Addressing Microaggressions in the Classroom to Improve Learning Outcomes

As a chief diversity officer (CDO), I often hear from students their concerns when they feel that a microaggression has been directed at them in the classroom — whether it came from a professor or a student. The term microaggression refers to an often subtle, hurtful statement or action that is directed at a member of a marginalized group, such as a person from a racial or ethnic minority, an individual with a disability, or a member of the LGBTQ+ community.

When these occur, the receiver feels uncomfortable or hurt by the statement or behavior. Examples include making comments like, “You don’t look like a Jew”; going beyond normal social boundaries to physically touch someone, such as feeling his or her dreadlocks; or assuming someone’s gender by using the wrong pronoun. The receiver may perceive the interaction as derogatory or hostile when it may actually be based
on ignorance. 

While microaggressions are often unintentional or unconscious — although they can also be fully intentional — when they occur in the classroom, they need to be addressed. Not doing so will likely change the dynamic between and among students and the instructor. There are two scenarios in which a microaggression can occur in the classroom: Either the professor engages in a microaggressive behavior, whether intentional or not, and the receiver and possibly other students recognize the incident, or a student commits the microaggression.

Let’s consider the first example, in which a faculty member initiates a microaggression. If and when the behavior is brought to the professor’s attention, he or she may initially react in a defensive manner, possibly before considering the full ramifications of his or her actions. If the classroom environment is designed as a place for open discussion and discourse, the receiver may address the issue openly with the instructor — although this is rare. There are also occasions when, after an incident has occurred, the professor realizes that he or she may have committed a microaggression and understands that this could influence the classroom dynamic. In this case, he or she may seek assistance from the CDO or another colleague to help mend the situation. 

In either of these situations, the perception of not only the receiver but also the other students in the classroom may be influenced by the professor’s response. If, on the one hand, the faculty member chooses not to address the issue, the classroom environment may deteriorate. Students may lose respect for the professor, the receiver may no longer be comfortable in the classroom during future discussions, the incident may affect faculty evaluations, or worse, students may be oblivious to the fact that a microaggression has even occurred and therefore will not understand the full impact of the incident. On the other hand, if the professor addresses the class on the topic of microaggressions and makes amends to the receiver, the level of respect students have for him or her may increase — for, in our culture, recognizing one’s own transgressions and apologizing for them can have a profoundly positive effect on trust and respect.  

Now let’s consider the case of a student engaging in a microaggression. If the classroom is designed as a place for open dialogue around social issues, the professor likely has the skills needed to effectively address the situation. If the classroom is a typical lecture hall or a course where one would not expect to address this topic — say a math, science, or art class — the professor may feel as if he or she does not have the expertise to handle the topic or that he or she cannot easily address the issue. 

Student-initiated microaggressions can take many forms, but a few examples include assuming that someone is proficient in a particular subject based on his or her identity (e.g., Asians are good at math); male students intentionally or unintentionally excluding female students from a group research project; or asking someone from a certain culture, identity, or background — or assuming that he or she is from a specific background — to be the sole representative of all things pertaining to that group. 

So, how should faculty members address microaggressions in the classroom setting? Although there are many ways to interact in a classroom, there are three non-mutually exclusive ways one could approach these incidents. For each of these, the professor needs to acknowledge that the discussion may be challenging for some and therefore would expect and work to ensure that the class will allow for a level of respectful conversation around the topic.

Turn the tables: Ask students what they think and how they would address the situation. Try to include in the discussion the view of the receiver who may be too hurt, emotional, or confused to address the action or comment.

Have a private conversation: Taking the opportunity to have a private conversation allows time and space for the receiver to address the situation. He or she may express emotions or confusion about the microaggression. Although the faculty member should lead the discussion, the situation may warrant having the CDO present for this conversation. This privacy allows for receivers to better express their thoughts and validate their feelings, as well as helps the professor determine the best learning outcome for the receiver as well as other students in the class.

Open discussion: The faculty member may want to pause class to offer an opportunity for everyone to discuss the microaggression as a group; however, he or she should have enough of an understanding of the dynamics of microaggressions to lead the discussion. But don’t be surprised if a student has a better understanding of these, as many have likely participated in diversity and inclusion trainings in high school and have baseline knowledge of social justice and equity issues. Allow appropriate time for discussions — with a preamble on the importance of respect — as you delve into this challenging topic. Control the conversation deftly so as not to “put down” the person who committed the microaggression. Instead, use this as an opportunity to educate this student and the class on this and potentially broader issues. To close, you might encourage them to take courses or workshops to broaden their understanding of concepts like microaggression, implicit bias, and social justice.

Microaggressions are not often easily recognizable, but an immediate response to them can prevent negative emotions from festering. They may affect classroom dynamics, but the response by the professor during and after incidents will play a key role in students’ perceptions and experience in the class. Faculty and student interactions, evaluations of faculty, and attendance may also be affected. 

Professors who utilize the expertise and advice of the CDO will likely experience more meaningful, productive learning outcomes for themselves and students alike. Such collaborations can help higher education institutions prepare students to meet the challenges of working and living in a global society.●

Gretchel L. Hathaway, PhD, is dean of diversity and inclusion and chief diversity officer at Union College in New York. She is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board.