Managing Microaggressions

Changing our Approach to Avoid Reproach

Years ago, as an inexperienced accounting teacher, I gave a lesson in which I taught my students how to write off a bad debt.

This lesson used an example from a textbook featuring three debtors, with surnames Jones, Van Heerden and Dlamini, and the debtor who had to be written off for not paying a long outstanding debt was, unfortunately, the latter. It caused outrage among my students, who questioned why it should be the debtor named Dlamini who was represented in the exercise as not paying off a debt, and whether the textbook reinforced negative stereotypes of black people.

I was a young, white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied Christian whose family had been able to afford to send me to the school and university of my choice. While I understood the points made by my students, I thought nevertheless that they were being perhaps a little oversensitive, as it was simply a textbook example and not to be taken seriously.

After all, in my view, the world was becoming too politically correct, and I did not want the thought police to limit my freedom of speech. I believed that offence was something taken, not given. Hence, I felt that the students were making too much of a fuss about this exercise and I did not understand why they were so upset and offended.

A life-changing diagnosis

However, all that changed in my mid-thirties, when a rare mutation in my body caused my chromosomes (numbers 9 and 22) to exchange genetic material. This invisible event caused my bone marrow to start over-producing white blood cells, and, after months of feeling ill, fatigued, losing weight, having night sweats, and bruising easily, I was diagnosed with a condition called chronic myeloid leukaemia.

Suddenly everything was different: I had a dread disease and would probably be on daily chemotherapy for the rest of my life. This would hopefully keep the white blood cells at bay, but that would cause unknown side effects. It would also require careful monitoring every three months to ensure that the treatment was working and that my immune system had reached a stalemate with the leukaemia.

After this diagnosis, a striking change in me was that I saw things very differently. Suddenly I had become part of a club that nobody wanted to join – a person living with cancer – and I had all sorts of concerns and fears that I had never had previously. I was well enough to do my job and the treatment never caused me to lose my hair or physically look any different, but I suddenly felt that I had something to prove. Since everyone knew that I was ill, I had to prove that I could still work to the same level as before, and I put myself under extra pressure to show my students and my school that I was still able and capable.

Another change was that I suddenly became far more sensitive to the words that people used to communicate with me. For example, it is commonplace to start an e-mail with the words ‘I hope this e-mail finds you well’. Suddenly, every time I saw this sentence in my inbox, I was reminded of the leukaemia and had thoughts like, ‘Doesn’t the sender realise that I am ill and can never be fully cured?’ or ‘I hope even more fervently that this e-mail finds me well as I have a big blood test coming up’. Innocent remarks, such as ‘You’re looking tired’, or ‘You’ve lost weight’, would cause me to become anxious about whether I was losing the battle against my condition.

The violence of nonverbal exchanges

It was through these experiences that I finally came to have a better understanding of how it feels to be upset by a ‘microaggression’. This term was defined in 1978 by the American psychologist Chester Pierce as ‘subtle, stunning, often automatic, and nonverbal exchanges’ that cause offence, whether intentional or unintentional, to marginalised groups.

While Pierce originally used the term to describe exchanges between white people and black people, it was soon extended to include any groups that have been discriminated against historically for reasons over which they have no control, such as their race, gender, sexual orientation or religious beliefs. Even though these exchanges are usually unintentional, they are able to cause psychological harm to their victims.

The Code of Professional Ethics of the South African Council for Educators states that educators should use ‘appropriate language and behaviour’ and refrain from ‘any form of abuse, physical or psychological’ towards students in the classroom.

If microaggressions harm our students, we as educators have a duty of care to minimise them in our classes. It is a moral imperative for the classroom to be a safe, inclusive space where our students feel respected and valued, and for this reason, we should all be concerned about how to avoid careless turns of phrase that target a certain group. Managing microaggressions is a complex minefield, but I believe that all educators can adopt three behaviours that will help our students feel safer in our classes.

Start from a place of empathy

When my students were angered by the textbook example, I largely dismissed their concerns as the outrage of a group of oversensitive students. My first instinct was to tell them to get over it and to develop a thicker skin; however, this displayed a staggering lack of understanding and empathy for the diverse group of students entrusted to my care.

