“Your name is hard to pronounce.”
“You speak English surprisingly well.”
“You’ve done so well despite your background.”
“You don’t act like a girl.”
“You don’t dress like a boy.”
If you’ve ever heard something like these or similar statements said to someone who identifies as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous or Person of Color) or as LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersex, asexual and other gender/sexual minorities), then you may have witnessed a microaggression.
What are microaggressions?
Microaggressions are defined as every day, subtle, intentional or unintentional interactions or behaviors that communicate some sort of bias toward historically marginalized groups. These can be comments, interactions, body language or other behaviors that make a person or group of people feel less than another person or group.
Are microaggressions harmful?
Most people don’t mean for microaggressions to be offensive. In fact, many people who make such statements often believe they’re complimenting the person. On the other hand, microaggressions can sometimes be intentionally hurtful.
Microagressions can have a negative impact:
- They can make someone feel bad about themselves and send the message they don’t belong or are less-than. Like other forms of discrimination, microaggressions are based on systems and institutions that have historically privileged certain groups and disadvantaged or oppressed others.
- Repeated exposure to microaggressions in the form of insensitive comments, a backhanded compliment and actions that exclude may increase stress, anxiety or depression among people who identify as immigrants, BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ or other marginalized groups.
Microaggressions take place in everyday situations, such as conversations with friends or in the workplace.
How can I as a parent or educator teach about microaggressions?
We know kids learn habits and opinions from the adults in their lives. If you’d like to teach your children to be open-minded and respectful as well as more informed on microaggressions, try these ideas:
If you’re a parent:
- Rethink some of what you were brought up to believe and statements you’ve made in the past. Try viewing situations from the perspective of others, to become an empathetic ally and practice humility.
- Teach your child, in an age-appropriate way, about the racial injustices that have existed throughout American history. Let them know your family may benefit from privileges other families don’t have because of characteristics, such as the color of your skin, or identities. Take a look at these books on race and ethnicity that may help get this conversation started.
- Help your child understand they may not feel good if people assumed things about them because of the way they looked or made jokes about them or their background because they belonged to a certain group. By being aware of this issue, they may be less likely to make comments.
- Model appropriate and inclusive ways of asking questions about the differences of others framed in a genuine interest to learn and do not make others feel like an outsider. Phrase questions in a way that show people you are interested in learning and not making others feel like outsiders. Tell your child you are also open to try to help answer questions about differences and learn more about others.
- If you have committed a microaggression and become aware of it, demonstrate a response for your child that models compassion, humility and respect for the person or group. Avoid jumping to a defensive or emotional response, even if it might feel embarrassing.
- It’s important to recognize and teach your child intent does not negate the fact that microaggressions are hurtful statements or actions.
If you’re an educator:
- Set the expectation that everyone’s personal identity will be respected in the classroom. Recognize the classroom may not feel inclusive for all students, so create clear expectations upfront about mutual respect and tolerance.
- Feature a variety of historical events and figures in lessons that might not always be featured in textbooks.
- Teach your students how powerful words can be. Ask students to mention times others hurt their feelings, gradually crumpling a piece of paper in response to the comments until it’s balled up. Then smooth out the paper while the students share compliments they’ve received – but show the paper now has permanent wrinkles. Explain that microaggressions can make a permanent impression on someone, just liked a balled-up piece of paper.
- Build a classroom culture where both teachers and students model and regularly practice lifting each other up through positive affirmations and statements about one another.
- Read books aloud featuring characters who experience microaggressions (like Don’t Touch My Hair or The Name Jar), for insight from a child’s viewpoint. Explain classmates can stick up for each other when someone says something inappropriate.
- When you identify microaggressions in your classroom, discuss them in a way that is not shameful or embarrassing to individuals or groups. Ask questions to clarify what was meant and figure out strategies to help challenge preconceived notions, so the class can feel more comfortable and respected.
- Provide opportunities for all students to have their voice heard in the classroom through strategies like providing alternative ways for students to comment/share and random selection of students.
- Help students express their feelings in an assertive manner, such as through “I” statements, that include the person’s feelings and impact of the action/statement on the person.