Microaggressions make students of color feel isolated, especially in predominantly white schools. (Aris Sanders)
Microaggressions make students of color feel isolated, especially in predominantly white schools.

Aris Sanders

Microaggressions as a Roadblock to Education

June 7, 2017

Discrimination in the classroom, especially in predominantly white schools, is oftentimes subtle and unintentional, and makes it difficult to address and, ultimately, to stop. This subtle discrimination against minority students, whether imposed by a teacher or by another student, can account for a disparity in learning between white students and students of color. Those who do not conform to the dominant demographic present at a learning institution are left to feel alienated, targeted, or singled out.

A microaggression is defined as “a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority,” coined in the late 70’s by Harvard professor Chester M. Pierce. 

Aris Sanders
Microaggressions make students of color feel isolated, especially in predominantly white schools.

This brand of subtle, yet insidious, racism is oftentimes dismissed as it differs from the more overt racism with which we are familiar. The recipient of such racial slights, after speaking up, is commonly perceived as “overly sensitive” or “playing the victim.” This form of racism is so deeply embedded into the fabrics of society that most majority observers do not even comprehend what they are witnessing, let alone are they able to seriously consider the harm that is potentially being caused.

In the classroom setting, microaggressions take many shapes, yet they similarly ostracize students and decrease their right to an equitable and safe learning environment.

Hair Touching/Backhanded Compliments

Microaggressive or covertly racist acts do not necessarily reflect malicious behavior. In fact, they could even be posed as what the microaggressor deems a compliment. PHS junior Makora Greene has experienced these disconnects first hand as a student who identifies as “mixed” or multiracial: Black, Native American, Mexican, and Asian.

“[This teacher] touching my hair, that was something that I really got frustrated with, because it is just so rude. Especially since she was like ‘Oh your hair’s so puffy, it looks so cool,’ I was like okay, but you probably wouldn’t do that to someone with straight hair. It’s just creepy. I don’t think she’s doing it with ill intention, but it is just boundaries,¨ says Greene.

Junior Chelsea Joefield describes instances where compliments would be attempted, such as “Oh my gosh your skin is so smooth,” but would end with “for a black girl.”

“My skin is just smooth. Your sentence should have ended there,” says Joefield.

Lowering Expectations

One common example of microaggression in the classroom is the lowering of expectations by white teachers towards students of color; these teachers “subconsciously believe minority students are not capable of doing challenging work so they don’t push them” (Source).

Joefield recalls a teacher refusing to let her read Harry Potter in the third grade.

“I’m a big reader and always read above my reading level. I’ve been reading since I was two, it’s just how it’s been. I remember my teacher totally degraded me and thought that I could not read Harry Potter in third grade. And she had it in her classroom, so I was like, ‘if it’s in your classroom, why can’t I?’ But she was like ‘you won´t understand it, it’s above your reading level,’ even though I was reading two or three levels up. She said I wouldn’t be able to understand the words and all these things. I couldn’t understand why she told me I wasn’t able to do that,” says Joefield.

Name Changing

Subtle racism can also take the form of a teacher’s disregard of students’ names. Whether it is confusing the names of students of color in the same class, lumping students together based on race (ex: calling all Mexican students a traditionally Mexican name), or not pronouncing a student’s name correctly even after repeatedly being told how, these cases all work to efface the individual and render the student as invisible. Even though these are usually teachers’ careless mistakes, “when we frame the experience and its impact within a larger context of historical racism, it becomes clear how renaming a Student of Color is a racial microaggression.” (Source.)

“I have had [this teacher] for a whole entire year by this point but she continuously calls me Dora. And I say, ‘that’s not my name’, and she says, ‘Oh I’m so sorry it is easy to confuse you.’ Why? You’ve never even had a Dora as a student. It was just a weird thing to me, calling someone something different when I was the only person in that class who is a person of color. Calling me Dora when I am clearly a Mexican person,” said Greene.

Tolerating Racism in the Classroom

Not only actions taken directly by teachers contribute to the alienation of students of color. Sometimes, it is the response, or lack of response, these teachers have to racism in their classroom from other students. When teachers are lenient with allowing racism in their classroom or when they choose to not acknowledge racist encounters between students, it sends a strong message.

PHS senior Tiana Thompson remembers a student giving a presentation to her English class about race and murder rates.

