Microaggressions: How intent and impact don’t always go together.

I’ve recently started including the topic of microaggressions in my academic development workshops, and here is one reflection on the topic (including the super helpful sandals&boots-analogy by Presley Pizzo). I initially wrote this for a newsletter to all teachers at my faculty, but then I also wrote a second – much more hands-on-“three-things-to-do” – version, which was ultimately the one that was deemed more fitting for the target audience. But I still like this one, so here I’m giving you both. So without further ado:

“That’s not what I said, and it’s definitely not what I meant, and do you really think someone like me would do such a thing?”

As someone who has been assaulted by her professor as a student, I recently took offence to my colleague off-handedly saying that he had “heard all the stories” about what it is like to be a woman studying and working in a male-dominated environment. He had not heard my story, and he was one in a line of many people who appeared not to be interested in listening to it, either. Dismissing my lived experience and – by extension – me as a person. Or that is how I felt.

When I brought up his comment in a later conversation, instead of hearing “oh, I’m sorry, I did not notice! Are you ok, and what can I do to make things better?” as I was expecting from him, my colleague at first didn’t remember the situation at all, then did not see why it was significant to me when it hadn’t been to him, and then asked how – based on our shared history of open and trusting communication and collaboration – I could even think of him as someone who would not want to hear my voice. And how I could get even more upset by his reaction now, when there was clearly nothing to be upset about in the first place. Here is how: Sometimes actions have harmful impact, even when there was no bad intention at all.

Imagine a crowded bus that suddenly stops, and someone, surprised by the sudden change in movement and losing their balance, accidentally steps on someone else’s toes[1]. “Oh, I’m sorry, I did not notice! Are you ok, and what can I do to make things better?” will probably be out before the bus has even fully stopped, and everybody will make sure to take their feet off all other people’s feet as quickly as possible. It is obvious to everybody that there was no bad intent. Yet, the encounter might have caused harm. Especially if the person whose toes were being stepped on was wearing sandals, and the other person heavy boots. Boots protect and make it more difficult to feel what is being stepping on – both because the soles dampen the impact, but also because being stepped on the toe while wearing boots is generally not an experience that particularly sticks to memory. Sandals, on the other hand, don’t provide protection, and repeatedly being stepped on the toes wearing sandals might leave a lasting memory of the sensation, or even physical traces like bruises, and an anxious anticipation of the next instance a bus suddenly stops.

This is similar to other previous bad experiences – for example of discriminated against – that add cognitive load: We might anticipate or fear hostile behaviour or harassment as soon as we see even the slightest hint in that direction, and spend energy on trying to figure out if that person is supportive of us and just clueless, or knowingly hostile. Some people are overproportionately confronted with prejudices and aggressions, especially if they belong to several discriminated-against groups at once, while other people are relatively protected and seldomly or never make similar experiences.  The impact of any individual toe-stepping event on the former will be much higher than on the latter, for whom the impact will also accumulate much faster. This makes it very important that we are careful – both on a bus and outside of the metaphor – to not harm others, especially those less protected. And this also explains why my colleague’s reaction, that from the outside might not look hurtful at all, did have an impact on me.

How can we anticipate situations where we might accidentally step on someone’s toes, in order to avoid them? Of course, on a bus it’s easy to make sure to hold on to something more solid than our phones, but what about interactions with our colleagues or students? Here it is helpful to consider who might be wearing the metaphorical sandals, and what stepping on their metaphorical toes might look like. What minorities are present in my class and what is likely to hurt them? Are we, for example, telling women we see them as potential mates, not as potential collaborators? Are we telling men they should be “real men” and “man up”? Is our gold standard how things have always been done here, making other institutions or educational systems seem inferior? Are we assuming that language or physical capability is somehow related to intellectual capability? There are many sandal-wearing people out there, even though it might not be immediately obvious to us[2].

What can we do when we accidentally and metaphorically stepped on someone’s toes? The same thing we would do in a situation where it happened literally: Apologize, check they are ok, stop harming them as quickly as possible, and put effort into making sure it does not happen again. And try not to fall into the trap of telling them that they should get used to it, because it will continue to happen as long as they get on a bus wearing sandals, and that the experience cannot possibly have hurt them since, from our boot-wearing experience, something like this does not hurt.

And what if our toes are being stepped on, or we witness someone stepping on someone else’s toes? As a witness, we should find a way to either address the toe-stepper and interfere[3], or at least support the person in sandals by showing them that they matter and that someone cares[4]. If someone is stepping on our toes, we should make sure to put on our own oxygen mask first (how is that for mixed metaphors), and not feel obliged to educate that person right then and there. If we have the capacity to do it, great! If not, that is totally ok.

Depending on the context, it might be possible and even desirable to circle back to the incident at a later time, though. That is what happened with my colleague in that story I shared in the beginning of this article: We did talk about it, and it ended up making the relationship stronger, and both of us more aware: of microaggressions, of how intent and impact are not necessarily the same thing, and of how to talk about them in a constructive manner.

And this is where the second version of the article for the teacher newsletter comes in, so check it out below!

