Dear Educators, a Balm for Deep Cuts: Navigating Racial Microaggressions at School
I remember the first and only time I’ve ever yelled at a teacher in class.
Growing up in the U.S. as a female child of immigrants from Taiwan, this kind of behavior is practically sacrilegious; certainly scandalous and wildly antithetical to my traditional upbringing. I was raised above all else to not only revere education, but to literally show respect to educators and elders by being a dutiful, quiet, listening and obedient learner. This meant I was consistently rewarded at school for putting my head down and striving to be a “good student” and “high achiever,” but never for challenging authority or speaking up when something was wrong.
I broke that mold on the day that a substitute lecturer addressed my Ph.D. class.
“You can’t interview Asians because they won’t say anything substantive due to the norms of their culture,” she said.
Wait, what? I was in the first year of the top doctorate program in my field, and we were 20 educators-in-training being taught best practices of various communication research methods by supposed leading experts. This guest speaker was talking about how to run group interviews, and she, a white woman, was imparting what she learned from years of research with various U.S. populations, including “tips” on how to work with diverse communities.
“Asians have a politeness norm, so it’s difficult to get anything useful out of them,” she continued.
It was hard for me to hear anything after that, over the whooshing sound of blood rushing to my head, my heart pounding from the cortisol spike in my body. Did this professor really just wield her authority at the front of this room and say to an internationally diverse class of scholars, educators, and thought-leaders-in-training, that Asians — all the Asians — were not worthy of study or deep understanding because, in her professional experience as a white researcher, it was difficult to get people of different backgrounds to talk to her?
I spoke up. I don’t even remember exactly what I said, but I know I said it forcefully, interrupting her mid-lecture and vehemently arguing back. My voice was shaking and my face most certainly was red, but I said something to the effect of:
At least, I hope I said something like that. I’ve spent so much energy replaying what happened, trying to process it with friends, ruminating about what I should’ve said or done instead, that you’ll have to ask my classmates how it really went down. My memory is tainted by the rage and stress of being unexpectedly triggered yet again by yet another racial microaggression in yet another school setting.
It’s the kind of experience I’ve studied as well as lived through. For my dissertation, I researched the power of youth activists creating and circulating counternarratives in response to racial microaggressions, the layered, subtle, and often unintentional forms of everyday racism experienced by people from marginalized racial and ethnic populations. A key finding from this work shows that mobilizing personal stories through a range of artistic and cultural expressions, outlets and collaborative networks can help individuals and groups process, heal from and speak back to these everyday experiences and their cumulative effects.
As a scholar, as an Asian American, and as a product of the U.S. school and university system, I wanted to find out how microaggressions shape the experiences of Asian American K-12 educators. In summer 2022 as part of the Voices of Change project, we at EdSurge Research convened and conducted group interviews with 80 classroom teachers, administrators, school counselors and literacy and tech coaches, who described how everyday experiences of casual racism persistently weigh them down by requiring tough mental calculus about whether and how to respond, and by reinforcing stereotypes about Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners. Yet they also shared that they sometimes seize microaggressions as opportunities to push back against bias, in the moments when they’re willing to take on that extra burden.
Sharing the results of this study is important, primarily to validate the experiences of Asian American educators and also to inform others about the harms microaggressions cause in schools. I’ll offer my perspective, too, both as a professional researcher and a person.
What Are Microaggressions?
Microaggressions are the subtle, causal, everyday assaults, indignities and invalidations that people of color and marginalized communities face incessantly in this country. Often characterized today as “death by a thousand cuts,” the concept was first described in the late 1960s by professor of psychiatry and education Chester Pierce. In his work with Black families and students, Pierce reported “subtle, stunning, often automatic, and non-verbal exchanges which are ‘put downs’”¹ that control “space, time, energy, and mobility … while producing feelings of degradation, and erosion of self-confidence and self-image.”²
Since then, many scholars and researchers have expanded upon this work. Psychologist Derald Wing Sue developed extensive frameworks³ showing the depth and range of microaggressions, their impact, and the unrelenting frequency with which they occur for people perceived as “different” from an imagined “normal.” Critical race and education scholars like Daniel G. Solórzano and Lindsay Pérez Huber contextualize these harmful lived experiences through vivid storytelling and rigorous research,⁴ illuminating their lasting physical, psychological and social consequences.
