How to repond to microaggressions in the classroom?
February 26, 2019 1:36 PM   Subscribe

I'm a high school teacher (white, cis, woman) and I want to know the best way to handle microaggressions among students in the classroom. I have looked this issue up, and none of the resources or guides that I have seen seem to factor in the reactions of the marginalized person in the scenario. For example, it seems important to call out microaggressions where a POC is obviously uncomfortable, what about situations where the POC plays along or laughs it off?

What the microaggressor said was still in the wrong, but I don't want to be the person calling attention to it when the marginalized person themself has made a decision to not make a big deal. If that's how they choose to handle it, then who am I to make it more awkward for them?

If the answer is to speak to the microaggressor one on one, what should one say? Also, does that mean that you just let the scenario play out in the moment without saying a word?

I want to teach students to treat each other with equal respect and consideration. Could anyone with experience in this area offer some insight?

posted by to recite so charmingly to Education (13 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Your classroom rules are your classroom rules and they are applied equally against all offenses.

If a coworker makes a sexual comment toward me at work and HR overhears it, it shouldn't matter if I act chill and laugh it off or if I respond negatively. It's against established policies and it is Officially Not Cool.

As the teacher you get to make "no microaggressions" a rule.
posted by phunniemee at 1:56 PM on February 26, 2019 [6 favorites]

Thanks for the reply! Just to clarify, by microaggressions, I don't mean stuff like "making a sexual comment." That's just sexual harassment. I'm talking more about things that I hear can be subtle and annoying. For example, say a student tells another they remind them of a celebrity, when that comment seems race related. Or a student asks questions about another student's hair, but the student answers willingly and seems open to conversing about it. Hope that makes sense!
posted by to recite so charmingly at 2:15 PM on February 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

Label it and limit it. YOU never have to accept language that runs against the fiber of your class culture, even if the recipient of the (micro)aggression passively consents.

Here's a great starting point from Teaching Tolerance . The gist? When confronted with comments that upset you: interrupt, question, educate, and echo. When you're done reading at the link, print this pocket guide and carry it in your pocket.

You're the adult, and the moral center of your own classroom. Trust and use your judgment. And – speak up.
posted by mr. remy at 2:50 PM on February 26, 2019 [12 favorites]

As a teacher working to build a positive classroom community , there are few things more important to me than naming and explaining behaviors that don't work in our shared space. Many high school students are unable to name and explain what a microagression looks like. Once you've incorporated a mini-lesson into your current unit, however, they'll not only know exactly what it is, they'll begin to moderate their own (and others'!) actions. My high schoolers are all about social justice - they just need language and tools.
posted by WaspEnterprises at 3:14 PM on February 26, 2019 [7 favorites]

People affected by microaggressions passively consent because the teacher has no control over what happens between peers outside of class and fear retaliation, make it an explicit safe space for their protection and to set an example. I would have killed for a high school teacher to articulate this - I had to go to college to learn all of this.
posted by yueliang at 4:12 PM on February 26, 2019 [10 favorites]

I actually think for something that simple, you should have the interactions privately with the offender, and make it as Socratic as possible. I think calling out things that are not explicitly meant to disrespect could cause unwanted attention for your minoritized students. Especially if they are in the minority in the school or in the classroom.

In one on one interactions, ask the offender to explain the comment until you uncover the bias that brought it.

You might consider checking in with the targeted student - "did you think that comment was a little racist?" And ask them how they want you to address it. Most will probably not say publicly.
posted by thelastpolarbear at 4:16 PM on February 26, 2019 [9 favorites]

*also seconding having a lesson about microaggressions and explaining why they are harmful
posted by thelastpolarbear at 4:18 PM on February 26, 2019

The biggest thing is calling people out in a way that shows it's inappropriate but also that the issue is their statement, not them as people. Usually, the best thing to do is address is quickly and then move you. For more serious stuff, you can talk to them one-on-one: first the person whom it's being said to, and then the person who's saying it.

The key is addressing it quickly in the moment because, otherwise, as yueliang said, not doing so is setting the tone that such commentary is acceptable. As Elie Wiesel said, "We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."

As a high school teacher, things I've said are:

- Hey, not appropriate. We respect everyone here.
- Why did or say that? or What do you mean?
- Ouch, that's not OK.
- Also, try non-verbal signs like making eye contact and shaking your head no if someone's about to say something wrong but hasn't yet

Sometimes it helps to give the person who's saying it both notice it's inappropriate and a way to save face. "Hey Taylor, while I'm sure you didn't mean it in a bad way, that sounds racist/sexist/homophobic/sizeist/mean, etc."

Usually setting that tone helps reduce the amount of microaggressions because people see what behavior is and isn't OK. Doing activities where students give each other compliments -- ask if you're interested for more specifics -- or get to know each other better, for example, starting each Monday by having students talk about their weekends with their seatmate or table group builds community and respect.

