Imagine this: you are a college student in a creative writing class. Your (White) professor has asked everyone in the class to write a short story about what family means to them and how their family has impacted their worldview. After the professor asks your class if anyone would like to share their story aloud, a Black student states that they would like to share their story about how their father made them into the person they are today. Before they start reading their piece, the professor says, “Yes, absent fathers can be so influential in developing resilience. I’m excited to hear your piece.” The Black student didn’t say anything about the nature of their relationship with their father. However the White professor assumed that the student’s father was absent because of the harmful stereotype that most Black fathers are absent fathers or “deadbeat dads.” The Black student, now feeling judged and unsafe in the classroom, no longer feels comfortable sharing their piece, or even being in the class. Because of the professor’s position of power at the college, no one in the class feels comfortable standing up for the student and telling the professor that what they said was hurtful.
Microaggressions, defined by Sue et al. in their 2019 article Disarming Racial Microaggressions: Microintervention Strategies for Targets, White Allies and Bystanders, are “every day slights, insults, putdowns, invalidations, and offensive behaviors that people of color experience in daily interactions with generally well-intentioned White Americans who may be unaware that they have engaged in racially demeaning ways toward target groups.” Although explicit acts of racism still occur on a regular basis in our society, much of the racism experienced by people of color on a daily basis are different types of microaggressions. Microaggressions are not blatant like macroaggressions, or acts of explicit racism, are. Because of this, it may be difficult for people who either aren’t targets of microaggressions (namely, people of color) or aren’t educated in exactly what microaggressions entail to be able to identify microaggressions and know how to intervene when they witness one.
The microaggression in the hypothetical scenario may still be considered to be obviously racist to many people. A common example of a microaggression in the classroom that may be more subtle is a White professor constantly mixing up the names of the only two Black students in the room. Many people may remain silent after they witness a microaggression because they do not know how to address it. How are students expected to be willing to defend themselves (or their peers) to their professors if their professors are in positions of power at the university? They could report the professor’s microaggression to the university using a Title IX form, (which Sue et al.’s article recommends as a “microintervention”, or an intervention on microaggressions), however, because microaggressions aren’t explicit acts of racism, universities may not recognize them as actions that professors need to be held accountable for. Given this, how are students of color supposed to feel comfortable reporting or empowered to report microaggressions to their universities if they know that their universities will not defend their students?
This question was brought up in a recent class discussion that I was involved in during which a student found my college’s faculty Code of Conduct online and pointed out that there was no mention of microaggressions anywhere in the document. Another student made the comment that tenured professors may know that they “can say and do whatever they want” because they know that they won’t get fired. So what is the point of reporting a microaggression to the college if the college won’t do anything to make the student safer in the classroom?
In our class discussion, some people shared that microaggression and microintervention training for both students and faculty could be helpful in both preventing microaggressions in the first place and making students feel more empowered to confront them. Other people stated that the college should amend the faculty Code of Conduct to include clear policies that outline what microaggressions are and how the college would handle a professor who commits one. It is clear that colleges should be doing more to address microaggressions in order to better protect students of color, but it feels as if colleges are instead choosing to protect their faculty instead. How can colleges protect students from experiencing microaggressions and how can we demand that they do?