Psychologist Derald W. Sue and his colleague define racial microaggressions as brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities and denigrating messages sent to students of color by well-intentioned teachers and peers who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated. Such experiences have various negative consequences for marginalized students who may face various racial microaggressions throughout the day.
But, how do students of color respond to racial microaggressions when they occur in the classroom?
Students of color respond to racial microaggressions in many different ways. 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, this behavior occurs because students of color may be in conflict 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 (“It didn’t happen”). Although these explanations may hold some validity for the students of color, studies suggest “mental wrestling” has the potential to result in psychological and physiological harm.
Students of color respond to racial microaggressions in many different ways.
Another behavioral response to a racial microaggression or discriminatory act is Racial Battle Fatigue. 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. 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. Ultimately, these symptoms may lead to students of color losing confidence in themselves, questioning their life’s work or even their life’s worth.
This is a list of other possible responses students of color may choose when they experience racial microaggressions or discriminatory acts.
• Avoidance: Avoiding future racial microaggressive experiences by withdrawing emotionally from other students or situations.
• Discretion: Deciding not to address the racial microaggression at this time because of the dynamics of the situation (power imbalances, fear of physical retribution).
• Silence: Not responding to the racial microaggression although it is upsetting, not saying or doing anything.
• Confront/Protest: Naming what is upsetting about the racial microaggression to a person or organization and demanding that the behavior or policy be changed. Naming what is upsetting about the racial microaggression to a person or organization and demanding that the behavior or policy be changed. This video is an example of the confront/protest strategy.
• Prove Them Wrong: Countering negative racial intellectual stereotypes in the classroom. In this case, Dr. Dorinda J. Carter Andrews 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.
• 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.
• Seek Help: Venting frustrations in a safe space and getting to know others who have experienced racial microaggressions or discriminatory acts.
• Self-Censorship: Fearing the black intellectual inferiority myth. In Dr. Franklin Tuitt's research, 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.