Understanding Micro-Aggression

“Kenisha . . . uh . . . Wash-ee-nay-tock?  Am I close?  No?  Let me spell it:  W, A, S, H, I, N, A, W, A, T, O, K.”  Laughing, the teacher continues, saying, “Well, you’ll just have to bear with me.  My mouth isn’t made for that.”

“You speak English very well.  Did you go through our ESL program?”

“My goodness!  It must take you for-EVER to braid your hair like that!”

“Jose, will you translate for your parents?”

Teachers rarely have malicious intent when they say or do something like the above.  Yet, any of these can offend a student.  These little slips are often meant kindly, or even said to cover up a teacher’s embarrassment, however, they convey something else to THAT student!

What are microaggressions? – Hive Learning | The collaborative ...

These little indignities are called micro-aggressions.  They are teeny tiny statements, questions, or behaviors that convey to another that their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexuality is “other”, not “normal”, or at least not mainstream.

For example:

  • “Kenisha . . . uh . . . Wash-ee-nay-tock?  Am I close?  No?  Let me spell it:  W, A, S, H, I, N, A, W, A, T, O, K.”  Laughing, the teacher continues, saying, “Well, you’ll just have to bear with me.  My mouth isn’t made for that.”
    • I heard this when working on a Native American reservation where most of the teachers were white.
  • “You speak English very well.  Did you go through our ESL program?”
    • An Asian-American told me about a teacher who asked him this.  He was born in the US, as were his parents.
  • “My goodness!  It must take you for-EVER to braid your hair like that!”
    • An African-American student told me that a teacher said this to her.
  • “Jose, will you translate for your parents?”
    • Jose replied, “My folks don’t speak much Spanish, if that is what you are talking about.  Our family has lived in the US for several generations.”

Often micro-aggressions use stereotypes to get across the message.  When I was a principal, I asked a teacher why she only had boys go to the cooler to get the class’ morning milk – a Wisconsin elementary school staple.  “They are used to doing the heavier work,” she said.  I reminded her that the boys in this case were six and seven years old, and two of them had to carry the milk crate between them anyway.  She thought about it a while and reluctantly agreed that maybe girls could carry the milk to the classroom.  She then followed up with, “Do you think it will make the girls . . . well, you know, odd or queer?”

I refrained from rolling my eyes.

These micro-aggressions take on a more sinister edge when the statement or behavior is about a person of color.  Even former president Barak Obama recalled walking down the street and hearing people in cars locking their doors, or being followed in a store, ostensibly to prevent a Black man from stealing something.

You may say, “I would never do that!”  That’s good, however, a friend who claims she is not a racist recently made a remark wondering how long “we” would be allowed to drink black coffee given “the state of the country right now”.  She did not seem to really understand what I was saying when I took exception.  It was quite the conversation stopper. 

Micro-aggressions may often seem fairly innocuous, yet they are not harmless.

Classroom Trauma Triggers And How to Avoid Them

Take humor.  Jokes are often used to tell the listener what is and is not acceptable in a particular group.  For example, some years ago it was common to tell “queer jokes”, jokes that made fun of homosexuals, transsexuals, or even drag queens.  The message to the listener was that if one identified him/herself with that group, s/he would be, at best, the butt of jokes and at worst rejected by the dominate group.  The mental violence of such jokes was so great that LGBTQ listeners, or those who were sympathetic, would laugh.  Why?  They laughed so they would not be classified in the group that was the butt of the joke.

Some of you may be thinking, “But LGBTQ people tell gay jokes, and they laugh.”  That can be true, too.  Yet, when such jokes are told by members of the non-dominant group, they create a kind of bonding.

For some members of a particular group, slurs will never be acceptable.  Yet, others may embrace a term to take the sting out of it, or to reclaim the term for themselves.  It is not, however, something that can be used by people who are not in that particular group.  No matter how lovingly said, no matter how much it is acceptable to members of the group, it is NOT okay for the dominant group.

One of the best lists of micro-aggressions I’ve read comes from the University of California at Santa Cruz.  It is based on Derald Sue Wing’s book, Microaggressions in Everyday Life:  Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation.  One of the things I especially like about it is the column that states the message the particular comment or behavior conveys.  The link to that two page PDF file is here: https://academicaffairs.ucsc.edu/events/documents/Microaggressions_Examples_Arial_2014_11_12.pdf and in the “Works Consulted” list at the end of this blog.

We are just about half-way through what would normally be summer break for teachers in the US.  I cannot think of a better time to examine our practices and make plans for adopting new ones.

