“An inclusive culture underpins every aspect of an organisation’s activities and allows staff and students from all backgrounds to achieve their full potential” (Race Equality Review, 2021)
A microaggression is a subtle but discriminatory comment or behaviour that communicates harmful stereotypes. What makes them different from other types of insults or rude behaviour is that they are based on the victim’s membership of a marginalised group.
They happen informally, frequently, in all kinds of settings, and are usually unintentional – delivered through subtle gestures, looks and comments perpetrators may describe as ‘just banter’. Research has shown that microaggressions can take a serious toll on the physical and mental health of recipients. In universities, they create a hostile environment which affects marginalised students’ ability to enjoy student life and express their academic potential. This is not okay and must be challenged.
Remember, microaggressions are not just verbal, they can include behaviours such as ignoring someone, leaving them out of a conversation and eye rolling. The term originated in academia but is now commonplace, so it’s important to understand what it means. This article is designed to help you spot microaggressions, recognise the harm they cause and act against them.
EXAMPLES OF MICROAGRESSIONS
Here are some examples based on race, sexuality and gender. Perhaps you have witnessed or received these comments, or comments like them, before.
You’re Asian so you must be good at Maths.
Your hair is cool, can I touch it?
Your accent is really good! (to native speakers)
Where are you really from, though?
These types of comments contain veiled disrespect towards the target, negating their heritage and identity.
Sexual orientation and gender identity
But you don’t look gay
Asking about someone’s sexual life or sexual history
So do you have a boyfriend? (Assuming someone’s sexuality or gender identity)
Individuals from the LGBTQ+ collective community commonly experience behaviour based on social stigmas, negating, or nullifying their lived realities.
What can you do?
Here are some small actions you can take to avoid your own biases, intervene when you witness a microaggression and create a more inclusive environment.
- Learn other students’ names, involve them in conversations, listen carefully to what they have to say.
- If you aren’t sure what you are saying is harmful, carefully observe body language. This often reveals that someone may not appreciate the assumption you have made about them.
In the moment
- Don’t speak on someone else’s behalf. Instead, calmly speak for yourself: “You may not have realised it but that is no longer an acceptable term. I don’t like hearing that kind of language.”
- If this feels daunting, sometimes it is easier to show support for the recipient: “You were cut off while trying to speak. Please share what you were trying to, I value your opinion.”
- You may wish to change the subject or remove the recipient from the situation: “Sorry to interrupt but I need to show you something. Can you come with me for a second?”
- It’s not too late to act. You can still pull somebody aside and explain why you take issue with their behaviour.
- You can also still show support for the victim: “That conversation looked difficult. Are you okay?”
If you are accused of a microaggression
- If you inadvertently make a harmful comment, don’t fool yourself that because you meant well, you did no harm. Taking responsibility for hurt you may have caused and apologising for it is the right thing to do. Just be aware that your apology may not be immediately accepted, and you should avoid responding defensively.
Report ongoing incidents of harassment here: NEVER OK
Interested in standing up for a more inclusive culture at the university? Work with us as an Inclusion Consultant.
Read further resources on microaggressions.