The corrosive and life-threatening effects of exposure to chronic racism have also been long documented.⁵ Coping with chronic forms of overt, intentional racism is itself damaging enough and microaggressions are no different — they fester, layer and compound depending on context and other aspects of identity (for example, one’s gender, religion, class, sexual orientation, indigeneity, ability, immigration and/or citizenship status, etc.). For those having to incessantly navigate painful, disruptive experiences of frustration and anger, self-doubt and helplessness, regular exposure to these unpredictable expressions of social discrimination has also been linked to ulcers, insomnia, elevated blood pressure, heightened stress, anxiety, chronic pain, depression, suicide, and other life-threatening symptoms akin to those who have experienced severe traumatic stress.⁶
In other words, microaggressions may seem small, but their impact is big. Unlike more direct, overt, or deliberate acts of discrimination, microaggressions are often subtle, happen quickly, and are frequently, though not always, unintentional. Their assaultive power comes from their cumulative and lasting effects, from experiencing them all the time, unpredictably, everywhere, including in schools.
In our Voices of Change research, it became clear that Asian American educators face microaggressions all too often.
In our virtual learning circles, structured small group discussions where educators could connect, share resources and learn from each other, we discussed a range of issues weighing heavily on the minds of many U.S. educators — the lasting social and economic impact of COVID-19 and America’s ongoing racial reckoning; teacher burnout, trauma and mental health; low pay and low morale in the profession; public scapegoating of teachers; and the incessant escalation of demands on their time with shrinking professional resources.
We also talked about the realities of being Asian American educators, who represent only 2 percent of K-12 educators in the U.S. We discussed regular paradoxical experiences of both hyper-visibility and invisibility in their schools, and recounted the numerous damaging stereotypes and discriminatory moments they had to navigate with students and colleagues, often with little to no institutional support. Despite hailing from diverse urban, rural and suburban school communities across 18 states and D.C., a shared experience that repeatedly came up was the frequency and weight of casual, everyday racism they encountered as Asian Americans, many of which had gone unacknowledged for years.
For many participants, these small group conversations were the first opportunity they had to gather with other educators like themselves to bear witness to and process the repeated painful microaggressions they’ve endured, as well as the joys and successes they’ve had in bringing themselves fully to work and in modeling this for their students and other teachers.
Responding to Microaggressions
Everyday instances of casual racism are already insidious enough to bear, but the mental calculus one has to go through to figure out a response in these moments is part of the cumulative weight of microaggressions. As we heard in our groups, in a split second, educators have to decide:
For those who experience racism and interpersonal microaggressions frequently, the choice often feels like it’s between the lesser of two evils: Do I want to feel bad about not saying something at all, or do I want to feel bad about not saying the “right” thing at that moment?
The truth is, there is no perfect response. It’s tempting to fixate on it because we think that if we could’ve just found the perfect thing to say or do, or said something faster, or more exacting, it somehow could’ve made the interaction hurt less, or be less invalidating and harmful. Staying silent can sometimes feel like defeat or betrayal of self or others, yet we also feel angry, resentful and defiant that we have to experience this at all. So much emotional energy is expended attempting to reconcile the disempowering moment in order to reclaim our humanity. It is exhausting and often invisible to people who do not experience this.
People are often unaware of how their internal biases bleed out in everyday conversations with others, so one strategy for responding to microaggressions is rooted in a simple goal: Call attention to what’s not being said. Make the underlying assumptions visible by pointing it out. This can be accomplished in many ways — through a simple, quick statement or expression (like “ouch!,” or a grimacing “yikes”) before moving on; by making a joke or using humor to try and disarm the situation; by striking or pushing back; by taking the time to engage in further discussion to educate; or some combination of all of these tactics.⁷
For example, in our conversations with Asian American educators, one particular microaggression cropped up repeatedly across the various learning circles, rooted in the stereotypical idea of Asians as perpetual foreigners. That no matter how long a person has been in America, they are foreign or “other,” and therefore don’t belong. This manifests particularly in what many perceive as an innocuous question: “Where are you from?” (often followed immediately by “No where are you really from?,” as if one cannot be from here because they must be from an exotic, distant land). Other invasive and tokenizing forms of the question manifest as “What are you?” or demands to perform foreignness and “say something in that language.”
The educators in our circles shared with each other the range of what they do when this happens to them at school, depending on the situation and who it’s coming from.
“I have grown into an educator who believes that you’ve got to take it head on, vocally and preemptively,” said Robert Fung, principal of a public high school in San Diego.
In the learning circle he joined, he and other teachers and administrators discussed how it’s relatively manageable learning how to respond to the kids they work with, but often much harder to figure out how and when to have these conversations with other adults, like fellow teachers or parents.
“I look for opportunities to take those defining experiences and turn them into something that other people have to deal with now,” he said, using his position as a principal and those quick, fleeting, painful moments to prompt perspective-taking. “What I ask people is, ‘look, this is a question that I’ve gotten all my life and it’s put me in this defensive place, so I want to turn it onto you and imagine if you were asked that, but your answer — “I’m from San Diego or I’m from Cleveland” — is not good enough … how would you respond to that question? “Where are you really from?”’”
