Lesson Weekend

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.

Understanding Microaggressions

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.)

  • A male student explains a coding concept to a woman who hasn't asked for an explanation. (Hidden message: "Women aren't as good at coding as men.")
  • A transgender student tells co-students their pronouns, but some students make minimal effort to use them, or ignore the request. (Hidden message: "Your identity doesn't matter unless it fits into my predefined notions.")
  • A younger student assists an older student with a piece of technology without being asked. (Hidden message: "Older students are less skilled at technology.")
  • A white student asks a student of color "Where are you originally from?" (Hidden message: "You're a perpetual outsider in this classroom, city, country, etc.")
  • An able-bodied student asks a person with a disability about her mobility device. (Hidden message: "You are different and less capable.")
  • For team week, three male students write a project idea on the board that references pornography. (Hidden messages: "Referencing sexual content in the workplace is normal, and anyone that feels uncomfortable should just get used to the 'boy's club' of tech.")
  • An older student refers to their younger co-students as 'kids'. (Hidden message: "Younger students are lacking in comparison to their older counterparts.",)
  • A student brings in snacks to share with their class. Another student politely declines the food, mentioning they're fasting in recognition of a religious holiday. The offering student exclaims "That's sooooo crazy! I could never fast like that! Insane! How do you do it?!" (Hidden message: "Your religious practices and identity are abnormal.")

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 Impact of Microaggressions

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.

Preventing Microaggressions

Now that we have a better understanding what microaggressions are, let's discuss how to prevent them. Here are important guidelines to follow:

  • Don't call attention to a person's status as a member of a minority community, even if you don't mean it "negatively".
  • Don't make jokes about marginalized groups or communities.
  • Don't use terms that are disparaging toward minority groups, even if you're "just joking".
  • Examine your own implicit biases. Be aware of assumptions you have that may affect how you treat others; especially those of different backgrounds, statuses, communities, or upbringings.
  • Don't make statements or ask questions implying others may be less capable, or lacking in some manner.
  • Don't allow stereotypes to inform how you view, interact with, or discuss others.
  • Remember that current students are your future coworkers and network. Have fun, but act as you would in a professional workplace. After all, Epicodus is essentially your first "job" in the industry. Leave a good impression.

Dealing with Microaggressions

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:

What Should I Do if I've Committed a Microaggression?

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:

  • Be proactive. If you realize you might have said something hurtful, call yourself out. Don't wait for someone to confront you!
  • Acknowledge the impact. While it's okay to clarify your intent (“I didn't mean to hurt your feelings”), remember the impact your actions have on others is not dependent upon your intent, and is equally valid.
  • Apologize. Even if you didn't intend harm, the impact can be hurtful. The target's feelings are 100% valid.
  • Don't pressure for information beyond what the other person volunteers. It's not the obligation of this person (or other members of marginalized groups) to educate you, or explain the intricacies of the situation. While it's acceptable to ask for clarification about the situation, many members of marginalized groups report becoming exhausted due to constant pressure to explain why microaggressions are hurtful. You can always talk about the situation with trusted friends, or seek voices from these groups online (such as from blog posts and articles) to learn more about the issue.
  • Be a good listener. This is an opportunity to learn about someone else's perspective and become a better peer, ally, and future coworker. Listen carefully, regardless of the amount of information the other party freely gives.
  • Do your best to ensure it doesn't happen again. Carefully and intentionally reflect upon what went wrong, and how you can prevent similar situations in the future.
  • Follow up with Epicodus staff if you have remaining concerns or would like more guidance on preventing future microaggressions.

What Should I Do if I'm the Target of 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:

  • You are never required to confront someone if you don't want to, or don't feel comfortable. Feel free to separate yourself from the situation. It's okay to take time alone to process. It's also okay to talk to somebody a while after the incident.
  • Remember the difference between impact and intent. Your feelings are valid, regardless of the intent of the person committing the microaggression.
  • You may choose to tell someone they've committed a microaggression. If you wish, explain why the microaggression was hurtful. While it may be difficult, try to treat them as you would like someone to treat you, if you accidentally hurt their feelings.
  • You may also choose to discuss the situation with Epicodus staff. We will provide support, preserve your privacy, and work with you to devise a follow-up plan.
  • Please let Epicodus know if you ever feel threatened, unsafe, or unwelcome at any time. We are here to advocate for you.
  • If you feel you can no longer pair with another student due to microaggressions, inform Epicodus staff so we may accommodate.

What Should I Do if I Witness a Microaggression?

  • Don't assume no one is hurt by a comment. Even if there are no clear targets, we all need to work together to make Epicodus a safe space.
  • If you feel comfortable doing so, say something to the perpetrator(s) of the microaggression. Again, remember that their intent may have been different from their impact.
  • If you're not a part of the group impacted by the microaggression, don't speak for members of that group, or make assumptions about their experience. Instead, focus on what you experienced.
  • Listen and be supportive. This is an opportunity to learn about the experiences of others and to become a better peer and coworker.
  • Let Epicodus staff know if students are acting in an inappropriate or hostile manner. We're here to support and help!

Code of Conduct Violations

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.

Continuing to Talk About Microagressions

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.

Being An Ally

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:

Further Resources

Lesson 12 of 34
Last updated January 19, 2021