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To Include is To Excel: Racial microaggressions in the classroom

Assistant Professor of Sociology/Anthropology Ryan Sheppard led a research course that examined racial microaggressions in the classroom.

In the first two years of the  To Include is To Excel initiative, St. Olaf College faculty and staff members have developed nearly 50 grant-funded projects to support inclusive teaching and learning. We’re  highlighting these projects in a new series — and we hope that hearing about this work in the words of fellow faculty and staff members will inspire you to think about how you can be part of creating a more inclusive and equitable campus community.

To provide students and professors across campus with the knowledge, skills, and tools to understand and recognize racial microaggressions, prevent them, and intervene effectively when they occur, St. Olaf College Assistant Professor of Sociology/Anthropology Ryan Sheppard developed a class research project to examine racial microaggressions in the classroom.

Sheppard shares what she learned in developing this To Include is To Excel project and what she hopes the community takes away from it:

What led you to develop this project?
Several things. First of all, the simple awareness that racialized microaggressions hurt people. These microaggressions (also called racial microaggressions) are subtle but ubiquitous forms of racism including verbal, behavioral, or environmental slights and slurs that target people from minoritized communities — often unintentionally, but not always so. It’s an unfortunate term, in a way, because the cumulative effect is anything but “micro.” As one St. Olaf student wrote on our survey, “Microaggressions occur all the time and even when students of color report them, nothing happens, which leads to us feeling like we don’t belong on this campus.” Research on other U.S. campuses indicate that there is nothing unusual about St. Olaf in this regard (these forms of racism occur with disturbing regularity across predominantly white campuses), but microaggressions and their negative consequences undermine our efforts at inclusion.

Second, a couple of things happened on campus. In spring 2017, students organized large protests that brought attention to racist incidents and institutionalized racism on campus. As part of this, the student group The Collective for Change on the Hill presented the administration with a list of specific demands such as mandatory racial and cultural sensitivity training for incoming first-year students (which has been adopted) and the adoption of a zero-tolerance policy on racial, sexual, and homophobic epithets. Earlier that spring the college had also received the Mellon Foundation grant, To Include is To Excel (TITE), to support inclusion and excellence via faculty development and curricular transformation.

Each fall, I teach a research course (SOAN 371) in which students typically conduct research for an on-campus “client” such as the Piper Center for Vocation and Career or the Wellness Center (two past clients), and a couple of colleagues suggested that the Fall 2017 class study racial microaggressions on campus, in part as a follow-up to the spring 2017 protests and in part to provide information that could contribute to the TITE inclusion efforts. Fortunately, Mary Carlsen and Maggie Broner, the faculty members providing leadership on the grant, supported the project.

In SOAN 371 that fall, 28 students and I conducted research to investigate the types and frequencies of microaggressions in classrooms and the curriculum, the harms they cause, and the ways in which students and professors address them. We had multiple research teams, each focusing on a specific related topic such as microinvalidations in academic spaces (e.g., ignoring or negating the experiences and emotional realities of racially, ethnically, and nationally underrepresented students, such as by denying white privilege or suggesting that racism doesn’t exist anymore), the negative impacts of microaggressions in classrooms (academic, social, and psychological), how students and faculty respond when microaggressions happen, and proactive measures to mitigate racialized microaggressions, such as start-of-semester discussions of how to prevent microaggressions and how to respond effectively when they occur.

What did you learn — about yourself, your students, your colleagues, the St. Olaf community — as you began working on this project?
Through seven focus groups and anonymous survey data from 718 students, we learned that racial microaggressions are indeed a problem in classrooms and the curriculum on campus, they have negative consequences, and they are not adequately addressed, or at least this was the case in fall 2017.

According to our results, all of the types of microaggressions we studied occur on campus in classrooms and in the curriculum. For example, reporting on the first 11 weeks of fall semester 2017 (when we sent out the survey):

  • Almost 60 percent of respondents observed or experienced a student in class stating or implying a racial, ethnic, or national stereotype about a group of people. Nearly 30 percent observed or experienced a microaggression during group work with other students, more than 25 percent during a lecture, and more than 37 percent during class discussion.
  • More than 10 percent experienced or observed a professor mock language styles or imitate accents at least once, and more than 35 percent observed a professor focusing uninvited attention on a student of color or international student at least once.
  • About 33 percent reported that none or almost none of the course content in their majors or concentrations and in conversation programs included voices from racially/ethnically marginalized groups.

Furthermore, students of color were more likely than white students to notice racialized microaggressions. For example:

  • Students of color were more than twice as likely as white students to report observing or experiencing another student using a racial slur to address or refer to a student of color (22 percent versus 10 percent).
  • Students of color were almost twice as likely as white students to report having observed/experienced a professor telling a joke that mocked or degraded a racial/ethnic group (13 percent versus 7 percent).
  • The students who reported seeing zero student-to-student microinvalidations in class (28 percent of the total) were disproportionately white, suggesting that many white students may simply not notice it when microinvalidations happen around them.

