If I had money to wager, I’d bet that if you’re a female teacher, this has happened to you. You’re in a meeting and you say something smart. A few minutes later, a man repeats your smart comment and everyone nods as if hearing it for the first time. “He makes so much sense,” one person says.
It makes me crazy.
Recently, I raised the issue with a small group of some of the most wonderful men I know, men who’d just unintentionally played parts in this same kind of scenario. They looked at me like I had described something I’d seen on TV rather than an event that they had just participated in. “What?” they asked, “When did that happen?”
I get why they’re mystified. That’s the thing about what sociologists call microaggressions, those subtle and indirect behaviors that marginalize whole categories of people. These indignities are so habitual that they’re hard to notice. Unless of course, you’re the one that it’s happening to.
You Know What I’m Talking About
If you’re a woman, you’re well-acquainted with this type of discriminatory behavior. Unfortunately, if you’re a person of color, it happens even more. Adriana Chavarin-Lopez, a former principal in San Diego County, talked to me about the kind of remark that many White people think is harmless and a joke, but is disrespectful.
Chavarin-Lopez explained it this way. There is a common experience that people of color have when talking together, she said. “Usually the terminology is: What are you guys up to? What are you planning?” When meeting with a Latina, she often heard comments like, “Oh this pairing looks dangerous!”
Chavarin-Lopez wondered why people who usually seem smart and sensitive can be so unaware of how offensive their language can be. “Is it because breathing the air of institutional racism makes it so you don’t even notice [what] you’re saying?” she said.
Those little experiences, day after day, feel like perpetual paper cuts to the spirit, but they act more like parasites. They suck away at a person’s sense of self. Because they aren’t noticed or acknowledged by others, leaving no mark on the outside, offenders never really have to deal with them.
Call It What It Is
Researchers describe microaggressions as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities.” In daily school life, they can look like mispronouncing someone’s name—particularly a name from another language—and then, when you can’t get it right, substituting an easier name or a nickname. They can look like assuming a child of color who transferred to your school came on an athletic scholarship rather than for the academics.
Worst of all, they show up in lowered expectations and simplified work for children of color. Dia Bryant experienced this when her daughter Kori came home from her new school in Cambridge without her usual enthusiasm. Bryant knew something was up. She is a former New York City principal and math teacher, so she was particularly attuned to the signs of lowered expectations for kids of color. “Kori told me, ‘They think I’m stupid.’ Her teacher was giving her addition facts in third grade. Most kids are learning multiplication facts in third grade,” Bryant said.
On its face, giving a new student easier work can look like empathy or compassion, but when we dumb down lessons for children of color, we communicate a deep doubt in their ability to achieve. No matter what our words say, our actions—in the subtle ways we communicate our belief in a child’s intellectual power—show how easily we become, in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, “good racist people.”
Here are some examples of language commonly heard in teacher’s lounges, at meetings, and read on social media that are demeaning for people of color:
I don’t see color.
All lives matter.
I’m not racist, I have (fill in the blank with a race) friends.
There’s one race—the human race.
All of those seemingly benign statements contain a virulent, embedded erasure of the lived experience of our students, our friends and our colleagues. Repeating them hurts because they reflect a willful blindness to the damage we do.
It is particularly painful for those of us in the work of teaching to recognize these microaggressions as racist behavior. It certainly is for me. When I realized I, too, made excuses for not academically pushing my Black and Brown students as hard as I was my own White children, I felt ashamed and guilty.
But that’s not where any of us should stay. The point of being aware of subtly racist and hurtful actions is not to make me or you feel guilty or ashamed. It’s to make us do better because “we know better,” as Maya Angelou taught us.
As a middle and high school teacher, I struggled with issues of race because it frightened me. I feared offending my students, so I kept race out of the classroom, not understanding that this behavior could make students feel even more isolated, more invisible.
Like me, many well-meaning White teachers misinterpret their students’ silence as agreement with their choice of texts and topics of discussion, or as acquiescence to their classroom culture of “colorblindness.” That’s what Yasmene Mumby, a lawyer and former Baltimore City school teacher, experienced when she transferred to a majority White school in eighth grade.
“I’d never been the only Black kid in a classroom and for them, I was their one connection to a Black person in an academic setting,” she told me. “I was quiet—and quietly suffering.”
It’s this lack of awareness about acts of microaggression that I want to highlight. Adults say they are hurt when it happens to them, so think how much more it hurts a student.