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Challenging Situations

How to identify and handle challenging situations such as microaggressions.

Racism, homophobia, ageism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination and prejudice toward underrepresented and marginalized groups are pervasive in our society and sometimes manifest as implicit bias and microaggressions. Implicit bias is the automatic and unconscious association of stereotypes or attitudes towards particular groups of people.

Microaggressions are the everyday insults, indignities, and offensive hidden messages inflicted upon people of color and other marginalized and minority groups. Implicit biases and microaggressions harm a person’s psychological well-being and can affect your ability to teach and the ability of students to learn. Microaggressions can make people feel unwelcome and uncomfortable and can also make it difficult to have productive and respectful discussions.


Handling microaggressions

Charles Pierce, a professor at Harvard Medical School, coined the term ‘microaggression’ in 1970. Microaggressions are “subtle, stunning, often automatic and nonverbal exchanges which are ‘put downs’ by offenders” (as cited in Fleurizard, 2018, para. 4). There is a substantial body of research that demonstrates both the prevalence and harmful effects of experiencing microaggressions in life (Souza, 2018).

It may be beneficial to understand the type of microaggression that has occurred. Derald Sue et al. classified microaggressions into three forms:

  • Microassaults: explicit verbal or nonverbal attacks meant to hurt someone (e.g., racial epithets, referring to someone as “colored” or “Oriental,” or deliberately serving a white person before a person of color). (Sue et al., 2007)
  • Microinsults: verbal and nonverbal insults that carry hidden meaning (e.g., “You’re probably good at math; you should do this part of the project,” said by a white peer to an Asian student who is stereotyping all Asians as good at math, or two white students excluding the Black student sitting next to them during a small-group discussion). (Sue et al., 2007)
  • Microinvalidations: invalidating the experiences and existence of the victim (e.g., “I think all lives matter” during a discussion of Black Lives Matter)(Sue et al., 2007).

Many of these microaggressions are due to Implicit bias, the way that stereotypes and attitudes we are unaware of shape our behavior. Research states, “Most of our actions occur without conscious thoughts, allowing us to function in our extraordinarily complex world. This means, however, that our implicit biases often predict how we’ll behave more accurately than our conscious values” (Perception Institute, n.d.).

Microaggressions in the classroom (18:03 minutes)

Watch the video for context on how microaggressions negatively impact the classroom environment. Click on the link to view:

A few noteworthy segments include:

  • 5:11 - 11:36: Students share how microaggressions impacted their classroom experience
  • 12:39: Faculty members discuss how to respond to microaggressions in the classroom.
  • 14:31: Flores Niemann shares the most common ways in which instructors commit microaggressions

How to intervene?

Prepare to intervene if students engage in inappropriate or harassing behavior, such as microaggressions, which can include well-intended comments like “Your English is so good!”

  • Preemptively and consistently remind students of the ground rules and expectations and provide opportunities for students to reflect on their own and their group’s adherence to these expectations.
  • Periodically review digital forums and share with students what you observe to highlight generative behaviors and intervene in harmful behaviors.
  • Consider the mix of full-class and private communications (targeted to individuals). For example, if microaggressions occur in an online forum, post a reminder to the full class of the expectations (and harms that can result from the behavior you observed) and send individual messages to students involved with a warm invitation to chat with you.

The online classroom is not immune to the potential threat microaggressions can pose for student success. Torres (2018) reminds us of the importance of providing safe spaces that encourage trust, mutual respect, and authentic care in supporting all students. For many students from underrepresented groups, Imposter Syndrome (the feeling one doesn’t belong in the college setting) and stereotype threat (debilitating fear of playing into a stereotype of people from one’s identity group) can be barriers to success.

Reading and Resources

  • Prepare to Intervene (University of Michigan): Provides strategies for anticipating and responding to difficult discussions and classroom incivility.
  • Addressing Common Obstructions to Online Teaching: Reviews potential “obstructions” instructors may have when creating an inclusive environment and suggests how to address them.
  • Hot Moments: Provides strategies for responding to “hot moments”: the sudden eruption of tension and conflict in classroom discussion.
  • How bystanders can shut down microaggressions: Psychologists studying intergroup relations offer their advice on effectively intervening when you see someone being targeted for an aspect of their identity.
  • Dean of Students on reporting Bias: How to report an incident involving bias or hate at UW-Madison, including the actions taken following a report.

Take action to maintain an inclusive and safe environment

In summary, if you make a mistake, acknowledge it, apologize, and strive to improve. We all will make mistakes sometimes, and we may or may not know how something we say has impacted others. In creating a climate of learning, we change the tenor of the conversation, sometimes referred to as “calling people in” rather than calling them out. Sharing responsibility for educating ourselves and each other is a great place to start. As an instructor, these opportunities to model taking responsibility, being open to learning, and normalizing emotions help create an inclusive environment.

Souza (2018) offers a communication framework to prepare should microaggressions occur in the course.

ACTION framework

A sk clarifying questions to assist with understanding intentions

C ome from curiosity, not judgment

T ell what you observed as problematic in a factual manner

I mpact exploration (explain the potential impact of statement or action on others)

O wn your thoughts and feelings around the impact

N ext steps: request the appropriate action to be taken

Torres (2018) also offers advice specific to the online learning environment. To create a more inclusive learning environment, establish anti-microaggression netiquette by discussing examples in an ice-breaker activity. Don’t misinterpret poor participation in group work. Investigate any issue by communicating with all students about their experiences working with group members.

Add meaning to your course content by getting to know your students and incorporating data, images, narratives, etc., that represent them genuinely and as essential stakeholders in your course. Finally, lean on your peers; understand that we all “struggle with the line between freedom of expression and confronting offensive content” (Torres, 2018, para. 13), discuss concerns with colleagues, or review the research for strategies. But, more importantly, do not be passive about or ignore microaggressions when they happen (Fleurizard, 2018).


Keywordsonline, teaching, microagressions, diversity, inclusionDoc ID122424
OwnerKaren S.GroupInstructional Resources
Created2022-11-10 01:21:34Updated2024-05-02 15:11:46
SitesCenter for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring
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