[1] The origin of the boots-and-sandals metaphor, including common responses and then better responses: https://guidetoallyship.com/#how-to-handle-mistakes

[2] Podcast conversation of five testimonials: https://shows.acast.com/whatareyougoingtodowiththat/episodes/microaggressions

[4] Amie Thurber & Robin DiAngelo (2018). “Microaggressions: Intervening in three acts”, Journal of Ethnic & Cultural Diversity in Social Work, 27:1, 17-27, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/15313204.2017.1417941

3 easy steps to help our students think more about what we want them to learn, and less about whether they are welcome and safe in our classes

In an ideal world, students spend their time in our classes mostly thinking about what we are trying to teach, how it relates to what they know already and what they want to learn. Not, for example, about their plans for the weekend. We can influence this to a certain extent by how we teach, but our influence is, sadly, limited. But one topic our students think about a lot is who they are, how they are being perceived by others, and whether they “fit in”. And those thoughts are often triggered by things we as teachers say, and that we can easily avoid saying in order for students to not get distracted from our content. So how do we do that?

1. Do not activate stereotypes.

Students that belong to a minority (or several minorities at once, like being both from a foreign country and being female in a mostly Swedish and male environment) might be very aware that there are few others “like them”, and that they might be perceived as representing a specific group of people that is typically stereotyped in a certain way (“Women have such eye for details!”, “Germans are always on time!”). Even if stereotypes are mostly positive, activating them puts a mental and emotional strain on students from those groups, as they (and their peers) are now reminded of their belonging to a certain group, and they will try to not confirm any negative stereotypes also associated with their group (“Women are not as capable in STEM subjects.”, “Germans are undiplomatically direct and have no humor.”). Always considering how their actions can be perceived in the light of what others might think about their group, and how to act as to not confirm stereotypes, uses a lot of those students’ cognitive capacity that therefore isn’t available to thinking about the topics we really want them to think about. For students belonging to several marginalized groups at once, or one that is frequently brought to attention, this can become a distinct disadvantage which keeps them from performing as well as their peers, who can focus on what they are actually supposed to focus on, without being confronted with this “stereotype threat”.

Questions to reflect on:

  • What marginalized groups (For example based on gender, sexuality, nationality, language skills, parents’ income, family history of attending higher education, study program) might be present in my class, thus making it likely that students have experienced discrimination based on their belonging to certain groups in their lives?
  • What kind of expressions do I commonly use that might trigger stereotype threat (For example, do I refer to my violin teacher as “my Hungarian violin teacher” as a shortcut to evoke images of how I was taught to work hard and systematically, and strive for perfection at a young age, which retrospectively is a skill for life that I appreciate a lot, but this is not necessarily a popular teaching style with everybody)?

2. Do not commit microaggressions.

Even without bad intent, we can have harmful impact on our students. Of course, there is a spectrum: at the extreme end, there are actions towards students can be clearly classified as racist, sexist, … and that are very obviously not ok. But even before that, we might have prejudices that we are not aware of, and that play out against us, and much worse, against our students. Do we turn to the tall, blonde, Swedish male student to help us solve an issue with classroom technology over the short, dark, foreign women? Do we say “don’t be such a girl”, or “man up!” when someone hurts themselves in a lab? Do we provide supplementary reading materials in a language that isn’t accessible to everybody because we are assuming that those students that are fluent in that language are also the ones who are most likely to want to look into extra materials?

All of these instances will take up emotional and mental space for some of our students, because students now have to figure out what the teacher actually meant: Were they, the teacher, subtly being racist, sexist, making assumption about our motivation based on our language skills, or were they just clueless? If they perceive me, the student, mostly as a member of a specific group and not as an individual, what do they actually assume about me? Would I put myself in a vulnerable position if I asked them for a letter of reference, approached them with a question I have, wrote my Master thesis with them? How will they talk about me behind my back?

Also, our actions might trigger memories of previous bad experiences caused by their belonging to certain groups that the students might have to re-process now that those memories have been brought back to their attention. And for students that belong to several marginalized groups at once, the impact accumulates. We, as teachers, should do our best to not cause this kind of anxiety in our students.

Questions to reflect on:

  • Do I have different expectations depending on what groups a student belongs to?
  • How can I free myself of prejudices, and while I am working towards that, how can I make sure to certainly never voice them to my students?
  • Do I use inclusive terminology, or where can I build my repertoire (“clueless” instead of “blind”, “humankind” instead of “mankind”, “block list” instead of “black list”)?

3. If something happened, fix it ASAP.

Sometimes, we are only realising what we are saying as we hear ourselves say it, or as we observe a student’s reaction. In that case, it is our job as teachers to make sure to reduce harm, either directly in the situation, or as soon as possible afterwards. This might mean calling ourselves out on having said something stupid, apologising for and distancing ourselves from it, checking in with a student afterwards to make sure they are ok. And making an explicit effort to ensure that something similar does not happen again.

Or we witness something that someone else says or does. If it is one of the students, depending on what they said, maybe calling them out in the moment in front of a whole class is not the best way forward. But we can talk to them in private afterwards, check in with the affected student, and address the topic more generally.

Questions to reflect on:

  • How can I become more aware of things I might say or do that are harmful to students?
  • How do I want to react when I realize I said something that might be harmful to students?
  • How do I want to react when I hear a student say something that might be harmful to others?
  • How can I make sure no student has doubts about their belonging and safety in my class?

If you are interested in learning more about the topic, including helpful suggestions, here are some recommendations:


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