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Study shows microaggression trainings overlook deeper harmful assumptions

Monday, December 07, 2020

LAWRENCE — Microaggressions, which are words or actions linked to stereotypes that can cause offense, have received increased attention in recent years. But a new study from the University of Kansas finds that as the concept gains popularity, people tend to view microaggressions as something easily fixed by learning what not to say in the presence of certain others rather than critically examining the racist, sexist and otherwise harmful assumptions revealed by their communication.

Two KU researchers have published a study in which they interviewed resident assistants, often referred to as RAs, at two universities and the staff who supervised and prepared them to work with students. The findings showed that while RAs were trained to become aware of microaggressions and understood that they could be hurtful, they largely viewed microaggressions as simple errors in communication, committed unconsciously because of ignorance, and easily fixed by people not repeating the same sentiments in the future. That view, however, is overly simplistic and disconnected from the more critical origins of the concept, indicating there is need for better understanding the racial, cultural and gender contexts of higher education and society overall.

The study was part of a larger project exploring race and student experiences in residence halls at three large universities in the United States. During that research, however, it became clear that two of the campuses had conducted formal training programs for RAs on microaggressions that influenced their thinking as well as their plans for educating students.

Because RAs play a key role in helping students transition to life on campus, “I became interested in how RAs described the idea of what a microaggression is and how it’s useful to know about them in the work they do,” said Zak Foste, assistant professor of educational leadership & policy studies at KU.

Co-written with Jennifer Ng, professor of educational leadership & policy studies and interim vice provost for diversity & equity at KU, the study revealed two primary patterns. First, the RAs who received training on microaggressions emphasized the importance of people simply watching what they said or did in the presence of others different from themselves. Anything had the potential to cause offense to someone, so what constituted a microaggression could be difficult to anticipate.

“There was little in the way of understanding how our language and interpretive frames are steeped in histories of racism and white supremacy,” Foste said.

Second, RAs and many of the supervisors who trained them conveyed a particular logic that once people realize what a microaggression is, they should self-correct to avoid being perceived by others as racist.

“The problem of just focusing on one’s external presentation, though,” Foste said, “is that it allows individuals to write microaggressions off as anomalies in communication instead of a reflection of racist ideas with long histories. Microaggressions don’t just come out of nowhere. They are rooted in persistent stereotypes and assumptions about people and their value and place in society.”

Resident assistants play a key role in helping students transition to life on campus, and those interviewed for the study reported they felt it was their duty to raise awareness of microaggressions among the students on their campus and let them know that certain things shouldn’t be said to certain people.

“But silence is not the answer or end goal,” Ng said. “Microaggressions seem to have become a catch-all label for anything that causes offense, and without more thoughtful engagement and ongoing education, the application of this term can cause confusion as well as prevent deeper understanding.”

The article is forthcoming in the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education and was recently presented at the Association for the Study of Higher Education annual conference.

Image credit: KU Marketing Communications