“Should I say something about what was just said/done?”

“Am I overreacting?”

“Did they seriously think that was okay to say?”

“Why do I feel unwelcome and incompetent?”

If any of these internal dialogues resonated with you, you might have experienced a microaggression, and, most likely your students have too! Yikes. That’s right- as well intentioned as we are as educators, we’ve ALL unknowingly (or ignorantly) committed microaggressions toward students. Often our own implicit biases are the culprit for this behaviour. 

So, what are microaggressions? Microaggressions are brief and regular verbal, non-verbal and/or environmental communications that underhandedly discriminate against marginalized people in society. These discriminatory communications are ongoing and cumulative over the span of an individual’s lifetime. The greater number of marginalized social identities one identifies with, the exponentially more microaggressions they will likely encounter in everyday life. (Pierce 1970, 1980; Oluo, 2018; Pérez Huber and Solorzano, 2015; Kohli and Solorzano, 2012; Sue, 2010).

But, wait. You might be thinking, “I don’t say or do microaggressive things ‘regularly’!” Or, “It just happens! My intentions are always good, and that’s what matters.”  It’s important to remember that the focus needs to be on the negatively impacted. It’s not about whether you committed the microaggression regularly or if your intentions were good. It’s important to consider the fact that specific marginalized identities are on the receiving end of these microaggressions on a constant basis.  Compounded over a lifetime, this can have a detrimental impact on the well-being and achievement of students from marginalized groups.

For example, think about the student who is regularly asked to pronounce words in an Anglicized way.  What internalized messages does this send to a child about their worth, intelligence, ethnicity, and sense of citizenship?  Accent policing promotes an assimilationist and xenophobic agenda. Or, beginning class each Monday morning with, “What did you do with your mom and dad this weekend?” For the child who comes from a family without one mom AND one dad, what internalized messages are they receiving about valued family structures? Furthermore, how might a child’s hesitancy or inability to answer this question (based on a lack of access into this learning activity), be perceived by educators? These are just two simple examples of ways we might commit microaggressions in the classroom. To view a more comprehensive list of examples, see the table below by Sharla Serasanke Falodi. 

So, what does this mean for us as educators?  How can we become more mindful of how we interact with students and adequately support those students who are being underserved.  First, the more we know about our students, who they are and their intersecting identities the more we’re able to be sensitive and responsive to their needs.  As educators, it’s vital to recognize that despite the differences in our social identities and lived experiences, we share something that is universal and it is our positional power over students. Our positional power as educators is the cornerstone for why all of us have committed microaggressions against students. Each microaggression committed against students in schools supports in maintaining the various institutional oppressions that exist in our school system. Having this positional power is why we must engage in continued interrogation of our practice and biases to ensure we are confronting barriers and not creating them- particularly for our most marginalized students and families.

Educator Self-Reflection Tool: Reduce Harm in Classrooms, Interrupt Microaggressions 

If you’d like to continue your journey as a self-reflective practitioner by committing to anti-oppressive practices then consider referring to this Educator Self-Reflection Tool. This tool is not exhaustive and will evolve as we continue to learn and hear feedback from you. The microaggressions are categorized by mode of communication, but these are not rigid. Many microaggressions can be communicated in more than one way. 

What is important to note is that children are constantly listening, observing, challenging and learning in our classrooms. As educators we make hundreds of decisions a day and many of these need to be made quickly in snap judgements. Research shows that our implicit biases play out when we are multi-tasking and making decisions under a time crunch. Since microaggressions are our (act)ualized implicit biases, the classroom can be a really violent space if we aren’t aware.

This self-reflection tool might support in refining your intentionality when co-constructing your classroom climate with students. You’ll notice how many of these microaggressions against students are only possible because of our positional power as educators. This same positional power can be used to interrupt microaggressions you see committed by your colleagues or by other students. We are in such a privileged position as educators (pun intended)!

I tell my students… When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.

– Toni Morrison

*Printable version of self-reflection tool in PDF: http://bit.ly/MGselfreflect. Tool and table by Sharla Serasanke Falodi.

By: Sharla Serasanke Falodi & Farah Rahemtula

Kohli, R. & Solórzano, Daniel G. (2012) Teachers, please learn our names!: racial microaggressions and the K-12 classroom, Race Ethnicity and Education, 15(4), 441-462

Kohli, R., Pizarro, M., & Nevárez, A. (2017). The “New racism” of K–12 schools: Centering critical research on racism. Review of Research in Education, 41(1), 182-202.

Oluo, I. (2018). So you want to talk about race.

Pérez Huber, L., & Solorzano, D. G. (2015). Racial microaggressions as a tool for critical race research. Race Ethnicity and Education, 18(3), 297-320.

Pierce, C. (1970) “Offensive Mechanisms.” In The Black Seventies, edited by F. Barbour, 265–282. Boston, MA: Porter Sargent.

Pierce, C. (1980) “Social Trace Contaminants: Subtle Indicators of Racism in TV.” In Television and Social Behavior: Beyond Violence and Children, edited by S. Withey and R. Abeles, 249–257. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Suárez-Orozco, C., Casanova, S., Martin, M., Katsiaficas, D., Cuellar, V., Smith, N., & Dias, S. (2015). Toxic rain in class: Classroom interpersonal microaggressions. Educational Researcher, 44(3), 151-160.

Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, gender, and sexual orientation. John Wiley & Sons.

Additional Resource
Microaggressions in K-12 Education:

Farah Rahemtula
Sharla Serasanke Falodi