“His argument was since black people were #1 on that list that we should avoid them and stay away from them. And the teacher passed him and gave him an A,” said Thompson.

Greene describes an incident in her history class where another student photoshopped the teacher holding a confederate flag. When the teacher saw, instead of quelling the student’s joke, he laughed and said he was going to print out the picture and hang it in the classroom.

“I think one of the main things that was really upsetting to me, was that it is a history class where you are supposed to be teaching something valuable that will educate students about that issue. But instead, he was kind of just diminishing it and making it a joke. It diminishes the experiences of not just the people at the school, but as a whole,” said Greene.

Dress Code/The “Distraction”

Anthony Robertson, a senior who has attended Lincoln High School, Peninsula, and is currently enrolled in online school, has been charged with multiple dress-code violations that are uniquely targeted at students of color.

¨Freshman year, the first day of school, my two friends and I wore red, not even on purpose. I had no idea what they were wearing that day and the school called our moms and said we were repping a gang and trying to recruit people,” said Robertson.

Robertson has also been told by four different teachers to take out the pick he wears in his afro, on the basis that it is a “distraction.”

“’Anthony, the thingy in your hair is a distraction to me and students around you please remove it,’” Robertson recalls the PHS teachers telling him. “It made me feel different, kinda out of place, because I see kids all the time with stuff that is or could be more distracting.” 

“It made me feel different, kinda out of place, because I see kids all the time with stuff that is or could be more distracting.””

— Anthony Robertson

Microaggressions can stem from a lack of understanding of cultures, such as a naiveté to hair types other than one’s own.

“When I wake up my hair is very compressed and crazy and picking it out puts it back into its afro shape. I feel like [picks] are a nice addition to my outfits, I have a bunch of different sizes and colors so I wear different ones on different days,” says Robertson.

“When there’s a dude with a fro there’s usually a pick somewhere, it’s just the way it is,” says Thompson.

Not being allowed to wear his pick made Robertson feel “like a target” and “conscious of what he wore to school.”

Alienating Curriculum

All of the aforementioned microaggressions work to alienate students of color. However, some activities that are embedded in classroom curriculum intentionally single out students.

One example of this is when a teacher purposefully calls on a student of color for his or her perspective when race comes up as a topic of discussion.

Right before Greene entered high school, an older student told her about his English class and how they read To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel used to educate students on empathy and racial injustice. However, the reading of the novel was paired with a role-play activity that included the black students in the class having to sit in the back of the room, an activity that physically singled out students.  

“Going into it, I already had these worries about how I was going to be treated in the class. And I feel like I shouldn’t have to be worried about things like that going into a classroom to learn,” says Greene. “You don’t have to single out the actual black people and have them sit in the back of the classroom.” 

“I shouldn’t have to be worried about things like that going into a classroom to learn.””

— Makora Greene

An Extension of the Microaggression…

Microaggressions are not just unique to issues of race; they are a common experience of anyone who does not conform to a learning institution’s dominant demographic. PHS junior Samm Moore experienced covert homophobia from her teacher: same-sex PDA was held to a different standard than straight PDA  in the same classroom.

“I thought it was kind of ridiculous because I was holding hands with my best friend. To me it was really stupid that [the teacher] was like, ‘that’s a distraction that you are holding hands with another girl’, but the same teacher makes jokes about all the straight couples in class, and that’s not distracting, or when [student] would have his girlfriend in class, that wasn’t distracting, because you know, it was heterosexual,” said Moore.

Addressing the Microaggressor

As an isolated incident, the event of a microaggression may seem harmless from the outside. However, paired with the United States’ history of racism, sexism, and homophobia, microaggressions reveal biases that continue to be socially prevalent. Failure to acknowledge these incidences allows these ‘isms’ to perpetuate as an intrinsic layer of society. If covert intolerance is left unaddressed at its root, the problem will continue to perpetuate and tighten the hold any of the “isms” have on the learning communities in our country.

It can be difficult to address microaggressive behaviors because as the name implies, they are “micro.” When brought to the attention of the microaggressor, they are oftentimes blown over, and the feelings of those affected are invalidated. This is especially true in a culture that is historically ethnocentric.

¨You get called sensitive. You get told that you’re overreacting and that you’re dramatic, and that’s really sad you can’t defend yourself without being called dramatic or overreacting,¨ says Thompson. 

