Microaggressions on Campus: Victimhood or Experiential Reality?

Consider this example of a microaggression, that is, a subtle message of exclusion or degradation, usually sent unintentionally:

A White professor commences an in-class review of last night’s assignment. “This was a tough one,” she tells the class, “and it got harder as it went along. So, let’s start with…uhm… Shaniqua,” the professor concludes, calling on one of the two Black students in the room. The professor learns later of Shaniqua’s blog post describing the humiliation and anger she felt when the professor called on her, a Black student, to give the answers to the easiest part of the assignment. Meanwhile, the professor tells her colleagues, “This is a ridiculous complaint. Since when does calling on a student make her a victim of racism?”

Victimhood and coddling?

Back in September, the notion that students describing their experiences of microaggressions are turning petty incidents into claims of victimhood was the subject of two articles in The Atlantic. “The Rise of Victimhood Culture,” is an exposé of a scholarly study where the researchers deduced the following: Student claims of harm from microaggressions reflect a rising “culture of victimhood.” In “The Coddling of the American Mind,” the authors argue that campus policies for responding to microaggressions are “dangerous” attempts to “shield students from words, ideas, and people that might cause them emotional discomfort.” This shielding, the authors contend, coddles the student mind, rendering it so weak as to subvert higher education and ultimately, the knowledge and reasoning that underlie American democracy.

The Atlantic articles sparked much debate. This blog is not the right forum to engage that debate. My purpose here is to make a fundamental point: the articles incorrectly characterize the import of students’ descriptions of microaggressions. These reflect not a culture of victimhood, but a culture of experiential reality. Campus policies and practices to address microaggressions aren’t dangerous coddling; they open the student mind to empathic interactions with people from all backgrounds.

Microaggressions on campus are real, harmful, and must be addressed.

Campus microaggressions are common:

  • Experiencing microaggressions formed the bulk of incidents reported in a 2014 online survey of over 200 students across four institutions – Missouri State University; two anonymous public institutions in the South and the Midwest; and a private, elite university in the Northeast. The survey was part of Harvard University’s Voices of Diversity project.
  • In a 2015 study of three community colleges, researchers counted 51 teacher microaggressions in the 60 classrooms observed.

Research tells us that microaggressions are associated with

  • Feelings of inferiority and isolation
  • Poor academic performance

Addressing microaggressions enhances learning and opens minds.

Research clearly establishes the importance of addressing microaggressions on campus. It requires empathy and exploration of the experiential reality of others, skills proven to open avenues to richer, deeper learning. An expanding body of research indicates that empathy improves academic performance, including on multiple choice and standardized tests.

Serious scholarship and thoughtful discourse about campus culture and policy are good, but let’s be clear that understanding and addressing microaggressions enhances learning and opens minds.

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Alison Akant
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& Chief Content Officer

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