Microaggressions in the classroom: Making the invisible, visible

4 May

by Caroline Toscano, Center for Educational Innovation

We need to realize microaggessions are unconscious manifestations of a worldview of inclusion-exclusion, superiority-inferiority; thus, our major task is to make the invisible visible.

Derald Wing Sue in Microaggressions in Everyday Life


Not so long ago in a college-level public speaking class, a professor decided to spark up her class. Engage the students by asking them to come up with a topic, any topic, weird or normal, and expand upon it.

One student took on the challenge and called out, “Urinating!” The professor decided to go with it.

“Great,” she said. “Let see…where do people in the US go to urinate?” The class giggled away, then said what they thought was obvious: the bathroom!

“OK,” the professor nodded, on a roll. “And where do people in other countries go to urinate?”

Lu, an international student, cringed when the professor said this. Other students started calling out, “In the bushes!” and “On the side of the road!” In her mind, she thought, Hello, we have bathrooms in my culture too. She felt deeply insulted that the professor and the class would think of her country as being “less civilized” than the US.

The above is a true story retold to me by one of my students, whose name has been changed.

When thinking about diversity in the classroom, chances are, most instructors tend to see themselves as good-intentioned, egalitarian and fair-minded people. They certainly do not go out of their way to denigrate others. Yet, there are instances when seemingly “small” things individuals say or do in the class can leave a long-lasting impression in their students’ minds, which has prompted the informal naming of an accumulation of these practices as “death by a thousand cuts.”

Such “small” things are known as microaggressions or microinvalidations, according to Derald Wing Sue, Professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University, and author of the book Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation. In his writing, Sue delineates between the two concepts:

  • Microaggressions are “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership” (xvi).
  • Microinvalidations are “characterized by communications or environmental cues that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of certain groups…” (37).

For Further Thought

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.

Derald Wing Sue in Microaggressions in Everyday Life

Sue created a short YouTube video to address typical microaggressions and microinvalidations – “how [each one] manifests itself, how it impacts people, and what can be done to address it.” In one of the vignettes, a meeting is taking place with a group of men and one woman. The male participants seem to be talking to one another, ignoring the female participant. When she finally does speak, one of the male participants checks his cellphone for messages.

When I played the video in my class of international graduate teaching assistants to discuss this topic, one of my female students nodded furiously and told her own story:

“When I was in a seminar, I was the only female in the group. When one of the other students was explaining his idea, I jumped in and said I didn’t agree with him and why. He then acted like I was an idiot and started explaining to me again his idea, like I couldn’t understand. I could understand all right. I just didn’t agree!”

Other students in my class privately expressed relief at the realization that these small slights weren’t just “in their heads,” and that there was actually a name for it.

In fact, one of my students recalled feeling strange when an instructor told her, “You write pretty well, for an international student.” Problem is, the instructor most likely thought he or she was paying a compliment, not lobbing an insult. How can we understand what impact our words really have on our students?

These responses have shaped themes Sue draws into a taxonomy of microaggressions in his book; for example: Alien in One’s Own Land (e.g., saying, “You speak English very well to an American-born Asian student), Environmental Microaggressions (e.g., committee membership is all or mostly white and/or male), and Pathologizing Cultural Values/Communication Styles (e.g., Dismissing a student who brings up race/culture in class).

In order to deal with microaggressions in the classroom, Sue outlines eight guidelines in his book: 1) possess a working definition and understanding of microaggressions; 2) understand the self as a racial/cultural being by making the “invisible, visible”; 3) intellectually acknowledge one’s own cultural conditioning and biases; 4) develop emotional comfort in discussing -isms; 5) make sense of one’s own emotions; 6) control the process, not the content; 7) do not allow the dialogue to be brewed over in silence; and 8) express appreciation to the participating students.

Experiential reality of our students’ perspectives and ally building are two essential components of overcoming microaggressions, as well, according to Sue: “Stand personally against all forms of bias and discrimination,” he says.


Sue, Derald Wing. Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2010.

Sue, Derald Wing. Microaggressions in Everyday Life. [YouTube video]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJL2P0JsAS4.



3 Responses to “Microaggressions in the classroom: Making the invisible, visible”

  1. Ian 4 May 2015 at 11:13 pm #

    I show that video clip in my PSY 101 course and refer students to the Microaggresions Project’s homepage for them to see what real people have uploaded as their first-hand experiences with microaggressions (http://www.microaggressions.com/). This helps them see how many “innocent” comments contain microaggressions that they never considered.

    It can be difficult to challenge comments containing microagressions in class, but ignoring them sends a strong message to the students. I know it is often harder to catch microaggressions as you’re making them, so I try to cultivate a classroom where students call me out on the mistakes I make in the hope that they will challenge their classmates before I do. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Always happy to hear suggestions of how to improve our multicultural competence as educators.

  2. Anita Gonzalez 6 May 2015 at 9:45 pm #

    Thank you for writing about this topic. It’s so important that we develop a shared vocabulary with our colleagues and students, otherwise it’s difficult to identify, discuss, and hopefully resolve what’s going on.

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