Another thing to do is an informal survey. On a half sheet of paper, there are two open-ended questions (use some examples):

1. What's something you like about our class and/or a positive learning challenge you'd had this semester?

2. What's something you'd like to change, do more or less of? (an activity, classroom rules, etc.)

Before you hand it out, "Things are going well overall but I want to make sure the rest of the semester goes as well as possible! I'm going to give out these surveys to do right then, and then I'll collect them as you finish. They are anonymous as in you don't write your name -- admittedly, I may recognize some handwriting but that's private -- but I will read the answers aloud once everyone is done, changing any personal details if necessary, and we can discuss them as a class!"

Give them about 5 minutes to write, then collect them, and go through the bunch. Most people will be happy but it's a chance for those feeling unwell to share safely, and then you can moderate the conversation. Students hear their answer and feel they have a voice; they also find out that, overall, other classmates like them and that validation makes everyone feel a bit better.

Dealing with microaggressions is one of the hardest things as a classroom teacher. There's no easy solution but you'll find something that works better with time; it's always worth it. Even if students whine a bit, they will be very grateful because all students, for so many reasons, feel awkward and unwelcome at times. Good luck!
posted by smorgasbord at 4:27 PM on February 26, 2019 [4 favorites]

Maybe it's not always a microaggression.

"Or a student asks questions about another student's hair, but the student answers willingly and seems open to conversing about it."

Maybe that's just someone being interested in hair, and another person being open to a question about it. I don't know what exchange you overheard, so I can't judge that particular incident ... but I'm not talking about touching hair without permission or making an ugly joke, I'm talking about 'Hey, that's a neat hairstyle, are those called box braids?' or something respectful.

I'm not trying to make light of actual annoying/offensive behavior, which I know happens all the time. But if neither party in a transaction is aggrieved, is it your place to raise a grievance as a third party? Seems like the focus would be on making an environment where the kids who do feel microaggressed can speak up for themselves. And the other kids can just answer questions about their hair if they feel like it.

I'm a woman. Sometimes people say things to me/around me that some people consider inappropriate, but those things don't bother me. I am not offended by what I hear, but I would be offended by someone else in my vicinity telling me that I should be angry according to their metrics. I'm a grown person with a mind of my own, I can decide whether or not I have something to be mad about.
posted by mccxxiii at 4:30 PM on February 26, 2019 [15 favorites]

Also, in political issues, being bipartisan can help. For example, during the 2016 presidential election, I made it clear that we would not be judging candidates based on their appearances. When it came up occasionally, I'd say: "We're not going to make fun of Hilary Clinton for her appearance and we're not going to make fun of Donald Trump for his appearance either. You can criticize them for their political views but not their looks. We have so little control over how we look, and everyone on this earth looks just fine the way they are."
posted by smorgasbord at 4:33 PM on February 26, 2019 [7 favorites]

Another vote for making it about you and your rules. ‘This is my classroom. Personal remarks about another student’s appearance are inappropriate — keep that for outside.’ If it’s concrete enough that you can clearly say what makes it a micro-aggression, say that, if it’s just I know it when I see it, or genuinely ambiguous, you can fall back on ‘no personal remarks’ or something like that.

And if the target says ‘it’s okay, I’m fine’, they get a mildly withering stare and ‘it’s not about you. The rules in this class are to teach students to how to interact in a formal setting. Remarks like that will offend or annoy enough people that it’s time to learn not to make them in a formal setting. You and your close friends can talk to each other however you like out of class.’

That way you’ve made the rules clear, but you’re not putting the weight of why they’re necessary on the fragile feelings of the actual target.

(IANATeacher — this is a version of how I handled manners around this kind of thing with my (white) kids. It seemed to work okay.)
posted by LizardBreath at 4:32 AM on February 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

I think that sort of approach also works for ambiguous-maybe-it’s-not-a-microagression-maybe-they’re-just-intimate-enough-to-talk-like-that. If you’re reasonably unsure, you can shut it down as too intimate for a classroom environment without presuming that the target’s feelings actually are hurt.
posted by LizardBreath at 4:34 AM on February 27, 2019

I would start with,

"A lot of people, even adults, don't know that..."

(That always seems to get my students' attention, and it's true, and it lets everybody save face).

"... Comments that might not be meant in a mean or harmful way can actually reinforce social patterns of racism and sexism, and perpetuate harmful stereotypes, and sometimes be painful or hurtful either to the person or to people around watching/hearing it. People don't do it on purpose usually, and sometimes even really good and thoughtful people can make mistakes"

Explain what a micro aggression is, teach them the vocab word and share some examples that are close to but not exactly what you've heard in class.

"I bet that when you all have your eyes and ears open, you'll notice this happening around you. In the grocery store, at your jobs and activities, even in your classes. I notice things like it in our class sometimes and it makes me sad. I will try to let you know privately when I notice it, so you can become better at noticing it yourselves and together we can make our classroom and the world better. You can make a bigger difference than you think"

This could be a positive and empowering framework for them, of you think it might with with your kids.
posted by Salamandrous at 7:51 AM on March 2, 2019

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