I was honored to be part of the first Project Spectrum symposium, which took place 31 October and 1 November 2018 in San Antonio at the Institute of Texas Cultures as a pre-conference for the AMS/SMT meeting there. This morning I facilitated discussion about microaggressions in academia. Here are the notes I used, for anyone who missed the session. I also provide additional resources at the bottom.
Microaggressions Workshop outline
Part 1: Defining Microaggressions
Introduction and thanks
Thanks especially to Catrina Kim for putting together this session.
This is a safe space; what a safe space is and means.
Wikipedia: safe space refers to an autonomous space created for individuals who feel marginalized to come together to communicate regarding their experiences with marginalization.
Merriam-Webster: a place (as on a college campus) intended to be free of bias, conflict, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations.
What is a Microaggression?
Catherine Wells: “Microaggressions are subtle verbal and non-verbal insults directed toward non-Whites, often done automatically and unconsciously. They are layered insults based on one’s race, gender, class, sexuality, language, immigration status, phenotype, accent, or surname.”
Examples of Microaggressions from research and contributed to workshop:
I am a native Spanish speaker, but I am perfectly fluent in English. When interviewing in this university, a senior scholar part of the musicology faculty asked me twice in our one on one interview if I was sure about studying musicology since it would imply “writing a dissertation in English.” My initial response was simply to say I was confident that I could write in English, and would also not hesitate to get help from native speakers for editing and English usage if that would be the case. When he framed the question differently and said that since I was likely to write about topics in the “Spanish speaking world” then I might consider studying in a Spanish speaking country so that my research would be read by people interested in it. My response was a timid “It is something I will consider.” The school did accept me in the end, but I chose not to attend. For years I have imagined myself having the courage to answer differently and say that it was precisely because classical music had such a long history in the Spanish speaking world and that some people still thought this was something of interest only to Spanish speakers that it would be important to do my work in another language.
A male professor in a class I was taking once made a joke about how “everything has calories, so it’s better to not eat at all.” The class was majority women. At least two people in the class have eating disorders. Nobody said anything.
Attending as a student an AMS conference I was asked by one of the members of the membership committee or the diversity committee (I can’t remember) if I had considered applying to some of their travel grants. At the time I had good support from my school so I hadn’t felt the need, so I answered no. The response left me speechless: she said “Oh you should. You are multicultural right?” To which I witty responded “wait, aren’t we all?” I understand that the coded intention was to say “you are not white” and AMS wants to diversify, but this stroke me as extremely clumsy on their part.
A (white male) colleague in a social situation made a disparaging joke about conjugating the verb “to be” in AAVE. I (white female) tried to engage him and cited some linguistic research about AAVE being just as sophisticated grammatically, to which he responded that in his experience this was false. I disengaged.
A (white male) professor consistently assumed the one Black scholar in our class was asking more basic questions than he was. Usually he [the student] would clarify quickly, but none of us were sure when/if/how to bring up this pattern.
My first year of my Ph.D. program, an older male colleague persistently initiated conversations or interrupted conversations I was having with other people to give me unsolicited advice on everything from teaching to studying.
A (male) colleague made a joke about women’s leg hair, not realizing that I didn’t shave mine (and had been avoiding showing any part of my legs at work for over a year to avoid judgment).
Part 2: Bystander/Victim/Aggressor Training
What is Bystander Training?
Why Bystander Training?(From the CDC)
The bystander approach offers several clear benefits:
–Discourages victim blaming
–Offers the chance to change social norms
–Shifts responsibility to men and women and non-binary people instead of just one gender
–The term bystander conjures up many, and sometimes conflicting, images. For some
the word connotes a passiveness, an innocent bystander who could not, or did not, do anything in a dangerous situation. For others the term includes more engagement such as someone who witnesses a car crash and calls for help or someone who “stands by” a friend when he or she is being harassed.
When to Intervene?
–Notice the event
–Consider whether the situation demands you act
–Decide if you have a responsibility to act
–Choose how to assist
–Know how to intervene safely
Reasons People Give for Not Getting Involved:
–It is not my problem.
–It is not my job.
–It is not my responsibility.
–I just don’t want to go there.
–I don’t want to make things worse.
–I don’t feel safe.
–I don’t know what to do or say.