We live in a world where gender-based violence, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and homophobia are rife. Our students are keenly aware of the global inequalities that exist, and the power of social media has brought these problems to the fore. For some of our students, there may be violence or discrimination in their own homes. Others may come from very conservative families and fear being ostracised when they reveal that, for example, they are homosexual. By promoting inclusion and compassion for all people in our classrooms, we can create, for some students, the only safe space in their lives where they can be who they are without fear of judgement.

It must be remembered that our current high school students form part of Generation Z, which values collective well-being and collaboration. This generation is also characterised by defining their identities not through stereotypes, but rather by experimenting and developing identities over time. They are easily influenced by each other and are able to integrate the virtual and physical worlds. To understand them and to identify with them, we need to demolish stereotypes and be careful not to label these young people.

Empathy requires us to be open to different points of view and to be willing to learn. This will certainly not be easy, as we will have to challenge ourselves and examine our own beliefs and biases through a critical lens. It may also require us to step out of our comfort zones and be open to the possibility that we are, unintentionally, offending and alienating some of our students with the words we use. Nevertheless, our relationships with our students will improve dramatically if we strive to see the world from their perspective.

Keep lines of communication open

Central to the concept of empathy is communication. When students raise concerns about incidents in the classroom, we should never dismiss them, but hear them out. We should allow them to explain why they are upset by what has happened, and try to understand their point of view. Moreover, if we are approachable and authentic in our communications, we will be able to explain the intentions behind what we said or did and apologise if necessary. If we educators show that we are willing to listen, and to change when necessary, our students will, in all likelihood, give us the benefit of the doubt when we say something offensive accidentally.

Communication allows our students to explain their needs, and we should be accommodating wherever possible. We should take the time to practise saying our students’ names and strive to pronounce them correctly, instead of using nicknames or abbreviations to make things easier for ourselves.

If a student wishes to be addressed by a different name, or asks for us to use certain pronouns when referring to them, we should acknowledge and honour these requests.

This may require some effort to master, but such changes can have a profound and lasting impact on our students.

At the same time, we should clarify our communication expectations with our students. It is far better to address a microaggression in class on the day when it happens, and with the teacher who caused it, than taking the matter to the head of the school immediately. Even worse would be ‘calling out’ the teacher on social media, which could have devastating consequences for the teacher’s career and reputation. However, students may feel that the teacher is unapproachable or dismissive. Therefore, students should always be encouraged to discuss any aspect of a lesson with the teacher directly after class, so that they are free to raise their concerns in a mature and respectful way. Being able to conduct difficult conversations confidently is a life skill that we should be teaching our students.

Critically review our learning materials

There is currently a great deal of discussion about the need to reform the South African national curriculum and to eliminate colonial influences and European bias. This is an ambitious project. However, just as important as what students learn, is the question of how they learn; that is, what approach the teacher adopts and which hidden values, generalisations and biases are communicated to the students.

One reason I thought that my students were overreacting to the example from the textbook, was because the scenario was fictional and had no relation to real people. On reflection, however, it is precisely because the scenario is fictional that it causes so much offence. We should be asking why the textbook author felt it necessary to portray, specifically, debtor Dlamini as the only character in the example who was so unreliable that the debt had to be written off.

When I set an accounting examination and all the fictional businesses I create are owned by people with Anglo-Saxon names, I should question whether I am implicitly suggesting that only white people can be entrepreneurs. When choosing a text for an English comprehension lesson, we should be questioning how each of our students can relate to it. This process is certainly less complicated than an entire overhaul of the curriculum, and all teachers should be reviewing the material they use on a regular basis in order to ensure that it is appropriate.

My cancer diagnosis changed my life in many ways, but one positive ‘take-away’ from this experience was that I finally understand how it feels to be part of a group that has fewer opportunities than other groups. Microaggressions are real and cause harm to groups of students, and it can be challenging to avoid these. However, if we start from a place of empathy and care, if we ensure that we communicate openly and authentically with our students and review the words and materials that we use, we will certainly take a step towards making the classroom a happier, safer, and more inclusive place for our students. And nobody can deny that they deserve this.