Students reported many negative consequences of racialized microaggressions:

  • 86 percent reported being negatively impacted to some degree by microaggressions in the classroom.
  • 65 percent of students who observed and students who were targeted by racialized microaggressions reported negative academic impacts such as decreased class participation, indicating microaggressions affect more than just the person targeted.
  • Of the students who reported witnessing or experiencing microaggressions, 73 percent reported negative impacts on their psycho-emotional well-being. As targets, students of color are significantly more negatively impacted than white students.

Yet not all students view racialized microaggressions as a problem. Despite the prevalence and harms of racialized microaggressions, some students asserted that microaggressions are essentially a non-issue. This was more often the case among white students, as three quotes — all of them from white students — illustrate, with the last one suggesting that a lack of negative intentions is more important than the actual negative impacts:

  • “This focus on microaggressions and sensitivity is hurting the community at large and pandering to ideologies and zealots.”
  • “I think this [survey] is making a huge fuss out of inconsequential issues.”
  • “I believe most people are adult enough to shrug off impolite or insensitive statements that are made accidentally, or are unintentional.”

When it comes to the question of how to respond to microaggressions — including proactively and after the fact — students have some good ideas about how to respond effectively. For example:

  • They reported that the most effective way to respond to microaggressions is to confront the enactor gently and/or by asking questions (62 percent), and the least effective ways are to confront the enactor forcefully or by yelling (50 percent) and to ignore the microaggression or stay silent (48 percent).
  • Overall, respondents view professor-initiated discussions of racism as the most effective proactive action.

But students also tell us that there’s a gap between ideal responses and actual responses, suggesting a need for students and faculty to learn tools and practice specific techniques for responding effectively to racial microaggressions:

  • The most common student response to microaggressions was nonverbal (65 percent).
  • The most common professor responses were ignoring the microaggression, staying silent, or changing the subject (36 percent).
  • A majority of students (53 percent) reported none of their professors that fall had used the term microaggression (53 percent) or initiated a discussion on how to respond to microaggressions (67 percent), at least not by week 11.

In the end, each of the research teams used the results to point to recommendations for change on campus, such as:

  • Provide mandatory racial and cultural sensitivity training for all students, including incoming first-years.
  • Provide training for all professors on tools for facilitating productive, respectful discussions about race and racial microaggressions in their classrooms and for effectively mitigating the prevalence and effects of microaggressions.
  • Include anti-racist competency on end-of-semester course evaluation forms and in faculty reviews.
  • Encourage professors to provide anonymous feedback forms for students to respond to at multiple points in the semester regarding course content, its presentation, and class discussions, including microaggressions.

What do you hope students and other members of the St. Olaf community take away from this work?
I hope we have more students, faculty, and staff who recognize microaggressions and their harms, who understand the cumulative impact on students who are targeted, and who have the tools to address microaggressions effectively. This is especially true for faculty. As one survey respondent wrote, “The onus needs to be on the professors to inform their students to call out, and how to call out both them and fellow students when microaggressions occur. Students are often scared to confront authority, but when professors open up the discussion, students might be more likely to speak up.”

I hope we’re better at distinguishing between microaggression-related intentions and impacts. Intentions may be positive or neutral, but that doesn’t negate the negative impacts. If you step on someone’s foot, it causes pain whether you intended it or not. People who unintentionally enact microaggressions and get called on it often react defensively, and that’s not helpful. Getting defensive rather than paying attention to the offense and its harm simply layers a second microaggression over the first one. One thing my students have taught me to say in response to being called out on my own unintended microaggressions is “Thank you for correcting me.”

Where does your work go from here?
The best outcome of the research is for its results to be put to use! Each student project used the research results to point to recommendations for change on campus, such as training for faculty, staff, and students, and I support ongoing consideration of those recommendations. I have presented our research (sometimes co-presenting with students) at a Center for Innovation in the Liberal Arts (CILA) lunch, a workshop for Student Government Association and Residence Hall student staff, a workshop for faculty and staff in the Art and Art History Department and the Flaten Art Museum, and at a conference of the Midwest Sociological Society. The workshops include microaggression scenarios that small groups consider and respond to, providing hands-on practice that helps to counteract the common “stunned silence” reaction to microaggressions (as in “I didn’t see that coming. I don’t have a script for this.”). I would be glad to conduct more workshops or to help counter microaggressions in other ways with faculty, staff, and students.

The impacts of this research are of course intertwined with the impacts of the many other projects supported by the TITE grant, and more faculty and staff are paying attention to microaggressions and other issues of inclusion. For example, the Office of International and Off-Campus Studies is currently designing an inclusion-oriented training for faculty and staff leading off-campus programs.

Finally, I hope this research will be repeated, using our 2017 results as a sort of “baseline.” In the future, we could identify the extent to which racialized microaggressions have been reduced in classrooms, we could identify ongoing problem areas, and we could use the data to inform decisions about what steps to take next.