–I don’t want to be a snitch.
–I don’t get into other people’s business.
–I believe in the rights of the individual.
–My position is precarious.
Overcoming these Reasons:
–The person involved is someone I care about
–Someone helped me once
–I’m doing what I’d want someone to do for me
–It’s the right thing to do given my personal values
–Encourage help-seeking behaviors.
–Adopt policies to encourage engagement.
–Celebrate the actions of bystanders.
Putting it in Practice
Ask for questions from participants. Ask for stories.
Discuss different kinds of microaggressions: racist, sexist, ableist, gender.
For individual incidents (from Carnegie Mellon, https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/teach/classroomclimate/strategies/microaggression.html):
- Take a deep breath: collect your thoughts before responding.
- Acknowledge: know and recognize that the other person’s perspective is their reality and truth.
- Inquire: Give students the benefit of the doubt. First, ask the student to clarify, elaborate or further explain. This will give you more information about where s/he is coming from, and may also help the speaker to become aware of what s/he is saying.
“Could you please say more about that?”
“Can you elaborate on your point?”
“It sounds like you have a strong opinion about this. Could you please tell me why?”
“What is it about this that concerns you the most?”
- Reframe: Create a different way or perspective from which to view at a situation.
“Could there be another way to look at this?”
“Let’s reframe this to explore other perspectives/interpretations. Consider for moment that… What if…?”
“I’m wondering what message this is sending and how it’s being received. Do you think you would have said this/drawn this conclusion if…”
- Identify: Directly respond to student comment as problematic. Calmly and politely explain which specific words or phrases you experienced as disrespectful (or that someone else might have). Use an “I” statement to express feelings, as appropriate, rather than commenting on or labeling the speaker.
“Saying ___ often comes up in popular culture. Some might find it problematic because of ___”
“When you said X, I felt like Y. In the future, please…”
“This seems like a good time to revisit and remind ourselves about the guidelines for discussion that we agreed upon as class.”
- Diffuse to allow productive re-engagement: Sometimes, a hot moment can get out of control.
Ask students’ to pause and write individually for moment about what just happened and how they feel about it.
Use this time as an opportunity to formulate a strategy for re-engaging the hot moment in a productive, inclusive way.
Remind your students which discussion guidelines are relevant to the situation.
- Revisit: Sometimes one is caught by surprise, misses an opportunity, or wishes s/he could have a do-over in response to a microaggression or “hot moment”. Even if the moment has passed, it’s ok to go back and address it later in class. Research indicates that an unaddressed microaggression can leave just as much of a negative impact as the microaggression itself.
“I want to go back to something that was brought up in our class.”
“Let’s rewind ___ minutes.”
“I think it would be worthwhile to revisit something that happened ____.”
- Check in: in person, talk with the targeted student(s) after class. Let them know that you value their experiences and perspective, and see if they have any suggestions about how to better support them in class.
When microaggressions are harassment
How to address harassment: experienced yourself/witnessed
Part 3: How we can educate our peers/students
–Calling attention to microaggressions:
–Speaking about microaggressions in private.
–Stating your feelings when someone commits a microaggression.
–Making suggestions for language that does not use microaggressions.
–Developing curricular activities that educate, such as student union meetings, mentor groups, etc.
–Hold anti-bias training in your department or group.
–Report incidents to woke chairs, department heads, deans, provosts, and ombudsmen.
–Nurture cross-racial and cross-class professional relationships and areas of contact.
–Avoid using sarcasm and being snide.
Closing remarks and thanks
About microaggressions: https://www.minitex.umn.edu/Training/DisplaySessionHandout.aspx?Title=Identifying%20and%20Responding%20to%20Microaggressions&SessionID=580
From Catharine Wells, “Microaggressions in the Context of Academic
Communities,” Seattle Journal for Social Justice 12, no. 2 (2012): 319–48.
