When I discuss the complex, sometimes confusing nature of microaggressions with students, I often begin with an anecdote of when I was eighteen and working in a music store.
This store was part of a chain, and as such had corporate and store-specific policies that we as employees were expected to follow. After having worked there for a few months, my supervisor explained during a staff meeting that we were experiencing a disproportionate amount of theft from our Rap/Hip Hop section (the section closest to the entrance). Until these numbers went down, he explained, we should follow any customer who entered this section of the store, staying about 8 feet away while they shopped even if they looked right at us and stated they didn’t need any help.
This policy made me very uncomfortable, especially when I saw that it was being enforced. When I was working the front of a store and a customer headed for Rap/Hip-Hop, my supervisor would sometimes make eye contact with me and mouth “follow them.” I tried to be subtle about it, as though I were simply rearranging or restocking CDs nearby.
While a wide range of customers came to this section (most of them white, suburban kids), I was very conscious of being an eighteen year old white woman when I had to follow a Black or Hispanic customer. I tried to reason with myself that I was just following a corporate policy, that I wasn’t following Black or Hispanic customers who went to the Rock or R&B sections, and that I was also following white customers who went into the Rap/Hip Hop section.
Yet I sensed how my shadowing looked, and felt, to a customer who has been followed in multiple stores that day, week, or month.
Microaggressions aren’t about intent, as Dr. J. Luke Wood explains. They are about impact. They are easier to prevent when we’re aware of them, when we know what not to say, or when someone has helpfully pointed out the problem with a statement or action. But they are harder to recognize when they reflect an implicit bias, or––as my anecdote illustrates––when the same action or statement carries a different connotation depending on how and to whom it’s directed.
In our classrooms, we make understandable, human mistakes in our interactions with students. We might forget or mispronounce names, neglect to assign a student to a group or skip over them when calling role, confuse two students with one another, or not notice when a student has a hand up because we are looking at a different part of the room.
The reality is that these common mistakes have a different impact when we make them with BIPOC students, especially in a predominantly white classroom. It might make them feel invisible, marginalized, and racially discriminated against.
I have made a mistake like this before, more than once. My impulse is usually to make excuses, both to myself and to the student. I want to diffuse the moment by saying how I always confuse names early in the semester, or how I always end up missing someone when I assign groups. But these impulses are more about making myself feel better (or not racist), rather than addressing the harm.
The best thing to do in a situation like this is to apologize. Not to say “I’m sorry” and quickly make excuses, but to actually apologize.
On a recent episode of Queer Eye, Karamo Brown stated, “If you’re giving an apology, there can never be a “but” or a “what” or a “why.” Apologies are just owning what you have done and allowing the other person to see the fact that you understand what you did.”
When I commit one of these microaggressions––even if I genuinely believe it’s an accident and could have just as easily happened with white students––I apologize.
In the moment, I might simply say, “I’m really sorry” and correct the issue (re-pronounce the name, assign the student to a group, or see if the student still wants to share their thought). I don’t want to draw more attention to the student in a way that could make them feel self-conscious or embarrassed. But I will follow up with the student either by speaking with them after class or sending an email. I might say, “I’m really sorry I forgot your name during class today. I want to affirm that I really value you as part of the class, and to assure you that it won’t happen again.” I am careful to apologize for the act, and not for how I might have made them feel (“I apologize if I made you feel….”). I want to own what I did, not imply they were being too sensitive.
Depending on the nature of the incident, I might let the student know that I’m happy to meet with them to talk further. But the important thing is to apologize and acknowledge the mistake. No excuses.