He explained that he wants to nudge other people outside of their comfort zones, challenging the “privilege and entitlement” enjoyed by those who don’t regularly have to think about their race and who are not asked to justify where they come from. As a school leader, Fung intentionally creates space to engage in these tough but necessary conversations, which he’s found can open up dialogue in a way that is productive with adults, whether they are other educators or parents.
Similarly, when stereotypical interactions come from his teenage students, Fung looks for other meaningful points of connection. By being vulnerable and sharing experiences of what it was like also growing up with an undocumented parent, for example, he ultimately tries to emphasize, “Look, we are not that different simply because you think I’m this foreign person from another land. There is a way we can connect.”
For the educators working with elementary- and middle school-aged students, many described turning microaggressions into opportunities for learning by using pointed but neutral follow-up questions to prompt student self-reflection, like “Why do you want to know?” or “Why is that important?” Questions like that force the asker to think about and articulate the assumptions underlying their questions.
First grade teacher Mayrin Bunyagidj in Northern California, for example, said that she will often respond by asking her young students clarifying questions. “I always just go back with … what do you mean by that? … Are you asking about my culture, what languages I speak, or what my family history is?” This invites her 6- and 7-year-olds to continue being curious and make connections with others, but to also start paying attention to the precision and consequences of their communication.
Yet for others working with older youth, the strategy is to put the microaggression back on them. When Whitney Aragaki, a high school biology and environmental science teacher in Hawaii, hears “What kind of Asian are you?”, she immediately challenges the frame. “I turn it around, ‘What kind of white are you?’ ‘What kind of whatever are you?’ ‘What kind of brown are you?’ It’s extremely offensive if you were to phrase it in any other terminology, so if you do that, then it sounds like, ‘yeah, that is racist.’” By putting the question back on the asker, they are forced to feel what it’s like to be asked such a problematic question. People are stopped in their tracks and compelled to check themselves.
Aragaki also reflected to her group that in these kinds of conversations, she noticed the person who is being ‘othered’ is often the one being asked to disclose something personal about themselves first, which can make the conversation feel risky and not safe to join. When students ask about alternative ways they can connect with someone whom they perceive as different, she will advise that “if you want to know something, offer something up first and then engage in conversation. ‘My favorite food is this, or this is my favorite dinner at home. What’s yours?’” It becomes more of an exchange as opposed to a one-sided demand for information.
While most of the educators we talked to felt equipped to handle conversations about identity, difference and belonging with the students under their care, the deep frustration and exhaustion came from having to constantly field invalidating interactions from colleagues, bosses, parents, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) trainers, and other adults at school. They wish that people who ask “Where are you really from?” or “What kind of Asian are you?” would ask themselves which stereotypes they are trying to project onto what group of people. What do they want to know? And why is it important? If these question-askers are seeking to make a connection, is there another way they can do so, without reducing the connection point to a racial or ethnic stereotype?
As these examples above show, there are a range of ways to respond when something like this comes up, and it’s going to differ based on context and goals.
Personally, when people ask me “What are you?”, I’ll sometimes smile, look them in the eyes and respond sweetly, “Human. What are you?”
Prepare for Discomfort, Denial, Defensiveness, Dismissal or Gaslighting
As the educators pointed out, responding to microaggressions is going to get uncomfortable. Depending on the speaker and situation, people will respond in a variety of ways if you point out that they acted in a way that caused harm. A common response is either denial or defensive dismissiveness: “I didn’t mean that” or “it was just a joke.” Other times, people lash out and try to deny your experienced reality by saying, “that’s not what happened,” “you’re too sensitive,” or “you’re taking it the wrong way.” They may try to keep the focus on themselves, prompting you to reassure them that they are “not a bad person.”
As one educator from our circles who asked not to be named shared, she is used to the casual racism she experiences daily in her job, being constantly mistaken for other Asian teachers or parents by both children and adults, or having to navigate stereotypical or racist questions about Asians. Like all Asian Americans, she picks which of those battles to spend her energy on, but it was different when she found out from another parent that kids in her child’s middle school class had tauntingly “thanked” the child for building the Transcontinental railroads after learning about it in the Western Expansion section of their social studies unit.
“I had a conversation with the administrator and the dean of students, and it was really hard, because their immediate response was to be defensive about it,” she shared with her group. They pushed back as if it were a personal attack on their character or values, saying, “We really believe that equity is at the center,” but to this educator, that was not the point.
“We can’t just say ‘we believe in equity’ and then be done with it,” she said. “The kids are talking about this; how are you equipping teachers to have conversations like this? … How are we going to help teachers to adjust their own biases and raise their own awareness and understanding so they know how to have a conversation instead of feeling uncomfortable themselves?”