“‘Microaggressions are subtle verbal and non-verbal insults directed toward non-Whites, often done automatically and unconsciously. They are layered insults based on one’s race, gender, class, sexuality, language, immigration status, phenotype, accent, or surname.’ And they give the following examples—‘being ignored for service, assumed to be guilty of anything negative, treated as inferior, stared at due to being of color, or singled out in a negative way because of being different.’ Most authors recognize that microaggressions can cause substantial injury. For example, Professor Tayyab Mahmud considers them ‘affronts to human dignity and self-respect . . . [they are] [b]ehaviors that impact not only the social existence of the victims, but also potentially leave scars on their psyche.’” (326)
“The ‘micro’ in ‘microaggression’ suggests that microaggressions inflict only minor pains and bruises; in some cases, this is true. For example, I hear the following types of comments, and their effect on me is quite minimal: ‘We shouldn’t lower the standards by recruiting women and minorities.’ ‘She reminds me of my mother in law.’ — A comment made by a colleague as an explanation for his negative vote on a female candidate. ‘Is there any way a white male can get into teaching?’ — A comment made by a student who attended a school where 92 percent of the faculty was white and male. To me, these comments betray ignorance and confusion; they are irritating but do not constitute a particular threat to my sense of well-being. There are other comments, however, that cause real pain. Here is a description reported by an African-American male who was contemplating applying for tenure: When I entered my colleague’s office, I was already deeply in pain. It was a very rough beginning. I was battle weary, bone tired. And when he began to talk, I sank into my pain which embraced me with rough, razor sharp arms. As he talked, I sensed that invisible cuts would hasten my death. I wondered if he saw my pain. He did not. As he continued to talk, I felt small and unsure. [….] It is only ‘micro’ in the sense that privileged members of the community will regard it as trivial, if they notice it at all. This makes such a remark truly dangerous.” (328–29)
“For example, I would frequently be asked for a ‘woman’s perspective’ on some particular issue. Or worse, a colleague would ask me to explain the reaction of a female student who had taken offense at a sexist comment, usually with the expectation that I would agree with him that she was oversensitive. This would leave me in the awkward position of defying his clearly communicated expectations, or undermining the female student by delegitimizing her ‘feminist’ response.” (336)
“It can be difficult to recognize microaggressions. First, if you are not part of the target class, they will not be apparent to you. We have seen that microaggressions often remain invisible to those who are not affected. In addition, there is no general rule that applies in all cases. Microaggressions need not mention race or gender. They may not even be negative in tone. ‘You have beautiful eyes,’ written on a teaching evaluation, is despite the fact that it is a positive appraisal of a characteristic that seems unrelated to the gender of the professor. Thus, avoiding microaggressions requires more than just keeping our feet out of our mouths; it requires us to think more deeply about our relations with people of different races and genders. In this connection, the following questions are worth considering.” (342)
A. Ask: How Would I Feel if Someone Said This to or About Me? (342)
B. Ask: Would You Say This to Someone Who Shared Your Race and Gender? (343)
C. Treat Each Person as an Individual Rather than as a Member of a Racial or Gender Group (345)
D. Take More Time; Be More Observant (347)
–“Wow, you’re so articulate.”
–“Are you the cleaning lady?”
–“Do you have a PhD.?”
–“James? What’s your real Asian name?”
Microaggressions in the Classroom, University of Denver:
–Failing to learn to pronounce or continuing to mispronounce the names of students after they have corrected you.
–Scheduling tests and project due dates on religious or cultural holidays.
–Disregarding religious traditions or their details. (Ex. Impacts of fasting)
–Setting low expectations for students from particular groups, neighborhoods, or feeder patterns.
–Calling on, engaging and validating one gender, class, or race of students while ignoring other students during class.
–Assigning student tasks or roles that reinforce particular gender roles or don’t allow all student flexibility across roles and responses.
–Anticipating students’ emotional responses based on gender, sexual orientation, race or ethnicity.
–Using inappropriate humor in class that degrades students from different groups.
–Expressing racially charged political opinions in class assuming that the targets of those opinions do not exist in class.
–Using the term “illegals” to reference undocumented students.
–Hosting debates in class that place students from groups who may represent a minority opinion in class in a difficult position.
–Singling students out in class because of their backgrounds.
–Expecting students of any particular group to ‘represent’ the perspectives of others of their race, gender, etc. in class discussions or debates.
–Denying the experiences of students by questioning the credibility and validity of their stories.
–Assigning class projects or creating classroom or school procedures that are heterosexist, sexist, racist, or promote other oppressions, even inadvertently.
–Using sexist language.
–Using heteronormative metaphors or examples in class.
–Assuming the gender of any student.
