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Speak Up! Share Your Microaggression Too

As a French Black woman who has taught in various countries and on different continents, I have seen firsthand the subtle and pervasive nature of microaggressions in educational settings. Let me share a personal story to illustrate this.

One day, I applied for a teaching position at a French school in an African country. The hiring process went smoothly, and three women, including myself, were selected for the job. I was the only woman of color among us. On the first day of school, the principal addressed me in front of everyone and remarked, “You speak French very well.” As a native French speaker with a master’s degree earned in France, I was taken aback by his comment. He had seen my resume and knew I was born in France. Yet, there I was, feeling the need to justify myself. You see what I mean? I’m justifying myself right now… arrrf.

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What is a Microaggression?

This incident is a classic example of a microaggression. Microaggressions are subtle, often unintentional, comments or actions that convey prejudiced sentiments towards marginalized groups. They can be based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or other characteristics. Although they may seem trivial, microaggressions can have a profound psychological impact on the recipients, contributing to feelings of alienation, inadequacy, and frustration.

Microaggressions are hurtful because they perpetuate stereotypes and reinforce systemic inequalities. In my case, the principal’s remark implied that, as a Black woman, it was surprising that I spoke French well, despite my evident qualifications and background. Such comments invalidate one’s identity and achievements, reducing individuals to mere representatives of their race or ethnicity. The cumulative effect of these slights can erode self-esteem and create a hostile environment, particularly in educational settings where inclusivity and respect should be paramount.

Examples of Microaggressions

Below is a sample of five types of microaggressions, along with what they sound or look like and the message they send to the targeted group:

ThemeMicroaggressionMessage
Not a true citizen“Where are you from?”You are not an American.

“Where were you born?”You are a foreigner.

“You speak good English.”
Ascription of Intelligence“You are so articulate.”It is unusual for someone of your race to be intelligent.

Asking an Asian student to help with a math problem.All Asian students are intelligent and good at Math.
Color Blindness“When I look at you, I don’t see color.”Denying a person of color’s racial/ethnic experiences.

“America is a melting pot.”Assimilate/acculturate to the dominant culture.

“There is only one race, the human race.”Denying the individual as a racial/cultural being.
Denial of Individual Racism“I’m not racist, I have several Black friends.”I am immune to racism because I have friends of color.

“As a woman, I understand the racism you’re experiencing.”“Your racial oppression is no different than my gender oppression.
Pathologizing Cultural ValuesAsking a Black person: “Why do you have to be so loud?”The values and communication styles of the dominant/White culture are ideal.
/Communication StylesDismissing a person who brings up race/culture in a work/school setting.

What’s a Microintervention?

Dr. Derald Wing Sue defines a microintervention as “the everyday words or deeds, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate to targets of microaggressions:

  • Validation of their experiential reality
  • Value as a person
  • Affirmation of their racial or group identity
  • Support and encouragement
  • Reassurance that they are not alone”

Simply put, a microintervention is a method to provide support and directly address the microaggression at the moment it occurs. Often, people who commit microaggressions are unaware they’ve done anything wrong. Microinterventions offer a respectful way to highlight the issue while still acknowledging the harm caused, even if it was unintentional. Dr. Sue outlines four microintervention strategies that we can all use to combat microaggressions:

Make the Invisible Visible

These strategies aim to highlight the unconscious nature of microaggressions. If the slight was overt, it would be easier to recognize and address immediately. The covert nature of microaggressions makes it challenging to bring up the issue with the person responsible. To make the invisible parts visible, consider a situation where someone tells a joke with a racist punchline. One way to address this is to simply say, “I don’t get it.” This response requires the joke-teller to explain why the punchline is funny, bringing the underlying racist idea into clear view.

Disarm the Microaggression

For those who prefer a more direct approach, verbally disagreeing with someone or challenging their statement can disarm the microaggression. One technique Dr. Sue describes is the “Ouch” technique. When you witness a microaggression, respond with “Ouch!” For instance, when someone tells a joke with a racist punchline, instead of laughing, say “Ouch!”

Educate the Microaggressor

Microinterventions are not meant to be punitive. Their core goal is to educate the person who committed the offense. While most education happens over time, an immediate response to a microaggression can involve clarifying the difference between someone’s intention and their impact. For example, if someone tells a joke with a racist punchline, a microintervention might be to say, “I know you meant it as a joke, but it’s actually quite offensive.” This acknowledges the person’s good intentions while highlighting the negative impact of their words.

Seek External Support

Microaggressions don’t always occur in ideal situations. The timing might not be right to address them immediately. Additionally, it’s emotionally draining to confront every microaggression every time it happens. An alternative is to offer support or seek help. If you’re a bystander who overhears a joke with a racist punchline, check in with the person most affected by it. Let them know you heard it too and validate their feelings.

The Power of Micro Interventions

Addressing microaggressions is essential for fostering a positive and inclusive school environment. Educators, administrators, and students all play a crucial role in recognizing and challenging these subtle forms of discrimination. By embracing microinterventions, we can create a more respectful and equitable educational setting where everyone feels valued and respected.

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  1. Erica

    You’re too pretty to be smart . Is that supposed to be a compliment?

    • Audrey Sebastiao

      It’s definitely not a compliment. Some answers you can use to reverse this uncomfortable situation include asking, “What do you mean by that?” This helps clarify the intention behind the comment and addresses any underlying stereotypes.

  2. Anonyme

    Does is get hot in that ? An ignorant comment regarding my hijab

    • Audrey Sebastiao

      It’s just rude. Your choice to wear a hijab is personal and meaningful. People shouldn’t try to dismiss who you are based on their assumptions. It’s important to respect everyone’s choices and learn about different cultures.

  3. Guillaume

    Very enlightening. Educating microagressors is key indeed.

    • Audrey Sebastiao

      Thank you! Yes, sometimes people are not aware of what they’re saying. We just need to talk about it and have courageous conversations.

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