In another learning circle, we heard from other seasoned educators that these conversations are always going to be uncomfortable because learning anything new is going to be uncomfortable, and that teachers and school leaders can learn to sit with the discomfort as part of the process of guiding others through it.
As a teacher of English as a second language and ethnic studies who works with older youth in Boston, Somy Kim has significant experience with facilitating complex conversations about identity, racism and history, and with it, the delicate task of helping students navigate the discomfort that comes with learning hard truths that can challenge their fundamental understanding of themselves and their worlds.
“Things that are consequential will of course make people feel uncomfortable, because it matters,” she said. “When it’s consequential and people’s feelings and impact is involved, then people are like ‘Wait a minute, I did that. I committed that microaggression just this morning. Does that make me a bad person? I don’t want to be a bad person.’”
Kim recalled a difficult moment when a Latina student was unknowingly but blatantly saying racist things about Asians in class. Kim had decided to let it pass, but her Mexican American co-teacher felt it was right to intervene, so they talked to the student privately later. The student grew defensive, saying, “I think you guys are calling me racist and I’m not racist.” Despite being careful to not call her out in front of other students and trying to calmly explain the reasoning behind their conversation, the student felt judged and like her character was being attacked. She was ultimately unable to hear the larger message. Despite Kim’s best efforts to build up trust again, Kim described their teacher-student relationship deteriorating after that.
“There’s so much involved in learning that has to do with our own identity and how we see ourselves as good people,” Kim said. Especially “when real learning about historical truths that were hidden from us happens, people are going to be upset or people are going to be defensive, people are going to say, ‘that’s not true’ … or … ‘was it that bad?’” she said. As an educator, she tries to prepare herself for the potential reactive emotional experiences of others by expecting it as part of the process of learning, and to model for students that it is going to be uncomfortable to grow.
“I’ve gotten to the point where I’m like, I’m bearing witness to and holding the hands of the people I’m learning alongside and just allowing it to happen, allowing the emotions and the rollercoaster to happen,” she described.
Other educators in her group understood how difficult it is to navigate these conversations, especially when everyone’s racial identity development, self-awareness and understanding of social context are in vastly different places. “It’s really hard,” commented high school English teacher Charlene Beh, especially, she added, “for students of color to have that recognition of ‘I can do harm to another student of color.’ That’s a lot.” One approach Beh takes in those moments is to pause if she can and seek understanding, asking, “What do you mean? I’m with you,” to try and work it out with them. “It takes time,” she admitted, but “continuing to extend those invitations of ‘let’s check in again,’” can foster trust to continue having the hard conversations that hopefully can then lead to learning outcomes for all.
“These conversations around anti-racism and equity are a long-term game,” Beh counseled. “Even within a year with a student who you had a good relationship with, and then it got less good because of those hard conversations … I try to have faith that, you know what, at some point there’s a possibility that that student two years later, five years later, 10 years later, will think back and be like, ‘You know what, I recognize now we’re all part of this racist system. So I said something that was racist, and in that moment I was fragile or I didn’t treat it well. But now looking back, I recognize that that was part of my growth.’”
“I try to hold on to that sense of, we’re planting seeds and sometimes those seeds take a super long time to grow,” Beh added. “But all we can do is just continue to plant those seeds and hope.”
¹ Pierce, C. M., Carew, J. V., Pierce-Gonzalez, D., & Wills, D. (1977). An experiment in racism: TV commercials. Education and Urban Society, 10(1), 61-87.
² Yosso, T., Smith, W., Ceja, M., & Solórzano, D. (2009). Critical race theory, racial microaggressions, and campus racial climate for Latina/o undergraduates. Harvard Educational Review, 79(4), 659-691.
³ Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, gender, and sexual orientation. John Wiley & Sons.
Sue, D. W., & Spanierman, L. (2020). Microaggressions in everyday life. John Wiley & Sons.
⁴ Solórzano, D. G., & Huber, L. P. (2020). Racial microaggressions: Using critical race theory to respond to everyday racism. Teachers College Press.
⁵ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Racism and health. Retrieved November 8, 2023, from https://www.cdc.gov/minorityhealth/racism-disparities/index.html
⁶ Nadal, K. L. (2018). Microaggressions and traumatic stress: Theory, research, and clinical treatment. American Psychological Association.
⁷ Sue, D. W., Alsaidi, S., Awad, M. N., Glaeser, E., Calle, C. Z., & Mendez, N. (2019). Disarming racial microaggressions: Microintervention strategies for targets, white allies, and bystanders. American Psychologist, 74(1), 128–142.