Microaggressions are the everyday slights, insults, putdowns, invalidations, and offensive behaviors that people from marginalized groups experience in daily interactions with generally well-intentioned White Americans who may be unaware that they have engaged in demeaning ways. This term is often misrepresented or misunderstood, in that the acts are represented as small and insignificant slights and consequently, the victims can be seen as overreacting or being dramatic. The term “microaggression” focuses on the repeated nature of these events, and the interpersonal nature of the interaction, such as the frequently occurring incidents of coronavirus-related discrimination. “Macroaggressions” refer to systemic and institutional forms of racism which are represented in the philosophy, programs, policies, practices and structures of the university. Ron Berk offers a taxonomy that includes a discussion of hierarchical microaggressions frequently experienced on college campuses. 

Microaggressions in the classroom can disrupt students’ ability to engage in the learning process because their feelings of belonging are called into question. This study conducted at the University of Illinois provides data on racial microaggressions in the classroom and offers stories from students of color. Many instructors seek out advice on how to handle microaggressions, get their students back on track to learning, and address any conflict that has happened in class. Derald Wing Sue notes that “We will all commit blunders – racial, gender, sexual orientation blunders. It’s not how you cover up that’s important. It is how you recover.” He recommends being honest and open, instead of defensive. You might say to your student “I think that I have said something or done something that has offended or upset you. What is it that I have done?” Take time to reflect on what you hear, and how your privilege and cultural conditioning may have caused a blind spot for you.

Studies indicate that instructors often utilize ineffective interventions that avoid the microaggression instead of addressing it directly. Microinterventions are specific practices that address microaggressions and support the student who has been harmed. Microinterventions have been designed to: 

  • Validate the experience of the target of a microaggression
  • Communicate their value as a person
  • Affirm their racial or group identity
  • Support and encourage their experience on campus
  • Reassure them that they are not alone

The strategies in this document created by Dr. Sue will help to strengthen your anti-racism practices in your work with students. However, it is important to recognize the context and environmental considerations for your microintervention strategy. Becoming an ally for your students requires thoughtful research, as well as honest and open communication with those who are harmed by microaggressions. Use the resources below to start learning more about the impact of microaggressions on marginalized groups on campus. Attend trainings such as the “Interrupting Racism” and “Interrupting Sexism” offered by The Center for Inclusion and Social Change. To seek confidential support, reporting concerns, and learning skills for helping others, visit CU’s Don’t Ignore It page.

Further reading & resources:

​ Berk, R. “Microaggressions Trilogy: Part 1, Why do Microaggressions matter?” Journal of Faculty Development, 31(1), 63–73. 

​ Berk, R. “Microaggressions Trilogy: Part 2.  Microaggressions in the academic workplace.” Journal of Faculty Development, 31(2). 69–83. 

​ Berk, R. “Microaggressions Trilogy: Part 3.  Microaggressions in the classroom.” Journal of Faculty Development, 31(3), 95–110. 

​ EdX, Columbia Center for Teaching & Learning, “Inclusive Teaching: Supporting All Students in the College Classroom”.

​ Sue, D.W. “Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race.” Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2015.

​ Sue, D.W., Alsaidi, S., Awad, M.N., Glaeser, E., Calle, C. and Mendez, N. “Disarming Racial Microaggressions: Microintervention Strategies for Targets, White Allies, and Bystanders.” American Psychologist, 74, no. 1 (2019): 128-142.

​ Sue, D. W., Lin, A.I., Torino, G.C., Capodilupo, C.M. and Rivera, D.P. “Racial Microaggressions and Difficult Dialogues on Race in the Classroom.” Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 15, no. 2 (2009): 183-190.