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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 manifestations, 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 

White fragility, White rage, and White victimhood

White Fragility

Many white folks often have the urge to distance themselves from racism and may fear being labelled “racist.” Here, the term “racist” is frequently framed as a slur against white folks and something that can damage one’s self-image or social reputation. The difficult truth is that, by virtue of one’s proximity to the material, historical, and temporal system of whiteness, white folks contribute to and benefit from institutionalized, systemic, and structural racism, which often becomes identifiable in interpersonal interactions. 

As it pertains to students’ experiences in university classrooms,

'Racist/racism’ is not a term that white folks should shy away from or actively reject; rather, it is an entry point to understanding that racism is imbued within the structures, organizations, and spaces that we operate, live, and work within and that we can enact these systems in our everyday lives. Feeling comfortable, safe, and able to engage in “difficult dialogues” about race, identity, social location, and power is differently defined based on one’s proximity to whiteness and “dominant” social positionings. The table below summarizes the major findings in a 2014 study by Garran and Rasmussen, where students in “dominant” positions (e.g. those who are white, able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual, etc.) and “non-dominant” positions (e.g. those who are racialized, disabled, trans, queer, etc.) were asked to describe what “safety” looks like for them in the classroom:

Students in “dominant” positions

Students in “non-dominant” positions

“I don’t want to be attacked”

“I don’t want to be judged”

“I want to be able to make mistakes without being called racist/sexist/homophobic, etc.” 

“I come from a racist/sexist/homophobic family and worry what people will think of me if I disclose that”

“I’m worried about saying the wrong thing/being misunderstood”

“I worry about being shut down”

“I fear offending/hurting someone” 

“I worry discussion will be too polite/superficial”

“I don’t want to be put on the spot to represent my group/identity” 

“I should be allowed to be upset/emotional about this stuff; I don’t want to be told I’m too sensitive during discussions”

“I don’t want people to assume I know everything about certain ‘isms’ because of my identity”

“I don’t believe that this class could ever be a safe place for me” 

“I don’t want to be stereotyped or misunderstood”

“I don’t want to be the one to teach people about a non-dominant identity”

Here, we can see that students from non-dominant positions are deeply concerned about being tokenized, put on the spot, forced to educate others, framed as overly sensitive or emotional, homogenized, and stereotyped through microaggressive assumptions and comments from peers and instructors. In contrast, students from dominant positions expressed concern about being attacked, judged, or framed as “racist” after “making a mistake.” In other words, while dominant students fear being called out for their class contributions and/or being labelled as “racist,” non-dominant students fear experiencing racism and feeling unable to contribute to class dialogues at all.

Part of what facilitates this dynamic is the ways in which white folks may centre themselves, their identities, their feelings, their reactions and their experiences during discussions of racism often in an attempt to distance themselves from racism or to deflect their discomfort, anxiety, and anger. Razack refers to these dynamics as “flights/moves to innocence.” There is frequently an attempt to then understand whiteness as it pertains to microlevel experiences and individual identity markers, such as through activities like “flower power,” “the privilege walk,” and the social identity wheel. A popularly used example is Peggy Macintosh’s “Knapsack of White Privilege,” where white folks are called to individually pull apart and examine their experiences as it relates to a list of statements. Though these activities operate in an effort to introduce people to concepts like social location and power, they often create arbitrary, binary, and static categories of identity that are separate and distinct from each other when, in reality, they are interwoven, interlocking, and borne from the same systems of oppression. As participants in our focus group suggested, these activities are reductive, essentializing, and facilitate the possibilities of the “Oppression Olympics,” where groups of people are pitted against each other and experiences become comparative, competitive, and hierarchically ordered. 

Power Flower & Personal Identity Exercises

IMAGE: An example of the "power flower" activity, where participants locate themselves either "inside" or "outside" the flower petals for each category of identity marker. "Inside" positions refer to identities of privilege and power, such as whiteness or heterosexuality, while "outside" positions refer to identities of marginalization, such as racialization or queerness. 

These activities fail to account for the ways in which white queer folks’ experiences will be fundamentally different than racialized queer folks’ experiences, despite them occupying a similar “category” in the wheel or flower.

Challenging Microlevel "Unpacking"

It is important to understand that white privilege, white fragility, white tears, and white rage, which often contribute to the fear, defensiveness, and anger about being called “racist,” are not things that can be simply and individually “unpacked” or challenged; rather, the “nature of privilege is such that it cannot be worked through at an individual level [...] because it is a process that is still fundamentally about [white students]”. While white folks can certainly challenge these defensive reactions, discomfort, urges to lash out, and efforts to (re)centre their own identities on a microlevel (e.g. in interpersonal dynamics and personal reflections), there must be a constant recognition of the systems and structures that facilitate these experiences and that, by virtue of proximity to whiteness, white folks benefit from and uphold these systems as they currently operate on foundations of whiteness, racism, and colonialism, among other interwoven social forces.