Challenges students of color face when responding to microaggressions within a school setting


Students of color face a wide variety of racially motivated microaggressions in school settings that cause severe learning and development obstacles and potential psychological and physical harm. The impact of Racial Battle Fatigue has both psychological and behavioral ramifications that can debilitate student learning, and racial microaggressions cause stress, which may result in weakened immune systems and sickness (Solorzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000 as cited in Meeks, 2010). This research aims to expose the truly detrimental impact of racial microaggression on minorities and expose this behavior as an obstacle to the advancement of people of color.

Keywords: Racial microaggressions, Racial Battle Fatigue, Mental Wrestling, Microassaults

Defining Racial Microaggressions

Psychologist Derald Wing Sue (2007) and his colleagues define racial microaggressions as brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color. Perpetrators of microaggressions are often unaware that they engage in harmful communications when they interact with both racial and ethnic minorities (p.271). Microaggressions should not be confused with microassaults, which are explicit racial derogations characterized primarily by a violent verbal or nonverbal attack meant to hurt the intended victim through name-calling, avoidant behavior, or purposeful discriminatory actions (Sue et al., 2007, p. 278).

Common Student Responses to Microaggressions

Common responses to racial microaggressions may include anger, embarrassment, hurt, fear, surprise, and confusion. For example, when racial microaggressions occur, students of color may engage in “mental wrestling.” According to Dr. Derald Wing Sue (2007), this behavior occurs because students of color may feel conflicted for several reasons; (1) unable to determine whether a racial microaggression has occurred, (2) at a loss for how to respond to the racial microaggression, (3) fearful of the consequences if they respond to the racial microaggression, (4) rationalizing that “it won’t do any good anyway,” or (5) engaging in self- deception through denial (p. 279). Although these explanations may hold some validity for students of color, studies suggest “mental wrestling” has the potential to result in psychological and physiological harm (Crocker et al., 1989).

Another behavioral response to a racial microaggression or discriminatory act is Racial Battle Fatigue (Smith, 2007). Racial Battle Fatigue is the physical and psychological toll taken on a student of color due to constant and unceasing discrimination, racial microaggressions, and stereotype threat (Smith, 2007). The stress ensued from racial microaggressions lead students of color to exhibit various psychophysiological symptoms, including increased sickness, tension headaches, trembling and jumpiness, chronic pain in healed injuries, elevated blood pressure, and a pounding heartbeat (Smith, Hung, and Franklin, 2011). Ultimately, these symptoms may lead to students of color losing confidence in themselves, questioning their life’s work, or even their life’s worth. Additional responses students of color may choose when they experience racial microaggressions or discriminatory acts include but are not limited to the following:

Discretion: Deciding not to address the racial microaggression in the moment because of the dynamics of the situation, such as power imbalances or fear of physical retribution (Sue, 2007, p. 279).

Surprise: Responding to a racial microaggression in an unexpected way, such as reacting with constructive humor that names the racial microaggression and makes people laugh.

Confronting/Protest: Naming what is upsetting about the racial microaggression to a person or organization and demanding that the behavior or policy be changed.

Help-Seeking: Venting frustrations in a safe space and getting to know others who have experienced racial microaggressions or discriminatory acts (Warner, 2019, p. 48).

Avoidance: Avoiding future racial microaggressive experiences by withdrawing emotionally from other students or situations (Warner, 2019, p. 48).

Silence: Not responding to the racial microaggression, although it is upsetting. This can create an emotional tax that the receiver of the microaggression can carry (Washington, 2020).

Unlike problem-focused techniques, emotion-focused tactics do not change the meaning of an event directly (Lyon, 2000 as cited in Warner, 2019).

The Impact of Racial Microaggressions on Students of Color

The experience of a racial microaggression has major implications for both the perpetrator and the target person. It creates psychological dilemmas that, unless adequately resolved, lead to increased levels of racial anger, mistrust, and loss of self-esteem for persons of color; prevent White people from perceiving a different racial reality; and create impediments to harmonious race-relations (Spanierman & Heppner, 2004; Thompson & Neville, 1999). Such experiences have various negative consequences for marginalized students who face various racial microaggressions throughout the day.

Sue et al. (2009) and his colleagues used college focus groups to study how teachers managed microaggressions when they occurred in the classroom, and what effect it had on class dialogue. Their findings revealed that when White teachers had difficulty managing microaggressions in the classroom, the students of color had cognitive, emotional, and behavioral reactions. The impact of this was that it became more and more difficult to have an open dialogue about race, and racial microaggressions impacted classroom discussions and learning (Sue et al., 2009 as cited in Meeks, 2010).

Fearing the black intellectual inferiority myth is based on Dr. Franklin Tuitt’s research (2008), which revealed that self-censorship represented one response resulting from the fear of confirming the black intellectual inferiority myth. Students at the secondary and graduate levels expressed not talking as much as their peers in class, not raising their hands, or toning down their responses. Steele and Aronson (1995) noted that stereotypes inhibit the ability of Black students and may interfere with student’s abilities to do well on standardized testing (as cited in Solorzano et al, 2000, p. 62).

How to Respond to Microaggressions in a School Setting

When a microaggression occurs, the victim is usually placed in a catch-22. The immediate reaction might be a series of questions: Did what I think happened really happen? Was this a deliberate act or unintentional? How should I respond? If I bring the topic up, how do I prove it? Is it really worth the effort? Should I drop the matter (Sue et al., 2007)? Students of color should feel empowered to act by countering negative racial, intellectual stereotypes in the classroom. Dr. Dorinda J. Carter Andrews (2019) suggests instead of floundering under the myth of black intellectual inferiority, the myth served as a motivational tool to help students of color strive for academic excellence.

Students should not feel as though they must respond to every microaggression that they may experience in the moment. Assessing the relationship that you have with the person that has delivered the microaggression is vital. When choosing to engage, be prepared to disarm and ask for clarity in a healthy and fact-based manner (Washington, 2020).

Examples of Microaggressive Statements

Microaggressive Statement: ‘You’re so articulate’ or ‘You don’t sound black.’

Rebuttal: This statement implies that the listener did not intend to hear an intellectual statement from a Black person. A proper response would entail acknowledging that the person did not have malicious intent and advising the person to remark instead about the content of the conversation versus attaching it to race or ethnicity. It also may be wise to ask for clarification and allow the individual who made the comment to recognize their own mistakes (Rogers, 2020).

Microaggressive Statement: ‘I’m colorblind.’ or ‘When I look at you, I don’t see color.’

Rebuttal: Ignoring race and ethnicity implies that you neither see nor identify with the experiences that people of color have. It also dismisses implicit bias and systemic racism. It’s critical to address these points in a calm and rational manner when choosing to address microaggressions (Rogers, 2020).


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