Getting Called Out on Your Racial Microaggressions

I have written about racial microaggressions before, but I had the humbling experience of being called out on my own racial microaggression this fall by my brave student Stephanie (name changed).

For those who don’t know:

Racial microaggressions have been defined as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group” (Sue, Capodilupo, et al., 2007, p. 273). From the perspective of people of color, microaggressions are tinged with explicit and implicit racial snubs, put-downs, or a pattern of disrespect. Being ignored by a sales clerk, told by an employer that “the most qualified person should get the job,” and “I don’t see color,” or even complimented for speaking “good English” may all constitute racial microaggressions because they communicate denigrating hidden messages: “You are not important enough to be noticed”; “People of color are less qualified”; “I don’t notice color, so I can’t be a racist”; and “You are not a true American but a foreigner” (Sue, Lin, et al., 2009, p. 183).

As I taught my Ethnography & Education course this fall, I went over discrimination in school and in the classroom and I introduced the term “racial microaggression” to the students and gave them this sheet, broke them into groups, and asked them to highlight/underline the microaggressions they had experienced and to share those experiences with people in their groups. They then shared out a relevant example to the class.

When teaching about microaggressions, there’s definitely that “a-ha” moment in which the students realize there is an actual academic term for their everyday lived experiences. Many young men talked about criminality, my one Asian student talked about ascription of intelligence, and the other categories were easily explained through personal experiences.

This class was on Monday. I have class again with these students on Wednesday.

Stephanie is an African American young woman, very intelligent and articulate, and one of my favorites in the class. I adore her. She has a super sharp mind. On Monday before class her hair was braided instead of in its usual short natural style. I commented on how beautiful the two braids were, and said something like, “Wow! Is your hair that long?!” (in my defense, as a White girl with stick straight hair I have always been fascinated by how long curly hair is when it’s straightened/in braids, but this is just me being defensive–I acknowledge that). She looked at her two girlfriends and then replied to me, “No, it’s weave” which surprised me because I had never seen weave look like natural hair. I said something like, “Well, it’s looks great on you” and the discussion was over.

Insert lesson on racial microaggressions in class here.

Wednesday, before class, Stephanie comes up to me and says that I had made her uncomfortable asking about her hair and that she felt it was a racial microaggression.

I will admit I was uncomfortable when she approached me. I had a thousand words of defense for myself–I was just complimenting you! I don’t know about Black hair! That’s not fair for you to expect me to know! I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable! My god, relax!–but I didn’t say any of them. I LISTENED and it was very, very hard. I let her say all she needed to say about how first my acknowledgement of her hair made her uncomfortable and next I said that thing about it’s length I forced her to admit it was weave which made her more uncomfortable. . .I stood there and I listened to her. She was struggling to tell me all this, but she was doing it. When she was done, I told her I was sorry, that I never intended to make her uncomfortable. I think I said sorry again.

She said it was okay, but since she’d just learned about racial microaggressions from me, and I tell the students whenever I teach racial microaggressions that the reason this work resonates in me so deeply is because I KNOW I DO THIS AND I DON’T MEAN TO that she felt she should/could let me know how I had made her feel.

Whoa. Arming the students with knowledge means watch your back! (in the best of ways)

I didn’t see Stephanie again until the following Monday, but I thought of her all weekend. On Monday, I told her how brave I thought she was to approach me and how much I appreciated it and thought about it and her all weekend. Then she and her girlfriends all concurred that I was the type of professor they could practice such confrontations on because they knew they were safe with me, which made me feel good because I had been feeling pretty bad about the whole thing for days.

This is my FIFTEENTH–15th!!!!–year teaching and that was the first time a student ever called me on my own racial microaggression. It was beyond humbling and sits heavy in my chest cavity as a reminder that there is always more work to do to be a better person.

Thanks for professing to the professor, Stephanie.