¨You get called sensitive. You get told that you’re overreacting and that you’re dramatic.””

— Tiana Thompson

“For educators especially, making light of things and not really recognizing the things that they are doing, has an impact,” says Greene.

When one can move past and recognize mistakes, although it may be easier to dismiss students and attribute their concerns to an overly-sensitized generation, the educator moves closer to the goal of reaching as wide of an audience of students as possible. The majority people need to recognize that by addressing their mistakes as they come up, they are not acquiescing into PC culture but, instead,  are performing an exercise in empathy.

“We can be insensitive and not maybe have the empathy we need to have for students that are walking in different shoes that we have not had the chance to walk in. I think it’s something we need to be really conscious of and be aware of all the time,” says PHS principal Dave Goodwin. “It’s not just unique to Peninsula High School, it’s unique to predominately white high schools.”

¨I think when you teach at a school for too long and you don’t have too many of the African American students or any race students other than white you don’t see the struggle or don’t hear the struggle,” says Thompson. ¨Teachers are in disbelief and denial when they hear a student bring up racism. They say, “Really? That’s really hard for me to believe, I can´t believe that’s happening at my school.” It happens everywhere, but it happens a lot more in Gig Harbor I feel, because there’s not a lot of people of color to teach them what it really is like to be in our shoes.”

¨I think when you teach at a school for too long and you don’t have too many of the African American students or any race students other than white you don’t see the struggle or don’t hear the struggle.””

— Tiana Thompson

Combating microaggressions in the classroom means addressing biases that lie within oneself by being more conscientious of one’s actions, where they stem from, and how they may make another human feel; by, in Greene’s words, “recognizing that those people of color are not an exhibit.”

¨I understand that it is all probably just from lack of knowledge and experience with diversity, cause we don’t really have that much, but when there are people of color and mixed people I feel like people are like “Oh, look at that” and they wanna know more. But it is in a way that is kind of insensitive sometimes, like going up and touching people’s hair,” says Greene.

Ignorance is a key factor in the spread of microaggressive behavior.

“A lot of times, whether it be teachers or administrators, sometimes we just don’t realize what we are saying and how it could be construed or taken by a student. So I think it is awareness more than anything,” says Goodwin.

A potential remedy to the profusion of microaggressions in white schools is to hire teachers who are understanding of these issues, says both Thompson and Greene.

¨You need to hire somebody so the students feel like they’re not outnumbered, even by the teachers. That’s something that at all the schools I have been to, I’ve never had one African American teacher, and that’s really weird to me,¨ said Thompson.

Greene shares this sentiment.

“I have never had a teacher of color, but I think that if I had, some of those things wouldn’t have happened,” said Greene.

Principal Goodwin believes that there should be specialized training in addition to the baseline sensitivity training in which all teachers must participate. He proposes the idea of a diversity council, where students discuss what they “feel we need to improve on and ways we could better educate students and staff about all the issues that make people feel uncomfortable.”

The end of microaggressions starts with acknowledgement. Teachers’ words and actions have a ripple effect that carries over hundreds of students’ lives; simple training and awareness may be what it takes to overcome subtle racism in the classroom.

“They are teachers you know, and we find comfort, we find safety, in them so they do need to have that training to understand how to deal with that racism and what’s going on in the schools. Cause it’s never going to end, and we need to figure out how to make the students feel safer,” said Thompson.

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    Donna Branch-GilbyJun 8, 2017 at 5:53 pm

    Ms Svinth, thank you for your in depth research and persistence in finding students of color who could be so candid in the replies to your questions. This article clarified my thinking on how to determine if a microaggression had occurred: Would I do or say the same thing to a person of color and to a person of my own ethnicity? If the answer is ‘no”, or ‘He–, no’, then I know I’ve committed a microagression. A breakthough! Appreciations, Donna

  • E

    Emma TaylorJun 7, 2017 at 2:34 pm

    This is so great and so needed! Speaking out and acknowledging the challenges that our community continues to face is really important. So proud that Tiana, Makora, Anthony, and Chelsea got to express their opinions to a wide audience.

  • C

    Chelsea JoefieldJun 7, 2017 at 1:24 pm

    I can’t express how understood this article made me feel! thank you to those who contributed and thank you for allowing me to be a part of it!