Contemplating Race

One of the first times that I heard about microaggressions was when amendments to the Dignity for All Students Act took effect in July, 2013. While we were preparing the first version of our new certification class, I ran into the word in the required syllabus published by NYSED. Under the heading “Understanding how school climate and culture have an impact on student achievement and behavior” the syllabus states that participants will understand the relationship between harassment, bullying, cyberbullying, microaggression, marginalization, and discrimination on student achievement, attendance and dropout rates.

I remember spending a significant amount of time that summer reading about microaggressions, especially racial microaggressions. I relied heavily on an article published in in the May/June 2007 issue of the American Psychologist by Derald Wing Sue and his colleagues from Teachers College at Columbia University. His 2003 book, Overcoming Our Racism: The Journey to Liberation, is now considered a landmark work in the field. While Chester Pierce first introduced the idea of racial microaggressions in the field of psychiatry in the late 1960s,  Dr. Sue further defined the term as brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory , or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group. In the article Dr. Sue includes an anecdote taken from his own life which illustrates microaggression in everyday life. He (who is Asian American) and a colleague (who happens to be African American) were traveling on a small plane from NY to Boston. The flight attendant said they could sit wherever they liked because there were few passengers. They sat near the front, across the aisle from each other, so they could easily converse. Before the door was closed, three White men in suits entered the plane, were told they could sit anywhere, and sat in front of Dr. Sue and his colleague. Right before take-off, the flight attendant (also White) asked Dr. Sue and his travel companion to please move to the back of the plane in order to evenly distribute weight on the plane. They did, indeed, move to the back, but both felt angry and resentful because they believed they had been treated poorly because they are people of color. When Dr. Sue attempted to explain his feelings to the flight attendant, she immediately became defensive.

All of this has come back to me in a disturbing way as I have read and heard accounts of so many racial incidents at schools and on college campuses in recent months. The incident which affected me the most occurred at a college with which I am very familiar, St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN, the college from which my daughter graduated in 2014. St. Olaf is a small liberal arts college with about 3,000 students, only about 3% of which are African American. Several weeks ago one of these students found a note attached to her car window which said, “One less n‑‑‑‑‑ that this school has to deal with. You have spoken up too much. You will change nothing. Shut up or I will shut you up.”  This was the most recent in a string of similar incidents involving hate speech on campus this year. Four days of campus demonstrations were sparked by the most recent event, leading to a planned boycott of classes which then resulted in the college president canceling classes for a day in order that faculty, staff, and students could have a period of discussion about racism and diversity on campus. According to an article in the New York Times on May 1, President David Anderson signed an agreement on how to proceed with addressing issues of racism on campus, after meeting with a group of protestors.

As the parent of an alumna of St. Olaf and as someone who is generally interested in issues related to diversity, I intend to follow this story as it moves forward. Of course, receiving a note such as the one described above is more than a racial microaggression. It is a direct, bold, intentional instance of hate speech and violence, designed to intimidate the receiver. In pondering this matter, I find myself looking at my own behavior more closely. When I approach the door of the YMCA where I work out and where a group of young African American men are standing, do I behave differently than if these young men were White? When I am finished shopping at Wegman’s and ready to enter a checkout lane, am I influenced in a subtle (or not so subtle) way by the race of the cashier? Was I lulled into thinking that racial prejudice would be absent on the campus of St. Olaf because, in addition to promoting academic rigor and global involvement, it also focuses on “a faith tradition that encourages reflection and honors different perspectives.” And, most importantly, as an educator and counselor, what messages am I giving to others about tolerance and acceptance through my verbal and nonverbal behavior whenever I speak to students or present a workshop to staff?

I don’t think there are any easy answers to any of these questions but I do believe all K-12 schools and institutions of higher education must grapple with this topic in an open, deliberate way. And of course I do not mean that they consider only race but also issues of class, religion, ethnicity, and gender, to name only a few. My hope is that all of us can one day realize that our differences enrich all of us and that our society . . . and our world . . . would be diminished if we were all the same.

Kathy Miller




Sources consulted in writing this blog:

  • Sue, D.W. et al (2007). Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life, Implications for Clinical Practice. American Psychologist, 62, 271-286.
  • The Latest: Protestors at St. Olaf Reach Deal with College. The New York Times, May 1, 2017.
  • — information about St. Olaf College

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