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How racism occurs in the classroom and how you may be perpetuating it


Microaggressions are commonplace, daily, implicit, and explicit verbal, behavioural, and/or environmental expressions of harm that are hostile, derogatory, and negative in nature toward a person or group of people. They are the most cited “type” of racist behaviour and interaction that occurs in social settings, such as the classroom. Microaggressions can be perpetrated intentionally and/or unintentionally. Microaggressions take on various forms, ranging from allegedly “well-meaning” comments about racialized students’ intellect, identity, and appearance to “straight-up aggression.” They maintain similar impacts on racialized students, including feeling embarrassed, angry, distressed, and unsafe. 

In addition, microaggressions:

(1)  precipitate “difficult dialogues” in the classroom about identity, racism, and power,
(2)  involve various responses from racialized students that can be cognitive, emotional, and/or behavioural, which are shaped by both student peers’ and instructors’ traits and identities (e.g. can be exacerbated by racialized students feeling alone, isolated and/or underrepresented in the classroom and its curriculum),
(3)  rely upon and communicate stereotypes and assumptions about specific groups of people or racialized communities more broadly, regardless of delivery and intent, 
(4)  implicitly and explicitly demand that racialized students educate others about their identities and experiences through disclosure, tokenization, and being ‘put on the spot’ (e.g. asking a racialized student a question about their identity and expecting them to answer on behalf of that identity marker),
(5)  bemoan the “racial agenda” and assume that racialized students’ accounts are untrue (e.g. “why are they always playing the race card?”),
(6)  facilitate unchallenged surveillance, scrutiny, and questioning of racialized students (e.g. commenting on and making judgments about racialized students’ responses and reactions to things happening in the classroom), 
(7)  are imbued within curriculum, pedagogy, and the classroom structure, and result in cultural misrepresentation, misappropriation, and erasure,
(8)  are often met with (white) instructors’ and student peers’ silence and complicity in failing to intervene,
(9)  seek to dismiss and invalidate racialized students’ reactions to them, and
(10) operate to further isolate and marginalize racialized students and facilitate poor physical, mental, cultural, and social health outcomes 


Other ways harm can happen

As it pertains to the instructor’s role, microaggressions can also look like:

- Failing to intervene when something harmful happens in the classroom, which is often justified as an attempt to let learning happen naturally and/or on the basis that white instructors are ill-equipped to intervene (e.g. “as a white person, I don’t know enough about this to intervene or comment”).

- Perpetuating the burden of uncompensated and unrecognized labour that racialized students are often forced to undertake, which might include asking them to consult on courses, not paying them for this work, not crediting their suggestions, making them come up with solutions, etc.

- Not listening to or considering racialized students’ feedback, concerns, or ideas, which involves not looking into better readings/content, including the same harmful content, and/or facilitating class dialogues in the same way.

- Dodging accountability and responding defensively to racialized students’ feedback about your teaching or content, which might include refusing to apologize, not responding to emails, seeing students as “too sensitive,” and/or accusing students of being disruptive.

- Sitting in discomfort when something harmful happens and failing to mobilize into action, which might entail refusing to acknowledge the harm retroactively or in the moment.

- Centering your own feelings, reactions, ideas, and experiences when racialized students call for action or identify harm, which includes white fragility, white guilt, white rage, and white tears.