How do we respond to microaggressions, or those everyday and commonplace actions that convey bias, invalidate people, and reinforce structural oppression?
We know from research and personal accounts that microaggressions occur all-too-frequently across contexts—workplaces, family gatherings, and community settings. From hurtful words to dismissive gestures, microaggressions do more than communicate harm. They have wide-reaching impact, for they deny access, constrain agency, and tend to be subtle and unrecognized, undermining possibilities for equity and justice.
Given their frequent occurrence and wide-reaching impact, microaggressions demand a range of responses. Embracing both/and, we need both immediate and long-term, practiced and improvised, personal and institutional ways of responding to microaggressions. We need responses now.
Responding to Microaggressions: Rhetorical and Pedagogical Interventions
Given the need for ongoing response, colleagues and I have been working for the past few years not only on tracing microaggressions in higher education but also on identifying interventions that can help with recognizing complicity and countering harm.
This week some of that work—a research article with co-author Rasha Diab (of The University of Texas at Austin) and with contributions by Cedric Burrows (of Marquette University) and Thomas Ferrel (of University of Missouri-Kansas City)—made its way into print.
The piece titled “Rhetorical and Pedagogical Interventions for Countering Microaggressions” is published in Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture (Duke University Press): vol. 19, no. 3, 2019, pages 455-481.
We’re sharing a PDF of the article here. We’re also happy to talk with groups about this research and the ongoing need for all of us, as communicators, and particularly for those of us in higher education, as educators, to disrupt and counter microaggressions.
In the article, we consider interventions in academic spaces, across the three areas of higher education—research, teaching, and service:
Pedagogical spaces inside and outside the classroom abound with microaggressions, and we are haunted by their impact. This article names microaggressions as a rhetorical and pedagogical phenomenon that is conspicuous in many pedagogical spaces. To make the case for rhetorical and pedagogical intervention, we begin by defining and tracing microaggressions (though not named as such) in the literature from rhetoric, composition, and literacy studies. From there, we share cross-disciplinary understandings of microaggressions, discussing three forms: microinsult, microassault, and microinvalidation. We apply this deeper understanding of microaggressions to three instantiations or illustrations of microaggressions in academic contexts.
In the first illustration, we describe how epistemic injustice, or harm to persons as knowers (Fricker 2007), impacts undergraduate and graduate student writers as well as marginalized scholars. Educators can counter the various invalidations associated with epistemic injustice by affirming and upholding epistemic rights, or the rights to know, experience, and share with others (Godbee 2017). In the second illustration, we unpack damaging cultural scripts that not only naturalize and recycle microaggressions but also underwrite many of our encounters. These scripts appear in composition textbooks and underline the need to rewrite both the textbooks and the broader stories we tell about rhetoric and rhetors (Burrows 2016). In the third illustration, we identify microaggressions that educators face in their service activities, such as being discounted in meetings, and propose the intervention of a “critical pedagogy of service” (Ferrel 2017), which engages faculty in interrupting business as usual.
Together, these illustrations ask us to (re)consider microaggressions in our everyday lives. We focus on higher education as the space in which we spend much of our time in research, teaching, and service. To focus on these activities is not to say that microaggressions happen only within educational institutions but to say that we must look at all aspects of our lives, especially those that become familiar and second nature.
As co-authors, we are differently positioned in the world: two of us identify as women, two as men, all of us as cisgender; two of us as white, two as racialized in the United States (as black and brown); three of us with U.S. nationality and one as an international scholar; and all of us as able-bodied, though in different body types and with different visible markers of identity. Together, these and other positionalities allow us to recognize, witness, experience, and perpetuate microaggressions differently. In addition to other positionalities (e.g., class, religion, ethnicity, and linguistic background), these locations in the world provide insights into and, conversely, limit recognition of varied microaggressions. And recognition is further constrained by the additional layer of western-centric (Euro-American) disciplinary training.
Certainly in an article of this length we can attend neither to all types of microaggression nor to the many intersectional identities. Instead, we affirm that our theoretical and analytical endeavors address how varied forms of oppression underwrite microaggressions, which hurt individuals and communities. Collectively, we can learn to better understand and respond with increasing awareness to the many microaggressions on and off campus.” (pages 456-457)
Truly, we believe that there’s much to learn by studying not only the ongoing enactment of microaggressions but also a range of meaningful, relational responses.
We have daily the potential to enact or, alternatively, to resist microaggressions.
We have daily the potential to keep things as they are or, alternatively, to disrupt the status quo and create a different set of relations.
We have daily the choice of whether to acknowledge microaggressions as a problem to be reckoned with.
Will we choose to invest our energies toward creating a more just world?
Will we choose to consider the micro- (microaggressions) alongside the macro-logics that generate and fuel aggression or its inverse: affiliation, solidarity, collective action, and social justice?” (page 475)
To invest in ongoing self-work and deep-diving into conditioned ways of living, being, and intervening in the world, you might also consider the self-paced e-course, “40 Questions for 40 Walks: Toward Everyday Living for Justice.”
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