Works Consulted

Do We Really Believe All Students Matter?

I do not know any teacher who consciously discriminates against any student for any reason.  If you ask a teacher, she will say, “I treat all students well!  I want them all to learn!”

In my experience, this is true – all teachers believe they want all students to learn.

Despite this, there is a persistent achievement gap between Black and Brown students and Caucasian students. 

We know for a fact that there is no difference in the brains of people. One cannot tell if a brain comes from a person who is Black, Brown, white, male, or female. While there may be individual differences in a person’s ability to learn, that ability is not dictated by the color of the person’s skin or by the person’s gender.

So what is the issue?

We have known something that makes an astounding difference in the education and IQs of students since 1964.  It is called the Pygmalion Effect or the Rosenthal Effect after the Harvard researcher who “discovered” it.

Elisabeth Caren | Pygmalion And Galatea | 1

In Greek myth, Pygmalion was a sculptor.  He crafted a sculpture of a woman that was so lifelike he yearned to make her his wife.  His belief in her reality was so great that Galatea, as he had named the sculpture, came to life.

What Rosenthal discovered was that when teachers believe children are capable, or even more capable than they have previously demonstrated, they blossom.  Further, the children’s tested IQ increase dramatically.  The greatest increases happened with the youngest children.  In fact, some of the first graders in his experiment increased their IQ by 27 points!

Sadly, the converse is true.  Students whose teachers believed they were less capable fell further and further behind.

This has been studied many times since the 1960s.  It has changed many things about education.  Teachers are taught they must have high expectations.   The coursework required of prospective teachers has increased dramatically as well.  The underlying purpose of these changes is to better prepare the prospective teachers for the classroom, and to ensure that they have the knowledge of subject matter needed to model those high expectations.

The problem is it is not teacher knowledge of subject matter that increases high expectations for students.  It is the teacher’s behavior.

I have listened to numerous teachers in three states talk about students.  None believed they had low expectations.  So how do I know they thought of some students as less capable than others?

Two People Talking Transparent , Free Transparent Clipart - ClipartKey

There are clues in what the educators said.  For example:

  • Her parents just don’t care.
  • He comes from serious poverty.
  • Her family doesn’t speak much English.
  • His home life is really chaotic.
  • She comes from a broken home.
  • He is my behavior student.
  • She is my learning disabled student.
  • We have a very high number of free and reduced lunch students.
  • This is a Title I school.

I have heard all of these statements offered as a reason why a student is not learning.

Yes, none of the situations above are fun, and they can affect students’ emotional well-being.  But they do not limit the ability of the student to learn.

Research has shown that teachers make unconscious decisions about the ability of students.  They categorize them as “capable” or “less capable”. 

The result is that the teacher treats students s/he thinks of more “capable” differently than s/he treats those s/he thinks of as less capable.

Here is a table that shows the behaviors:

Teacher Actions“Capable” Students“Less Capable” Students
Calling on studentsCalls on oftenCalls on less often even when has hand raised
Wait timeGives significantly more wait timeGives significantly less wait time
Types of questions askedTends to ask “thinking” questions; higher level thinking (Bloom’s Taxonomy) questionsTends to ask “recall” type questions; lower level (Bloom’s Taxonomy) questions
Allowing correctionsWill prompt student if s/he is wrong Will allow student to correct him/herselfWill move on to another student if s/he is wrong
Praising studentsPraises student for academic-oriented behaviorsPraises student for compliance to classroom rules or procedures
Helping students who don’t understandAsks student prompting questions, for example:  “What do you do first?  Now, what do you do next?  How will you know . . .”Demonstrates how to do task
Does the problem for student (e.g. math)
Gives student answer
Greeting studentsGreets students by name Talks with students about interests and activities Tone of voice sincere, warmMay nod
May not say anything May use backhanded compliment (“I wondered if you’d show up today.”) Tone of voice neutral or sarcastic
Informal conversationsPauses to talk with student about interests or activities Listens to all of student’s storyPauses for conversation less often
Cuts student off Suggests student finish story later
Eye ContactMakes frequent eye contactRarely makes eye contact

In short, the teacher creates a warmer, more welcoming classroom climate for the students s/he has unconsciously categorized as capable, than s/he does for students in the “less capable” category.

Children Having Their Exam

Let me be very, very clear:  rarely, if ever, do teachers do any of this consciously!  Nonetheless, researchers have repeatedly observed teachers engaging in these behaviors. 

