Microaggressions and Implicit Bias in the Classroom

Imagine the following scenario: you have a class that meets three times a week. As a dedicated instructor, you arrive at the classroom early to set things up and make conversation with your students before the class officially starts. One day early in the semester, a male student walks in the door right before class is supposed to begin. As he walks by the female student sitting near the entrance, he reaches down and flicks her on the ear. She shoots him an annoyed look, but he continues on to the back row and sits down. The next class session, you observe the same thing-right before class is supposed to begin, the male student strolls in and flicks the ear of the same female student before making his way to the back row. This time, she looks over her shoulder and shoots him a look that clearly implies, “stop doing that.” But the routine continues, day after day. Male student walks in, flicks female student’s ear, sneers, and goes to sit down.

Of course, we can’t imagine this type of thing happening unchallenged in our classrooms, right? Certainly, we would have said something, most likely after the first incident, to stop the male student’s aggressive behavior right then and there. Maybe your reaction here is that the whole scenario verges on the implausible. We wouldn’t expect to see college students engage in such patently juvenile behavior, much less repeated physical aggression in the classroom space. Or maybe you’re reading this and thinking, isn’t “aggression” kind of a strong word here? I mean, it was just a playful ear-flick.

The truth is, however, that aggressions do occur on a daily basis across college campuses; they aren’t always attention-grabbing, or evident to anyone besides the target, but they are no less real as a result. Most of us have heard the word “microaggressions.” For students and faculty from underrepresented or minority groups, chances are their experience with microaggressions throughout their educational careers runs both broad and deep. The term was initially articulated in the scholarly literature by Columbia University Teacher’s College Psychologist Darald Wing Sue. According to Sue,

Microaggressions often times appear to be a compliment but contain a meta-communication or a hidden insult to the target groups in which it is delivered. People who engage in microaggressions are ordinary folks who experience themselves as good moral decent individuals.   Microaggressions occur because they’re outside the level of conscious awareness of the perpetrator.

Those who are on the receiving end of microaggressions, however, are constantly burdened with additional stress, emotional labor, and cognitive load. It’s like death by a thousand cuts. College-level academics are hard enough without the additional burdens placed on students who have to defend their right to be here (Can I see your ID? The Library is for students only) or have additional burdens placed on them by instructors (It’s hard for women to do well in Calculus, but you’re doing good work!) or find out that they’re being regularly judged by their appearance (I’m surprised how well you speak English, for an international student). For students, the cumulative effects of microaggressions can range from individual health to larger trends in retention and persistence (which are, as well are all aware, issues of critical importance here at Grand View). According to Jessica Oladapo:

What we know of microaggressions is that they can have an impact on the mental health of the person experiencing them, and if occurring long term, can have an impact on the physical health. Microaggressions also have the ability to create a hostile campus climate, while devaluing particular populations served…Consider the impact of experiencing microaggressions within various departments and campus entities. For those students, by the time they reach the threshold of the classroom, they have possibly been consistently reminded of their negative group membership at every turnPerformance then, is less based on ability, but more on the campus climate. The campus climate has an impact on retention and persistence rates, as students feel uncomfortable in the spaces where they experience these slights and insults.

One of the most frustrating and confounding aspects of microaggressions is that those inflicting them do not intend to be hurtful; for the most part, microaggressions spring from well-intentioned people who are nevertheless operating under a set of implicit biases. Nationally, the college and university student population has grown both larger and more diverse; what we might call “cultural competence” is a more important part of an instructor’s repertoire than ever before. A large part of the work in acquiring cultural competence involves unpacking and understanding the set of biases in which we are positioned. As much as we would wish for higher education to be an environment where intellectual merit and academic standards are the sole determinants of one’s success, both empirical research and disciplinary difficulties show us that we are nowhere near free of biases which can-and often do-work against people who are not white and male.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence of microaggressions and their effects in higher education comes from students themselves. This video, produced by the University of North Texas, is an excellent look at the spectrum of microaggressions and how they impact a wide variety of students:

As we work with our students, and do out best to create a classroom climate that challenges but supports them, an awareness of implicit bias and a sensitivity to the effects of microaggressions can go a long way towards making that work successful.

To that end, CETL would like to invite you to this semester’s event in our Teaching and Learning Series: “Does this test make me look racist? Understanding Implicit Racial Bias,”a workshop this Thursday, October 12, from 2:30-4:30 in the Speed Lyceum. We’re excited to have Dr. Cyndi Kernahan, a social psychologist from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, as our facilitator. Dr. Kernahan will cover the basic science of implicit bias, as well as what the evidence tells us about how implicit racial bias influences behavior, the patterns of discrimination we see in our society, and the ways in which this influences our students. She will also cover what we know about how we can reduce our implicit racial biases and the ways that we can use this science to improve our students’ experiences. This workshop is open to all GV faculty and staff, and we hope to see you there!

Looking for an answer? A particular resource? Want to talk teaching and learning? Come by the CETL or make an appointment for a consultation!

Be sure to check out the CETL Calendar for a complete listing of events and professional development opportunities.

Finally, now that it’s Fall, may we all enjoy the season as much as this husky does:


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