This lesson is part of our regular Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion curriculum. On most Mondays, you will be expected to read a short lesson about that week's DEI topic. Then, on Tuesday, your instructor will lead a standup on that topic.
This week, we will cover microaggressions: what they are, how they impact people, and how to recognize and prevent them.
Epicodus isn't just a code school. It's a community of peers, friends, allies, future coworkers and connections. To this end, we ask students to actively participate in making Epicodus a welcoming and safe community for everyone regardless of race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, age, religion, or other status. One way we do this is by consciously avoiding a type of hurtful interaction called a microaggression.
A microaggression is a comment or action that (often unintentionally) implies prejudice toward marginalized groups or individuals. In this lesson we'll explore what these interactions look like, what to do when they happen, and how to avoid them entirely. We'll also explore how consciously avoiding microaggressive behavior fits into the larger umbrella of allyship.
David Wang Sue, Professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University, defines microaggressions as:
...everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, often unintentional, which communicate negative messages to people in marginalized groups. These messages communicate they are lesser, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment.
But what do these interactions look like? Here are several real world examples of microaggressions, including some we've assisted students in addressing at Epicodus. (Note that the "hidden messages" aren't necessarily the intent of the person committing the microaggression, but how the message could be perceived by members of marginalized groups.)
Professor Sue also offers further examples of microaggressions in his two articles, Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life, and Microaggressions: More than Just Race. If you feel that more examples—especially those from outside the classroom environment—would solidify your understanding of this topic, we recommend reviewing these resources.
The term microaggression combines the words "micro" and "aggression," but in some ways the term is misleading because the impact of microaggressions long-term is very significant. According to Dr. David Wang Sue:
(Microaggressions) have been found to: (a) assail the mental health of recipients, (b) create a hostile and invalidating work or campus climate, (c) perpetuate stereotype threat, (d) create physical health problems, (e) saturate the broader society with cues that signal devaluation of social group identities, (f) lower work productivity and problem solving abilities, and (g) be partially responsible for creating inequities in education, employment and health care.
These issues arise because microaggressions themselves can be subtle even if their impact isn't. The following quote from Dr. Sue illustrates this. While he speaks specifically of their impact on people of color in this quotation, these issues also apply for women and people from other disadvantaged groups.
Microaggressions hold their power because they are invisible, and therefore they don't allow whites to see that their actions and attitudes may be discriminatory. Therein lays the dilemma. The person of color is left to question what actually happened. The result is confusion, anger and an overall draining of energy.
For these reasons, it's very important to take the impact of microaggressions seriously and take active steps to prevent them from occurring.
Now that we have a better understanding what microaggressions are, let's discuss how to prevent them. Here are important guidelines to follow:
But what should we do if we are involved in a microaggression, whether as the target, a witness, or the person committing it? Let's outline best practices and guidelines on handling microaggressions from each of these three roles:
If you stepped on someone's foot, you'd apologize, right? Even if it was completely unintentional, you still stepped on them. And that can hurt! Well, the same goes for microaggressions; while their damaging "hidden messages" aren't always intended, they still hurt. So they deserve acknowledgement, an apology, and reflection to prevent them from occurring again. Here are steps to follow when you commit a microaggression:
When we're targets of microaggressions, we shouldn't immediately assume the perpetrator has hurtful intentions. We are more likely to handle situations in a productive, non-confrontational way if we don't assume others' intentions are hostile. If someone stepped on your foot, that doesn't mean they're on a mission to intentionally hurt peoples' feet, right? In most cases, it was probably an accident. That said, just like there's nothing wrong with telling somebody they stepped on your foot, there's also nothing wrong with telling somebody they hurt you with a microaggression.
Here are guidelines on handling microaggressions targeted at you and communities you belong to:
To create a safe and welcoming learning environment, it's important that all students treat each other, and staff, with respect, kindness, and empathy. This includes respecting and welcoming differing races, genders, ability levels, sexual orientations, ages, religions, and other traits and statuses.
Students that repeatedly target others with microaggressions, and/or display no improvement in this behavior after staff intervention are in violation of our Code of Conduct (in our Student Handbook) and will be asked to leave.
Talking about our identities can be uncomfortable, especially if you haven't had these kinds of conversations before. It can be tempting to make jokes as a way of lessening that discomfort, but we'd urge you to avoid this kind of humor. Being a minority in any environment can be stressful, and having somebody joke about that experience can feel belittling.
On the other hand, we urge you to continue talking with your friends, classmates, and teachers about microaggressions and other aspects of making Epicodus an inclusive community.
We encourage students to become allies. An ally is a person that actively works to improve conditions for people from disadvantaged groups. Working towards preventing and calling out microaggressions is a good start. However, there are many other ways we can be allies as well.
We recommend checking out the following resources if you are interested in becoming an ally:
Lesson 12 of 34
Last updated January 19, 2021