–Continuing to misuse pronouns even after a student, transgender or not, indicates their preferred gender pronoun.
–Assigning projects that ignore differences in socioeconomic class status and inadvertently penalize students with fewer financial resources.
–Excluding students from accessing student activities due to high financial costs.
–Assuming all students have access to and are proficient in the use of computers and applications for communications about school activities and academic work.
–Assuming that students of particular ethnicities must speak another language or must not speak English.
–Complimenting non-white students on their use of “good English.”
–Discouraging students from working on projects that explore their own social identities.
–Asking people with hidden disabilities to identify themselves in class.
–Forcing students with non‐obvious disabilities to “out” themselves or discuss them publicly.
–Ignoring student‐to‐student microaggressions, even when the interaction is not course‐related.
–Making assumptions about students and their backgrounds.
–Featuring pictures of students of only one ethnicity or gender on the school website.
–Having students engage in required reading where the protagonists are always white.
From The Microaggression Translation Chart for Academics (https://chroniclevitae.com/news/775-dear-white-academics)
What gets said to scholars of color and How it comes across:
From a white doctoral student to a biracial Ph.D. student:
“I can’t tell from your writing that you aren’t white.”
“I can’t tell that you’re not as good as me.”
From a white college student to a job interviewer:
“I want to teach in an urban setting because I want to make a real difference.”
“I want to save the little brown children and feel good about myself.”
From a white Ph.D. student in a cultural-history course to a multi-ethnic peer:
“This assignment will be easy for you.”
“You already know this material. I have to work hard to learn about your people.”
From a white female student to a black female classmate:
“You are such a strong person. I could never express myself like you.”
“You’re so black and hostile that you don’t know how to express yourself appropriately.”
From a professor to a biracial colleague:
“We need real diversity in this department.”
“Your happy yellow ass isn’t black enough. We need black people.”
From a faculty member trying to make conversation with a Latina Ph.D. student:
“My gardener is from Puebla, Mexico.”
“Aren’t all Latinos Mexican? And don’t you all know each other?”
From the chair of a hiring committee to a black female candidate:
“Tell me how you handle conflict and what it’s like when you are angry.”
“Are you an angry black woman? Are you loud or confrontational? Are you going to sue us?”
From a math student to an Asian classmate:
“You’re so smart! I want you on my team.”
“I have no clue if you’re smart. I’m just assuming you’re good at math because you’re Asian.”
From various colleagues to a black female colleague with a new hairstyle:
“Did you do something different with your hair?”
“Deep down, I’m wondering if that’s a weave, but I’m too afraid to ask. Since you probably lie.”
From a program director, about an Asian co-worker with a Korean accent:
“I guess we won’t have Dr. Namgoong making phone calls, ha ha.”
“I have no respect for cultural differences, and you can bet I make similarly offensive comments like these about you to others.”
From a professor to an African-American graduate student:
“Do you understand how to cite a paper using MLA style?”
“You got through high school and college, but I still think you’re illiterate.”
From the chair of a search committee who can’t pronounce an “ethnic-sounding” name:
“Whoa, that’s hard. Is there anything else I can call you?”
“I can’t be bothered to learn to say your name.”
From a white student to his minority professor:
“Do you really have a Ph.D.?”
“Are you really, truly qualified to teach here and at this level? Prove it!”
From a white campus police officer to a black female professor:
“Excuse me, miss! There are only faculty offices down that hall.”
“Stop! You are clearly trespassing and have no right to be here.”
From a white student filling out a course evaluation for a black professor:
“This professor takes herself and her subject too seriously.”
“How dare she think what she has to say or has to teach should merit any respect? Who does she think she is?”
From a white faculty member to a black professor:
“Of course you write about black women.”
“What else could you possibly be expected to or qualified to write about?”
From a white faculty member to a black professor:
“You got into Princeton for your doctorate? Whoa!”
“How on earth did you manage to get into that school?”
From a white student taking a course taught by a black female professor:
“This professor does not make me feel comfortable in class.”
“This professor makes me think about race and doesn’t console me in class and treat me like a ‘mammy’ would.”
From a white colleague who is tired of talking about race:
“Let’s not make everything about race.”
“Why are you bringing up this thing that only impacts you as if we need to care about it.”