The Harriet W. Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning

Microaggressions and micro-affirmations

Opportunities for learning and inclusion

A common term in today’s vernacular of diversity and inclusion is “microaggression.” Used to describe a variety of behaviors, it can feel like a somewhat amorphous concept unless provided a specific example. In this month’s newsletter, we identify various types of microaggressive behavior and offer suggestions on how such behaviors can be successfully navigated as learning opportunities for you and your students.

microaggression, defined succinctly, is an everyday exchange that cues a sense of subordination based on any one of a number of social identities, including: race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, nationality, religion, and disability (see Sue, 2010a, 2010b; Sue, Capodilupo, Torino, Bucceri, Holder, Nadal, & Esquilin, 2007). Microaggressions can be as explicit as the use of outdated language to refer to a racialized group and as implicit as providing men more opportunities to speak in class or the lack of representation of international perspectives in course content. Across a variety of manifestations, microaggressions have been negatively associated with student well-being and success (see Nadal, Wong, Griffin, Davidoff, & Sriken, 2014).

When any of these actions are deliberate, they constitute what is called a “microassault,” which is characterized by intent to cause harm through the exclusion or demeaning of someone else (Sue, 2010b; Sue et al., 2007). The key here is intent. When you know a behavior causes some students to feel excluded, you can avoid it to ensure your classroom is as inclusive as possible. Where many of us struggle however – including those of us who study topics of equity and inclusion in higher education – are those areas where we are not aware of the multiple meanings and interpretations of words and actions that we have been socialized to think of as “normal.” That’s where learning about other manifestations of implicit bias as microaggressions and how they influence our curricula and classroom environments becomes so important.

Some of these implicit biases manifest in the form of “microinsults,” or the repetition of attitudes that demean another person’s background (Sue, 2010a, 2010b; Sue et al., 2007). A common microinsult is when individuals make assumptions about an advisee’s/mentee’s life goals based on what they think they know about people of a similar background and the inequities experienced prior to college. Being surprised by their intelligence or academic and career ambitions is an indicator of hidden biases.  A similar manifestation of bias may occur when instructors are planning a course. Does the content overly critique the work of women and/or scholars of color while emphasizing the contributions of White cisgender men? Might discussion about the material pathologize the narratives of diverse communities? Similarly, how might scholarship about marginalized communities frame them as being at a deficit and not as a group subjected to structural inequities? Each of these scenarios may send a message that a social group is either abnormal or “not good enough,” without recognizing biased notions of (and barriers to) achievement.

While it is important to be critically aware of our approach to advising and teaching diverse others, we also need to be thoughtful about responding to students who name an identity as relevant to discussion (Gomez, Khurshid, Freitah, & Lachuk, 2011). Among the most difficult microaggressive behaviors to avoid is the “microinvalidation,” which is an action that dismisses the relevance of a person’s experiences connected to identity (Sue, 2010a, 2010b; Sue et al., 2007). This broad, ambiguous type of microaggression includes: assuming you know the best way to accommodate a student with a learning disability; another student dismissing the relevance of race to a course discussion; or accidentally using the pronouns that you think match a student’s gender. While in the moment some of these reactions may be accidental or even seem inclusive, they can be interpreted as a devaluing of diverse realities.

It can be disconcerting when we realize that we unintentionally exclude – or allow to be devalued – the contributions of members of our academic community. Reading this newsletter and reflecting on its suggestions represents what could be an important step to moving forward: openness to ongoing personal development as it relates to issues of equity and inclusion. This openness creates pathways to learning about how to change our behaviors to be more equitable and inclusive.

