disabilities
; and
people from other countries

– slurs

-Displaying a Klan hood, Nazi swastika, noose, Confederate flag, burning a cross
-Telling identity-based jokes
-May also include posters, screen savers, etc. which may make certain groups feel uncomfortable

They’re often easier to deal with because the intent is “crystal clear” and there’s no guesswork required.

Environmental Microinsults
-A University displays pictures of its distinguished alumni; they're mostly White and male
- A campus building is named after a former slaveholder

– "Female alumni and alumni of color are not recognized here."
"Students and alumni of color are not welcome here."

Assumption of Abnormality
-Using the word “gay” to describe someone or something that is odd, bad, unacceptable.

– “People who are weird and different are gay.”

• Alien in One’s Own Land
-What Kind of Asian Are You?

Impact/Message –
“When Asian Americans are complimented for speaking ‘good English’ and persistently asked where they were born, the metacommunication (secondary communication; message behind the actual words) is that ‘You are not American’ or ‘You are a foreigner.’” (Sue, 2010)

- Colleagues from underrepresented groups being left out of workplace socializing (ie walking past offices and only saying hello to people who look like you…leading to feelings of invisibility)

Impacts of Microaggressions
Emotional and mental health implications – anxiety, depression, paranoia, sleep issues, crises of confidence

Reduction in staff morale and feeling of “belonging” with other colleagues and supervisors

Lower productivity

Biological vs. Microaggressive Stressors and Consequences (Sue, 2010)
This model describes parallels between the
physiological impact of microaggresstions
to the
human body's reactions to the introduction of biological attacks
(ie viruses, toxins)
Negatively impacts campus climate

Creates a hostile learning environment

Has a negative effect on persistence rates

Alarm Stage
• In both biological and microaggressive attacks - physical “call to arms”, rapid heartbeat, increased blood pressure
• Determination is made about whether person’s identity is being attacked

Adaptation or Resistance Stage
• Biological attack – fever, sore throat, tissue swelling
• Microaggressive attack - sadness, guilt, reluctant acceptance as “a fact/reality of life” (adaptation) OR anger, anxiety (resistance)

Stage of Exhaustion
• Biological attack – reduction of physical activity or death
• Microaggressive attack – wearing down of target, learned helplessness, depletion of emotional and sometimes physical energy, lost productivity and functionality

A Couple of Core Concepts to Aid in Understanding Microaggressions
Intent vs. Impact
Pile On Principle (POP)
“The sooner we are able to understand the impact our words or actions have on others, the sooner we will transform the quality of our interactions. The worst possible way to react when we have caused harm is to become defensive or dismissive. Accepting responsibility for our mistakes is essential in building a positive connection.”
This principle explains why someone may "overreact" in response to a "joke" or comment about their identity.

"If you are the person who tells a joke that offends someone, or uses a word that annoys another, remember that you are only seeing a 'snapshot' of this person. It is very likely that there is a long video history of pain that has been piled too high for too long and they are finally reacting now...Instead of getting defensive and criticizing the person for overreacting, demonstrating empathy will likely deescalate their frustration and increase the probability of a connection with that person."

“…easily demonstrated by a parent who loses their patience after the tenth time their child has asked the same question over and over again, despite the parent telling them to stop.”
How to Respond When Someone Shares Their Experience of a Micoraggressive Incident with You
Actively listen when someone raises a concern
Don’t be defensive
Be open to learning about other cultures and others’ experiences
Be open to disclosing your own biases and how they might have hurt others

How Not to Respond:
"Explain Aways" or "Perfectly Logical Explanations" (PLEs)
"They didn’t see you coming."

"They assumed you couldn’t afford their cars because of how you were dressed."
"They were busy!"
Yes, it’s possible these are plausible, perfectly logical explanations. But it’s also possible it was sexism.
A Better Approach
Listen and acknowledge when someone tells you about a situation where they felt discriminated against or marginalized.
• “That must have been frustrating.”
• “Has this happened to you before?”

Acknowledgement does not equal agreement.

When people feel they have to “prove” what they’re experiencing is valid, it widens the gap between the people.
Our experiences are legitimate and valid because we are legitimate and valid.
The Power of Empathy
Dr. Brene Brown

Learning Outcomes
The audience will be able to...
Define the term 'microaggression'

Differentiate between the three types of microaggressions

Describe the impact of microaggressions on students and in the workplace

Explain the concepts of 'intent vs. impact' and 'pile on principle'

Distinguish between effective and ineffective responses to someone sharing a microaggressive incident with you
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