Discrimination in the classroom is oftentimes subtle and unintentional, making it difficult to address and to stop. Whether from a teacher or another student, discrimination can lead to a disparity in learning between white students and students of color, according to years of studies ranging from Johns Hopkins University to the Journal of the National Medical Association.
The term “microaggression” was coined in the late 1970s by Harvard professor Chester M. Pierce, who defined it as “a statement, action or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group, such as a racial or ethnic minority.”
Microaggressions take many shapes in the classroom, but they all affect the rights of students to an equitable and safe learning environment.
Microaggressive or covertly racist acts do not necessarily reflect malicious behavior; the aggressor often misconstrues them as compliments. Peninsula High School junior Makora Greene experienced this firsthand as a multiracial student who identifies as black, Native American, Mexican and Asian.
“[This teacher] touching my hair, that was something that I really got frustrated with, because it is just so rude,” Greene said. “Especially since she was like, ‘Oh, your hair’s so puffy, it looks so cool.’ It’s just creepy. I don’t think she’s doing it with ill intention, but it is just [about] boundaries.”
PHS Junior Chelsea Joefield described instances where compliments would be attempted, such as, “Oh my gosh, your skin is so smooth,” but would end with “for a black girl.”
“My skin is just smooth,” Joefield said. “Your sentence should have ended there.”
One common example of microaggression in the classroom is the lowering of expectations by white teachers toward students of color. Multiple studies have found that teachers subconsciously believe minority students are not capable of doing challenging work, so in a self-fulfilling prophecy, they don’t push them.
Joefield recalls a teacher refusing to let her read “Harry Potter” in the third grade.
“I’m a big reader and always read above my reading level,” she said. “I remember my teacher totally degraded me and thought that I could not read ‘Harry Potter’ in third grade. If [the book] is in your classroom, why can’t I?”
All in a Name
Subtle racism can also take the form of a teacher’s disregard for students’ names. Whether it is confusing the names of students of color in the same class, lumping students together based on race (such as calling all Hispanic students a traditionally Mexican name) or not pronouncing a student’s name correctly, these examples all work to efface the individual and render the student invisible.
“I have had [this teacher] for a whole entire year by this point, but she continuously calls me Dora,” Greene said. “And I say, ‘That’s not my name,’ and she says, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry; it is easy to confuse you.’ Why? It was just a weird thing to me, calling someone something different when I was the only person in that class who is a person of color.”
Actions taken by teachers are not the only things that can alienate students of color. Sometimes it is the response, or lack of response, these teachers have to racism in their classrooms from other students.
PHS senior Tiana Thompson remembers a student giving a presentation to her English class about race and murder rates.
“His argument was since black people were No. 1 on that list, we should avoid them,” Thompson said. “And the teacher passed him and gave him an A.”
Greene described an incident in her history class where another student digitally manipulated a photo of the teacher holding a confederate flag. When the teacher saw it, he laughed and said he was going to print the picture and hang it in the classroom.
“I think one of the main things that was really upsetting to me was that it is a history class where you are supposed to be teaching something valuable that will educate students about that issue,” Greene said. “But instead, he was kind of just diminishing it and making it a joke. It diminishes the experiences of not just the people at the school, but as a whole.”
Some activities embedded in classroom curriculum intentionally single out students. One example is when a teacher calls on a student of color for his or her perspective when race comes up as a topic of discussion.
Right before Greene entered high school, an older student told her about his English class where they read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a novel used to educate students on empathy and racial injustice. However, reading the novel was paired with a role-play activity that included the black students in the class having to sit in the back of the room, an activity that physically singled out students.
“Going into it, I already had these worries about how I was going to be treated in the class,” Greene said. “And I feel like I shouldn’t have to be worried about things like that going into a classroom to learn. You don’t have to single out the actual black people and have them sit in the back of the classroom.”
It’s Not Just About Race
Microaggressions are a common experience for anyone who does not conform to an institution’s dominant demographic. PHS junior Samm Moore experienced covert homophobia from her teacher when she saw that same-sex public displays of affection were held to a different standard than heterosexual displays in the same classroom.
“I thought it was kind of ridiculous because I was holding hands with my best friend,” Moore said. “To me, it was really stupid that [the teacher] was like, ‘That’s a distraction that you are holding hands with another girl.’ But the same teacher makes jokes about all the straight couples in class and that’s not distracting, or when [a student] would have his girlfriend in class, that wasn’t distracting because, you know, it was heterosexual.”
Addressing the Microaggressor
It can be difficult to address microaggressive behaviors because, as the name implies, they are “micro.” When brought to the attention of the microaggressor, they are often ignored.
“You get told that you’re overreacting and that you’re dramatic,” Thompson said. “Teachers are in disbelief and denial when they hear a student bring up racism. They say, ‘Really? That’s really hard for me to believe; I can´t believe that’s happening at my school.’”
Although it may be easier to dismiss students and attribute their concerns to an overly sensitized generation, educators should try to reach as wide an audience of students as possible by recognizing their own mistakes, according to PHS Principal Dave Goodwin.
“We can be insensitive and not maybe have the empathy we need to have,” Goodwin said. “I think it’s something we need to be really conscious of and be aware of all the time.”
Combating microaggressions in the classroom means addressing biases that lie within oneself by being more conscious of one’s actions, where they come from and how they may make another person feel by, in Greene’s words, “recognizing that those people of color are not an exhibit.”
A potential remedy to the profusion of microaggressions in predominantly white schools is to hire teachers who understand these issues, according to both Thompson and Greene.
“You need to hire somebody so the students feel like they’re not outnumbered, even by the teachers,” Thompson said. “I’ve never had one African-American teacher, and that’s really weird to me.”
Goodwin said that there should be specialized training in addition to the baseline sensitivity training all teachers undergo. He proposed the idea of a diversity council, where students discuss what they “feel we need to improve on and ways we could better educate students and staff about all the issues that make people feel uncomfortable.”
The end of microaggressions starts with acknowledgement, Thompson said.
“They are teachers and we find comfort, we find safety, in them, so they do need to have that training to understand how to deal with that racism and what’s going on in the schools,” she said. “Because it’s never going to end and we need to figure out how to make the students feel safer.”
Natalie Svinth graduated from Peninsula High School in June. To read her full article, go to www.phsoutlook.com. Reprinted with permission.