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Navigating microaggressions in an online learning environment

Recognizing the pervasiveness and the impact of microaggressions is critical to the development of inclusive and anti-racist learning.

BY KAREN MCCRINDLE & KRYSTLE PHIRANGEE | MAY 18 2021

Over the past year, educators have been teaching in various online learning environments (OLEs), which have had many benefits, but have also produced unexpected consequences. One such consequence has been the increase in microaggressions, which create an unwelcome environment, negatively impact the teaching and learning process for both students and instructors and adversely affect the mental health of those present. These aggressions can occur in various forms: they may be peer-to-peer, directed towards the instructor or TA, or they may also be perpetrated by the instructor or TA towards a student. Recognizing the pervasiveness and the impact of microaggressions is critical to the development of inclusive and anti-racist learning environments.

A working group at the University of Toronto was formed to address microaggressive behaviour in the OLE. Discussions revealed that microaggressions had increased in emails, chats, breakout rooms and discussion forums. Recognizing the situation required immediate action, we produced a preliminary written resource and webinar. It was a group effort that built on the extensive body of literature and resources from other institutions. Our intent was to assist instructors and TAs in responding to situations involving microaggressions and to develop further resources since microaggressions are a systemic issue. In addition, our dean’s office initiated a campus review exercise this year to ensure our commitment to inclusion, Indigeneity and anti-racism is reflected in our programs and pedagogical supports.

What are microaggressions?

Microaggressions are intentional or unintentional acts of discrimination, which are often rooted in personal bias and systems of power and may have hurtful impacts regardless of the intent. They encompass the following:

  • Hostile, derogatory, dismissive or negative actions, remarks or visual cues, usually against people from socially marginalized groups.
  • Communications that negate, dismiss or deny a person’s worldviews, feelings or lived reality.
  • Subtle communications that demean a social group or identity.

Creating an inclusive anti-racist environment in the classroom

Instructors and TAs are encouraged to build explicit statements into their syllabi that underscore their institution’s commitment to equity, diversity, inclusion, respect, civility and anti-racism. Statements might describe behavioural expectations and emphasize that fostering an inclusive community is a shared responsibility. Strategies include the following:

  • Address the values of the university at the beginning of the term, setting clear expectations for civil and respectful conduct, with no tolerance for racism or other forms of harassment.
  • Explain your own values as an instructor or TA and how they are reflected in your pedagogical approaches.
  • Model inclusive and respectful behaviour in your own interactions with students.
  • Invite students to help set ground rules and a collective framework for your course that will encourage discussion while adhering to principles of respect, civility inclusion and anti-racism; call out and call in (bringing people into the conversation in a more inclusive and warmer manner and not simply just blaming them) those who do not respect them.
  • Advise students that the university takes the code of conduct seriously and will impose sanctions on those who do not follow it.
  • Anticipate resistance and consider explicitly teaching students how to create an anti-discriminatory, anti-racist learning community in which members hold each other accountable.
  • Be aware of power dynamics and the authority that you as the instructor or TA have over students.
  • Recognize differences between/across population groups and model microaffirmations, especially to students who may be likely to feel underrepresented or invisible.
  • Recognize that people may say things online that they would not say in person. If students don’t exhibit respectful behaviour, consider closing the breakout room and disabling the chat.
  • Critically unpack your own privileges and help students understand equity and unconscious bias.

It is important to underscore that faculty are not solely responsible for these kinds of proactive strategies for teaching and learning. We encourage institutions to consider ways to embed equity, inclusion and anti-racism within discipline-specific training and supports for instructors and TAs.

Responding to microaggressions in the classroom

Even with proactive frameworks in place, microaggressions may occur. If you witness a microaggression it is important to intervene and to report it. Doing nothing may send a message that the behaviour is acceptable.

If you witness a microaggression directed to another student:

  • Identify the specific behaviour of concern.
  • Disrupt the moment by asking for clarification and discussing the potential impact on others.
  • Explain the negative consequences of the behaviour to encourage students to change it. Guide the response and consider creating a word or a phrase that people can use to safely call out and call in their peers.

If a student reports a microaggression to you:

  • Listen and validate their experience.
  • Recognize the emotional labour and the difficulty they may experience when coming forward.
  • Consider intervening on their behalf or discuss what intervention and response may entail.
  • Sometimes equipping a student with the tools to respond can be empowering, depending on the context and needs of the moment. In other cases, they may need support.

If you are the recipient of a microaggression in the OLE, by email or through comments in course evaluations:

  • Seek support from your mentor, supervisor or chair/director.
  • Seek guidance from your teaching and learning centres and equity, diversity and inclusion offices.
  • Document all incidents and maintain records of your attempt to resolve a microaggression.
  • Be factual and objective and use quotations if possible (e.g., keep and report any offensive emails, take screenshots of inappropriate language in an online chat).

If someone is critical of your inclusive teaching practices or if your students are resistant to them, reiterate why they are important and do not hesitate to seek support if needed.

In all cases:

  • Slow down, be reflective, consider actions.
  • Respond to inappropriate remarks in a professional manner and try to avoid creating an adversarial relationship where there is no room for movement.
  • Try to find out why the student is being disrespectful.
  • Look for learning opportunities.
  • A conversation with a university professor can have a lasting effect on a student. Seek an opportunity to engage in dialogue about the situation.
  • Provide space for explanations and apologies.

Some student behaviours may be resolved in the moment or in a follow-up conversation while some may be serious enough to warrant formal disciplinary action. Either way, to create an inclusive learning environment, it’s important to address the problematic behaviour.

Karen McCrindle is an associate professor, teaching stream and associate dean, teaching and learning at University of Toronto Scarborough. Dr. McCrindle is also the director of the centre for teaching and learning at the U of T Scarborough. Krystle Phirangee, PhD, is an educational developer of assessment and online learning at the centre for teaching and learning at the U of T Scarborough.

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  1. Alvin M. Schrader / May 19, 2021 at 16:40

    It is disappointing no examples of virtual micro-aggression were included.

    • Karen McCrindle / May 25, 2021 at 19:16

      Hi Alvin, We do have examples in our longer resource. I would be happy to share it with you.