We also advise and teach in classrooms where increasing numbers of students are aware of and name microaggressive behaviors (Minikel-Lacocque, 2013). Preliminary research indicates that when a faculty member recognizes or is made aware of a microaggression by a student in class that the most effective method of addressing the situation is by fostering an inquisitive dialogue that allows for the behavior’s intent, meaning, and impact to be explored (Boysen, 2012). A follow-up prompt such as, “Tell us more about what you mean by that statement” creates the space for a student who may have made a remark perceived by others as problematic to focus on clarifying their thoughts, and invites their peers to share (with a focus on cultivating understanding of intent and reactions) related questions or concerns. Inquisitive dialogue allows others to determine if they experienced a microaggression and if/how they want to share their experiences in response (Nadal, 2014). This practice also centers the understanding and sharing of perspectives and experiences rather than a debate on semantics.

The intentional evolution of our pedagogy toward greater inclusion manifests in a culture of teaching and learning that is more welcoming, supportive of meaningful dialogue about difference, and permissive of making visible the historically invisible. A series of related practices known as “micro-affirmations,” includes: “small acts which are often ephemeral and hard-to-see, events that are public and private, often unconscious but very effective, which occur wherever people wish to help others to succeed. Micro- affirmations are tiny acts of opening doors to opportunity, gestures of inclusion and caring, and graceful acts of listening. Micro- affirmations lie in the practice of generosity, in consistently giving credit to others—in providing comfort and support when others are in distress, when there has been a failure at the bench, or an idea that did not work out, or a public attack” (Rowe, 2008, p. 46).

I try to be specific with praise, “It was good how you drew on what you heard in class” or “The diagram you drew brought out the relations between the vectors very clearly” rather than using a generic “good job."

Prof. Jim Valles Physics

Micro-affirmations substitute messages about deficit and exclusion with messages of excellence, openness, and opportunity. Powell, Demetriou, & Fisher (2013) distilled micro-affirmations into a series of tangible actions that can be applied to challenging and affirming experiences. Summarized here, these practices emphasize:

  • Active listening, which focuses on hearing clearly what is being shared, and demonstrated through eye contact, open body posture, summarizing statements, and/or asking qualifying questions to ensure understanding.
  • Recognizing and validating experiences involves elucidating the what, why, and how. It is helpful to delve deeper by identifying and validating the constructive behaviors a student demonstrated to manifest or respond to the experience, expressing care about the effect of the event, and demonstrating a willingness to think through a productive path forward.
  • Affirming emotional reactions through verbal acknowledgement that they have experienced something exciting, frustrating, hurtful, etc. enables the conversation to focus on turning those feelings toward actions that will empower, heal, and/or foster learning.

* While the use of hyphens here appears inconsistent, where the literature on microaggressions has removed the hyphen, work on micro-affirmations maintains the hyphen.


Boysen, G.A. (2012). Teacher and student perceptions of microaggresions in college classrooms. College Teaching, 60, 122-129.

Gomez, M. L., Khurshid, A., Freitag, M. B., & Lachuk, A. J. (2011). Microaggressions in graduate students’ lives: How they are encountered and their consequences. Teaching and Teaching Education, 27, 1189-1199.

Minikel-Lacocque, J. (2013). Racism, college, and the power of words: Racial microaggressions reconsidered. American Educational Research Journal, 50(3), 432-465.

Nadal, K. L. (2014). A guide to responding to microaggressions. CUNY Forum, 2(1), 71-76.

Nadal, K. L., Wong, Y., Griffin, K. E., Davidoff, K., & Sriken, J. (2014). The adverse impact of racial microaggressions on college students’ self-esteem. Journal of College Student Development, 55(5), 461-474.

Powell, C., Demetriou, C., & Fisher, A. (2013). Micro-affirmations in academic advising: Small acts, big impact. The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal. 

Rowe, M. (2008). Micro-affirmations and micro-inequities. Journal of the International Ombudsman Association, 1, 45-48.

Sue, D. W. (2010a). Microaggressions in everyday life: Race gender and sexual orientation. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.

Sue, D. W. (2010b). Microaggressions and marginality: Manifestations, dynamics, and impact. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.

Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M. B., Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist, 62(4), 271-286.