MAA Workshop on Microaggressions

This morning I went to the MAA workshop “Identifying and Managing Microaggressions in the Academic Setting”. It was run by Lynn Garrioch and Semra Kilic of Colby-Sawyer College, Omayra Orteya of Sonoma State, and Rosalie Bélanger-Rioux of McGill University.

The workshop started out with a discussion of what the term microaggression means. Kilic explained that it refers to brief, commonplace assaults on marginalized people, intentional or not. That was something I’d heard before, but I’d never heard it broken down into subcategories—microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations. Microassaults refer to actions like displaying swastikas—intentionally provoking. Microinsults encompass any questions or comments specifically related to a marginalized identity, like asking a nonwhite person who was born in the US where they’re from. And microinvalidations are those little signs that you’re negating someone’s experience.

The rest of the workshop was devoted to discussing a hypothetical scenario that involved a microaggression. Here, try it for yourself: you enter an academic department and can’t help overhearing two TAs discussing one student’s recent exam. “This student asked me why they lost so many points for not writing down ‘trivial steps’. The student was very upset,” TA #1 explains to TA #2. TA #1 is not convinced this student knows the material because they are very quiet in class and never attend office hours.

TA #2, however, pulls out another student’s exam for comparison. “Oh, that one is a great student!” says TA #1. But TA #2 notes that this student did not show many steps either. However, TA #1 believes they know the material because they talk a lot in class.

If you overheard this conversation, what would you do? Would it depend on your identity and the identity of the TAs involved? How might the situation have been avoided, or what factors could have produced it? If you did step in, what would be the most productive way to do so?

After discussing this scenario, the organizers introduced a twist. Imagine that a student who appears disabled comes to your office a week later and complains that their TA is biased against students with disabilities. You suspect that this student is the “quiet student” you overheard the conversation about. Does this change your feelings about the conversation you overheard? How could you best be an ally to the student?

Try putting yourself in the shoes of different characters, as well: can you see yourself in TA #1 at all? How would you feel if you were the quiet student or the more outgoing student? Seeing the different assumptions people made about the characters and how that affected their interpretation of what was going on was a worthwhile experience.

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