Before the semester started, I attended a workshop on effectively navigating difficult dialogue in the classroom, co-organized by my own institution (University of Richmond) and another nearby college (VCU). The bulk of the three-hour long workshop seemed to revolve around microaggressions that occur in the classroom; but, the overall goal was to build our toolkits as educators to recognize them and hopefully diffuse them, and understand what happens when we fail to do so.
Psychologist Derald W. Sue and his colleague define microaggressions as “[b]rief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group” (Sue et al., 2007, p. 273). Such experiences have various negative consequences for marginalized individuals who may face various microaggressions throughout the day. As Dr. Sue and colleagues highlight in other work, they may also produce difficult, tense, unworkable dialogue when they occur in the classroom.
Below are a few strategies we discussed in the workshop to prevent, recognize, and diffuse microaggressions that occur in the classroom:
- Set a tone of inclusion, safety, and respect from the beginning of the class. One specific strategy is to allow the students to develop a set of ground rules that will be used for classroom discussion for the semester. Some good examples that we, as workshop participants, came up with include: use “I” statements (speak for yourself); avoid interrupting others; avoid passing judgement; minimize defensiveness; confidentiality; there are no “stupid” questions; take note of others emotions to gauge (dis)comfort. From personal experience, this worked great in a class of 11 students, but does not seem as significant in my class of 24. I suspect an important step even before this one is to clearly define what discussion looks like in one’s class, particularly given the (large) size.
- Pay attention to classroom dynamics. Has a student’s body language changed from calm to tense? Or, engaged to disengaged? Has a student that usually talks often become silent all of a sudden? Do students change their chosen seat in the classroom after sitting in one place for sometime? (In other words, are they avoiding another student, or maybe moving further away or closer to you?) Is a student with otherwise perfect attendance suddenly absent after a class that seemed odd or tense? Some of these, hopefully, attune you to difficulties and tension that arise right away so that you do not see lingering effects in the next class meeting or thereafter.
- Take an active, not passive, approach to addressing microaggressions when they occur. This means continuing to actively facilitate classroom discussion rather than allowing the students to take over. Even if you are uncomfortable, refrain from changing the subject or becoming silent all together. As much as possible, contain your own emotions in hopes that you can deal with them after class.
- Another strategy to consider before the semester even begins is becoming more comfortable with the course material, but also (even if not related) talking about issues of inequality, prejudice, and discrimination. You should not rely on students to respond in certain ways or to speak as experts on behalf of their own racial or ethnic group. I personally struggle with this, sometimes (wrongly) assuming that certain students will offer a critical view on some issue I bring up; sometimes, students will surprise you by taking a different view or remaining silent all together. While this, on the surface, makes sense as the responsibility for the lone instructor for the course, I also understand the constraints we (especially marginalized scholars) feel. We worry about being intensely challenged by a student or disrespected, or about being dismissed as “biased” or prejudiced. And, we worry how this will affect future classroom dynamics, course evaluations, etc.
- Challenge microaggressions directly. Ask deeper questions that encourage students to name and examine their underlying assumptions. Remind students of the ground rules that the class set at the beginning of the semester. If the comment is not even relevant to the subject, let the students know (while also signaling that the comment was hurtful or offensive). If the incident was serious enough, deal with the student(s) directly after class.
- If relevant, cover microaggressions in the class. This will familiarize unfamiliar students, and may help marginalized students give name to these subtle yet pervasive experiences. It will provide students with a common language and conceptualization to use in class discussion.
- When a microaggression occurs, make sure to acknowledge the (potential) victim(s), as well. Effectively diffusing such incidents is partly work to address the perpetrator (intentions, assumptions, learning from one’s mistakes, learning how others were hurt) and partly work to address the victim (emotional/social/physical responses, lingering impact). One of the major pitfalls is the insult of not having one’s existence, experiences, and emotions validated following the injury of a microaggression. Students of color, for example, may be further silenced following a racist microaggression if the instructor fails to signal that they are aware of it and that someone was hurt by it. This, of course, does not mean looking at students of color and asking, “you’re Latina — how did that comment make you feel?” Maybe it is best to ask the entire class how they felt, and explicitly naming that some people of color may be hurt by such comments. It is not enough to accept what may feel like shallow comments from well-meaning white students.