Opening Doors for Learning

Monitoring Microaggressions

Learning is fostered in conditions of mutual respect — amongst students, and between students and faculty. Slights, stereotypes, or low expectations, even if they’re unintentional, can erode that sense of respect, and inhibit learning, so it’s important for faculty to manage interpersonal and intergroup tensions in our classrooms. We can make a start by noticing, and addressing, microaggressions.

Chester Pierce, a Professor of Psychiatry and Education at Harvard, coined the term “microaggression” almost 50 years ago, to describe “subtle, stunning, often automatic, and nonverbal exchanges which are ‘put-downs.’” Derald Wing Sue explains that microaggressions send insulting or invalidating messages to “individuals because of their group membership.” This can mean any way in which people are categorized or stereotyped, including by race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, ability, and so forth. Such indignities are unfortunately so common that those who are not targeted may not even notice them, but the impact (especially the cumulative impact, on physical and mental health) can be immense (Carter et al, 2001; Nadal, et al, 2014). Microaggressions may be committed unconsciously or unintentionally. They’re often manifestations of unconscious or implicit bias, deep-rooted and culturally-constructed assumptions and associations we’ve absorbed and perhaps never interrogated (Banaji and Greenwald, 2013).

When we allow microaggressions or overt insults to go unchallenged, our silence speaks as tacit approval. The atmosphere in the classroom becomes increasingly toxic for those who are marginalized. It’s our duty to protect those students, and it’s also our job to help students who might be perpetrating unintentional microaggressions to learn of and from their errors. Reacting in the moment isn’t easy, however, so it’s useful to have a pre-rehearsed response to avoid feeling frozen when you hear (or say) something damaging.

One example of a “microresistance,” intended to support the targeted person, halt the microaggression, and open a dialogue that enables learning, without making the “aggressor” feel defensive, was developed by Ganote, Cheung, and Souza (2015). It’s a quick script they call Open The Front Door (OTFD):

Observe: What did you notice? (It should be concrete and factual.)

Think: Why is it important?

Feel: Acknowledge your emotions as a result of the observation.

Desire: What do want to see happen differently?

Here’s how OTFD might play out. If a minority student is being asked to represent their entire ethnic group, for example, you might say, “Let’s pause for a moment. I noticed (O) that there seems to be an expectation that an individual can speak for an entire group. I think (T) we need to resist this temptation. It’s too much to ask of anyone to speak for an entire community. I feel (F) uncomfortable with this request, and I’d like (D) for us to only ask others to speak for themselves.” For a more nuanced response, Souza expanded OTFD into another strategy called ACTION (described here.)

If you’d like more ideas for warming up your classroom climate, or negotiating conflict amongst students, please contact us at We’re here to support the incredible work you do. Next week we’ll share some suggestions for re-energizing your classes at midterm. Thanks for all you do!