One of the best things I studied during my time at Teachers College was the work of Derald Wing Sue on racial microaggressions. A psychologist, he argues that the small things we do and say speak volumes about our inner racist beliefs and that they are noted and noticed by those on the receiving end. Within Derald Wing Sue’s research, he has found that it is usually the good intentioned teachers/professors (as opposed to outright racists) who say/do things that implicitly tell their students that they are different from the others. He also explains how over time, after years and years of being on the receiving end of these microaggressions, that it builds up in a person and affects them psychologically.
(This is a very elementary explanation of his work. Please look it up to read more. It’s brilliant.)
The idea of racial microaggressions really gave me pause. It made me wonder how many tiny acts of racism I have carried out in my classroom unintentionally. It made me wonder if I had hurt any student without meaning to. It made me nervous. It made me aware.
This is particularly relevant to my work in the classroom as I have never taught White students; I have always been the racial other in the classroom, yet I have also the one with the most social/cultural capital. A strange power dynamic.
I am in touch with many of my old students on facebook. One student’s friend posted this iphone text conversation: and it made me recall Derald Wing Sue’s work. I bet the teacher asked her to be an Indian because she had gorgeous dark hair whereas many other students in her class didn’t? Not sure. But as someone who has always wanted dark brown/black hair and coveted it, I could see myself doing something similar: an act with no ill-will, no intention of “othering” a little girl, but an act that could linger into this little girl’s adulthood as a moment of realizing that she was seen as different by her teacher, her peers, and who else?
Students: If I ever do this in class, please call me on it!
I saw Derald Wing Sue speak last spring at the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education and he was a dynamic, funny, intelligent, and relevant presenter. I went with three peer mentors from The New Community College and we all had our minds blown. If he’s ever in your neck of the woods, go. GO.
Just thinking..No big conclusions. Just thinking.
Great video for more thinking: