Microaggressions: The New Hate Language

by Amy Melik

Are you someone who has felt marginalized in a school environment?  Perhaps you are working in education and have seen colleagues or students marginalize individuals right in front of you.  Regardless of your purpose for reading, I would like to thank you for taking this important first step. Understanding microaggressions and the vocabulary associated with it is one way to learn how to stop the cycle of hate language that is within your sphere of influence.

Let’s do some brainstorming together.  Find some paper and a writing utensil.  

  1. Brainstorm locations where you have been hearing language that is upsetting to others.  Is it your classroom, the lunch room, or the hallways? Perhaps it is the teacher’s lounge or on social media.  
  2. When you are done writing down locations, now think about the topic of that language you are hearing.  Are these conversations you are hearing about race or ethnicity? What about ability or sexual orientation?  Or perhaps you are hearing about gender and class. Write down some examples that you have heard. Organize them into themes.
  3. Now circle the example that is causing the biggest emotion within you right now.  THIS is your purpose for reading this article. THIS is why you need to read this article.  THAT LANGUAGE cannot happen again under your watch.

We will need to discuss common language that will be important to know when involved in this work:

  • Biased Language: Slurs, put downs, and negative labels that rely on stereotypes
  • Implicit Bias: Attitudes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner
  • Stereotype: Exaggerated beliefs, images, generalizations or distorted truths about a group or person that allow for little or no individual differences or social variation

Biased language starts early. Young children calling a person wearing glasses “four eyes”, or making fun of a boy playing with dolls or anything outside of the gender mainstream norm is biased language. Slang that happens in the middle and secondary grades such as “lame”, “ghetto”, “gay” or “retarded” are all inappropriate and are considered biased language.  

Implicit bias comes into play here, where individuals vocalize biased language without any awareness or intentionality.  Everyone, even the most “woke” person you can think of, is susceptible of biased language, and here is why: If the IMPACT of the language is furthering oppression, then the INTENT doesn’t matter.  Have you often heard someone say “Well… I didn’t mean it like that” or “Stop taking it the wrong way”? You are observing an impact vs. intent situation.

Stereotypes are caused by a multitude of reasons. Mass media and social media can cause false assumptions, as can any conversation you have with your parents, peers, famous person, or any other human being you can think of. Stereotypes can be positive or negative, but they are always harmful. Think about positive stereotypes like the “Asian model minority” and negative stereotypes like “illegal immigrants” and reflect on beliefs of people that you know who may use these stereotypes. What past experience has led them to think this way?

And now for our featured topic. According to the National Institute of Health, microaggressions can be defined as “Everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their group membership.” Microaggressions usually sound “nice”, as you’ll read in the graphic below:

But microaggressions are thinly veiled insults based on implicit bias and stereotypes. They may come out of nowhere, and you will likely have no idea how to react. This language sounds appropriate! We can even pull apart the word microaggression and think “micro” is small. But “micro” in this word is only the perception of the aggressor. Microaggressions are anything but small in the impact of the person being aggressed.

And now let’s put it all together by looking at ADL’s pyramid of hate to see where exactly this seemingly innocent language can take us if we don’t change NOW.  

Notice what is at the bottom of the pyramid. Bias, including stereotypes and microaggressions that are often because of our implicit bias are where it all begins. We can all assume and hope that things will never get to the “genocide” level on this pyramid, but if we look at our history books, we know this could happen.

The next question that we always hear when working with clients engaged in this work is “What can we do to help?”, and this question is actually not what we need to ask ourselves.  We don’t need to DO anything. We don’t need another initiative, another equity strategy, or another book to read. We need to BE different. We need to change our inner thoughts. We need to become educated in the roots of oppression, both historically in the United States and most importantly, in the communities where we work. What has been happening at the systems level that is allowing for hate to grow roots?

Once this is determined, then work can move forward. Here are some tips for you:

At the educator level, be prepared with handy phrases to say when you’re in the same space as biased language.  Be encouraging and help others understand what’s going on. Work together and find your allies.  Encourage student affinity groups based on protected identities such as gender, ability, race or ethnicity, and more. At Confianza, we collaborate with Teaching Tolerance and use their  Let’s Talk and Speak Up at School resources.

At the school and district level, take an honest look at your data. What does your attendance and discipline data look like when you break it down by race or ethnicity? Work with Confianza to develop professional development goals and action steps for your school on implicit bias, cultural competency, and/or culturally relevant teaching. Build a culture in your school where it is encouraged to identify, discuss, and find solutions for spaces that are allowing for bias. Speak Up at School in addition to Code of Conduct and Responding to Hate and Bias at School are important Teaching Tolerance resources to use at the school and district level.

And finally, and most importantly, at a personal level, know that people listen and learn from YOU.  When you are silent when you hear biased language, that silence is approval for it to continue. That biased language will grow roots and become accepted into the mainstream. Always be aware of the words you choose, the tone you use, how you treat others, and again, what are are NOT saying.  Reflect on how your actions, or inaction, are affecting the environment that you are in. And BE better. BE different.

Additional Resources:

***Also consider checking out this example of a protocol for responding to hate and bias from Confianza partner district, Needham Public Schools, MA


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  • Posted by Mei Hui on

    Asian Model Minority is NOT a positive stereotype. It is condescending and patronizing. It conveys that Asians should not rock the boat and stay within the status quo.

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