I have observed this myself in classrooms from elementary to high school – and in every single case, the teacher was one who worked hard at teaching, who focused on student learning, and who believed s/he treated every student equitably. However, s/he did not do what s/he thought s/he was doing.

Research has pointed out several factors that influence teacher’s thoughts about whether or not a student is capable or less capable. 

  • Having black or brown skin
  • Speaking a language other than English at home
  • Being labeled as having dyslexia or dyscalculia
  • Receiving Title I services
  • Having a 504 plan
  • Having a physical disability such as being hard of hearing
  • Wearing dirty or ill-fitting clothes
  • Having poor hygiene
  • Living in “that” part of town
  • Transferring from a rural or urban school to a suburban school, or an urban school in the “right” part of town
  • Being a member of a different religion or denomination than the majority of students
  • Being less mature than peers, for example, thumb-sucking or crying about hurt feelings
  • Being overweight
  • If male, being smaller than peers; if female, being larger than peers
  • Having parents who are divorced or who have never married
  • Having parents who work blue-collar or pink-collar jobs

If you are like me, about now you are thinking, “OMG!  Am I doing this?  What can I do to change this?”

When I first learned about this research, I looked at the list of behaviors and felt overwhelmed. I could not change everything all at once. So I thought about which behaviors I thought would most likely affect learning.  I decided to focus on how I asked questions.  I put a class list on a clip board and made a tally mark by each student’s name when I called on him/her.  I did this for each of my classes.  (I was teaching middle school at the time.)

It would have been undoubtedly better to ask a colleague to come in and do this kind of tally for me.  If you are in a school with an instructional coach, they may be just the person to help.

What I discovered was that I was calling on some students more often than others!  Worse, when I looked at who I was calling on, I couldn’t help but think, “Oh, I asked so-and-so that question because I figured he could answer it.”  Yikes!

Popsicle Sticks and 'Hands Down' are not Cold Call: Key ...

I thought I might force myself to make changes if I had a system to randomly call on students.  I know some teachers use popsicle sticks for this.  However, I felt popsicle sticks had disadvantages.  First of all, the can with the sticks was not as portable as I wanted it to be.  Second, I’d seen some teachers who made a production out of choosing a stick so it was slow.  And last, popsicle sticks seemed too “little kid” for my big middle school students.

What I needed was something that was portable, fast, and would not be offensive to middle school students.

I decided to make a card for every student.  I cut 3”x5” index cards in half and wrote a student’s name on each card. 

At that point I realized that if I had only one card per student, the student was likely to listen only until his/her name came up.  Then s/he would tune out until everyone else was called upon.

I made another set of cards.  This meant that every class had a deck of cards, and every deck of cards had each class member’s name in it twice. 

I taught the students the procedure:

  • I will ask a question.
  • Do not raise your hands.
  • I will give wait time.
  • I will turn up a card.  That student will answer or say pass.
    • If the student says, “pass” his/her name is put into the middle of the deck so s/he knows s/he will be called on again soon.
    • If the student’s answer is wrong, s/he gets a chance to correct him/herself or the card goes into the middle of the deck.

I had my system.  It was portable – in fact it fit into the pocket of my pants or blazer.  I could shuffle the cards in front of the students so they knew I wasn’t targeting anyone.  I could turn up cards quickly.  I used humor with it so those delicate middle school egos were not bruised unduly.

(I enlisted the help of the classes to help make sure I was providing an equal amount of wait time.  But that’s another story!)

You may choose to address a different behavior.  I hope you will share those ideas here!

Teachers can make students think of learning as something worthy and attainable, or they can make students believe they are incapable of learning.  It is easy to do the latter.  We even do that without conscious thought!  It is more difficult to make sure that ALL think of learning as something they can do.  Yet educators can, and must make sure we do this for every single child.  Every.  Single,  Child.

Works Consulted

  • Katherine, Ellison. “Being Honest About the Pygmalion Effect.” Discover Magazine. October 28, 2015. https://www.discovermagazine.com/mind/being-honest-about-the-pygmalion-effect (accessed June 15, 2020).
  • Rosenthal, R, and L. Jacobsen. Pygmalion in the classroom: teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968.
  • Sadkur, Myra, and David Sadkur. Failing at Fairness: How America’s Schools Cheat Girls. New York: Simon and Shuster, Inc., 1994.
  • Spiegel, Alex. “Teachers’ Expectations Can Influence How Students Perform.” NPR. September 17, 2012. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2012/09/18/161159263/teachers-expectations-can-influence-how-students-perform (accessed June 15, 2020).