Live from #AACRAO2023: Breaking the Barriers of Microaggressions as an Institutional Norm

March 31, 2023
  • AACRAO Annual Meeting
  • Diversity and Inclusion
  • DEI
Photograph of a piece of glass breaking in to many shards.

By Heather Zimar, AACRAO Associate Director of Publications & Journals, and Paulina Duque, Marketing and Communication Intern

Erin Michelle Collins, Registrar at Pomona College and Chair of AACRAO’s Access and Equity Committee and Deborah Flynn, Associate Registrar at Claremont McKenna College and Vice Chair of AACRAO’s Access and Equity Committee, discussed with AACRAO Annual Meeting attendees last week microaggressions and how to address them at higher education institutions. 

Collins and Flynn defined microaggression as “a verbal or nonverbal slight that impacts an individual who might identify as being from a marginalized or nonmainstream community” (Cleveland Clinic, Feb. 2022).

Microaggressions greatly impact the work experience of individuals who may feel underrepresented at their institutions. With comments and assumptions implicating a perception that's meant to set them apart from their counterparts. Microaggressions can cause an individual to question if they are being treated or spoken to in a particular manner due to their race, heritage, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, or any disability. They make the individual question their position in the workplace, especially when normalized by the institution itself. 

The presenters noted the types and forms of microaggressions: 

  • Microassaults

  • Microinvalidation

  • Microinsults

They explained that microaggressions can be unintentional and include nonverbal communication, avoidance, being deliberately ignored, isolation, exclusion, being stared at, or racial/ethnic profiling. Microaggressions can also be intentional and include derogatory/disparaging remarks, racial/ethnic profiling, intimidation, bullying, and undermining authority, they noted.

Microaggressions as “institutional norms,” they said, include: 

  • Racelighting - a form of psychological manipulation in which an individual causes you to question, doubt, or call into question your experience. It becomes a part of the norm because people get used to invalidating and devaluing your experiences. This happens at all types of institutions, (including at HBCUs in relation to sex, class, and geography).

  • Symbolic of the institutional culture - when individuals are left out of conversations even though they are responsible for the work

  • Environmental - when an individual accepts a job at an institution that limits their exposure to other individuals who are like them (for example, women, people of color, etc.)

Collins noted microaggressions often experienced by faculty/staff:

  • Invisibility and hypervisibility

  • Qualifications or credentials questioned

  • Inadequate mentoring

  • Low estimation of service contributions

  • Self-consciousness regarding the choice of speech, language, or clothing

  • Difficulties determining whether subtle discrimination was race or generalized

How to respond to microaggressions:
It's important to raise awareness and educate people on microaggressions, the harm they cause individuals and their marginalized communities, how they become embedded into the institutional norms, and how to undo the culture of tolerating microaggressions. Addressing and calling out an individual who contributes to the culture of microaggressions can be the first step in educating them and raising awareness, as well as demonstrating that microaggressions will no longer be tolerated and they will be addressed. Some specific suggested reactions include:

  • Reactions include: letting it go, responding immediately, or responding later

  • Call them out: discern, disarm, defy, decide

  • Raise awareness: facilitate dialogue, ask clarifying questions, advocate for organizational change

  • Educate oneself and others: workshops, diversity training, developing a network of resources

Tools for managing microaggressions: 

  • Microaffirmations

  • Address the issue/person

  • Know when to walk away

Allyship toward the people experiencing microaggressions can assist in breaking these norms; finding allies that can support, stand up for marginalized individuals, and advocate alongside that community. Building a network of allies to assist in raising awareness, addressing issues, and providing feedback can help open doors for the marginalized members and break down the institutional norms of microaggressions. 


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