Managing Microagressions for More Inclusive Online Learning

I am sure some of us have a story (or 6 or 20) describing incidences in which a teacher or another student made us feel inferior, or out of place, or just plain dumb. Maybe such an incident created an evaluation of yourself that altered your academic identity and intellectual performance. I remember my high school teacher telling me that girls don’t succeed in Chemistry because it’s a man’s job. And when an undergraduate classmate told me I could never go to Wesley College because it’s only for rich women. And what about those movies from the 80’s? I never saw a Latina represented in a positive role. Come to think about it, I never saw one represented in any role.

Did these messages affect my academic choices? Absolutely. I gravitated to the discipline of Ethnic Studies, an area in which I felt safe. But to be clear, I am happy where I am today. After all, I have a full-time, tenured position in Ethnic Studies. Yet, I often wonder what could have been. These formative messages I received are examples of microaggressions.

Lifelong Dangers of Microaggressions

Microaggressions can be overt, covert, and/or unintentional. Either way, messages can inflict injury or insult. Microaggressions communicate realities, definitions and expectations. Yet, many folks resist understanding or accepting microaggressions because many feel identifying microagressions creates victims and fuels the ideas of liberal college professors

The question I’d like to pose here is, “Is it wrong to provide students with a space to ‘call out’ hurtful statements?” My Ethnic Studies degree inspires me to scream, “No!” Students who are aware and confident in airing their grievances are a sign of progress. But are institutions listening or instigating?

Institutions of higher education must practice vigilance in day-to-day instructor-student and student-student interactions. Providing safe spaces encourages trust, mutual respect and authentic care. These are essential to student success, especially since most of our students have lives that are very different from ours. Here is why enabling a safe space is key to students lifelong success.

Imposter Syndrome and Stereotype Threat

Many community college students are confronted by two dangerous, alienating forces that are augmented with microaggressions: the “imposter syndrome” and the “stereotype threat.”

Symptoms of the imposter syndrome are feeling like one does not belong, is undeserving, unaccomplished, and not welcomed in a college setting. Do you remember feeling dumb in a group setting because everyone around you made you feel less than? If not, you’re lucky. If you have, it probably still haunts you.

The stereotype threat is the debilitating feeling one gets from the constant fear of playing into a stereotype about people from one’s identity group. Remember feeling like you represented your whole community and your failure would make them look bad? Well, the fear of this self-fulfilling prophesy can cause extreme anxiety.

How can instructors strive toward a safe learning space in an online environment?

Creating Expectations for a More Inclusive Online Learning Environment

Some might say that an online environment may create a virtual veil free from racial and gender identities. After all, there is no face-to-face contact and students can be careful about what they write in discussion forums. Let’s call it impression management. It’s a social media behavior. However, from the instructor’s vantage point, it is vital to establish a safe space zone for all learners. So I have some recommendations that are ever-evolving but can inspire a start:

  1. Establish an anti-microaggression netiquette. Don’t enable a tone deaf ear to microaggressions. Instead, do some research and identify examples of it in pop culture, curate some engaging articles defining microagressions, and create a mandatory “Welcome Ice Breaker Check-In Assignment.” Have students authenticate themselves in the class (a good idea for a future blog post). Know that you, the instructor, have your own implicit biases and may not be able to identify a manifested microaggression. From the very beginning of the course, encourage your students to inform you when they feel a microaggression went undetected or was ignored.
  2. Do not misinterpret poor participation in group work. Communicate with all students individually and ask them about their experiences accessing the project’s information and communicating with their group members. Establish clear directions and expectations.
    Follow the breadcrumbs. If you discover evidence of a microaggression in a discussion forum, read all previous comments. Aggressors may be repeated offenders and might enable others to continue the offense. Understanding the factors that surrounded the microaggression helps evaluate the next steps strategically rather than reacting emotionally.
  3. Lean on your peers. Accept and understand that all instructors struggle with the line between freedom of expression and confronting offensive content. So instructors need to keep reaching out to colleagues, research and maybe even constructing classroom climate surveys to explore how to reduce the proliferation of macro-level prejudices through microaggressions.
  4. Add meaning. As you begin to learn about your student population, be aggressive with your academic discipline and include content, data, images and/or narratives representing all of your students as genuine and essential stakeholders of the course. One story, data set, or image can inspire success or enable empathy.

Do you have a suggestion to add to this list? Or a reflection to share about how micro aggressions have affected you? I warmly invite you to leave a reply below to keep the conversation going!

Posted in Online Teaching.

Fabiola is an instructor of Ethnic Studies at Glendale Community College (GCC) and is co-designer of the @ONE course, Equity and Culturally Responsive Teaching in the Online Environment.

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