Learn Like Lizzo. Behave like Beyonce: Strategies for Faculty and Students to Deal with Microaggressions in the Classroom
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Has real life made you stop and think about an issue you had never considered? Back in June 2022, social media called out two pop culture icons – Lizzo and Beyonce –for using a slur for people with Cerebral Palsy and other similar disorders in their latest singles. In a world where doubling down and calling victims of microaggression “too sensitive,” both singers went out of their way to hear the feedback and act on it. They apologized publicly and re-recorded their songs. The process – including people calling them out and their responses – models what faculty and students must do when faced with microaggressions in the classroom.
According to Foste and Ng (2021), “microaggressions have taken on increasing utility in recent years as a tool to teach undergraduate students about everyday forms of oppressive behavior” (par. 1). Paterson et al. (2019) note that overcoming microaggressions requires “…an increased awareness and ability to detect microaggressions when they occur” (p. 127).
Disability advocate Hannah Diviney was among those who tweeted both performers calling out their mistakes and prompting them to “do better.” Diviney writes in an essay for CNN (2022), “The disabled community made so much noise that Lizzo issued one of the best apologies I’ve ever seen and gave us all a masterclass in how to be an ally. Stepping past the part where she might’ve tried to double down or get angry, she moved straight to openly learning and taking action.” Despite the social media storms her actions ignited, the problem still existed, and Diviney continued to act.
When social media critics wondered if Diviney would also call out Beyonce for using the same word, she went to work and again called for more awareness and action. Diviney (2022) says, “I was less hopeful about a response this time, aware of the untouchable mystique that follows Beyoncé…But three days after my tweet, my world exploded again as Beyoncé announced she, too, would be re-recording her song without the slur in yet another show of expert allyship.” For Diviney and others, having two superstars hear and acknowledge their criticism meant a great deal.
In a broader sense, there is a lesson for faculty and students in what took place back in June. As Diviney notes (2022), “Words matter. They always have and they always will. Language is one of the few tools in the world most people can wield easily, and on social media, even more so. That’s why it’s worth paying attention to how we use it.” The question becomes how do all members of a class – both faculty and students – endeavor to learn about and reduce microaggressions.
In my case, I realized I had learning to do. I knew the term microaggression, but I realized I did not fully understand it. I began to read and listen to anything I could on the topic. I immediately learned that many people don’t intend to use a micro-aggression. According to the article “Microaggression” in Psychology Today (2022): “A microaggression is a subtle, often unintentional, form of prejudice…Rather than an overt declaration of racism or sexism, a microaggression often takes the shape of an offhand comment, an inadvertently painful joke, or a pointed insult” (par. 1). They further note: “These individuals may not have intended to offend anyone, but the comment or action still reminds the person who receives the microaggression that they are not fully accepted or trusted in their community” (par. 2) They conclude “People are often well-intentioned, and they want to promote equality consciously, but unconsciously they may act differently” (par. 2). With that in mind, I formulated a plan to share information on microaggressions with my students during the seminar casually.
For example, in Unit 2, I used a screen share for a session on performing research; I searched “Microaggressions in the classroom”. In two of my three sections, students immediately asked what a microaggression was. In the other, I seeded the conversation by asking, “Does everyone know what that term means?” Less than half the class did. Immediately, I spent a little time explaining and sharing examples like “For an older person, you understand technology well” or “Wow, for a woman, you know sports.” (Both of which, by the way, I’ve had directed at me.) Students began to realize that they either experienced a microaggression or committed one. This conversation opened the door to discussing bias-free language and made students more alert for microaggression in seminars and discussions.
Later in that seminar, I returned to the idea after discussing peer review for discussion posts. Peer review relies on constructive criticism from reviewers and a willingness to learn from recipients. So does responding to microaggressions. I shared with students that openness to constructive criticism, whether it be towards something you’ve written or a behavior, begins with hearing the criticism and reflecting critically on what you’ve done. I also encouraged students to use me as a support system and resource in these conversations.
Finally, genuinely helping students understand microaggressions or any diversity, equity, and inclusion issue isn’t “one and done.” I continued to use related writing and research topics throughout the term. As I did, I noticed students became more willing to share behavior they experienced or committed and what they learned from it. Modeling inclusive communication and fostering a commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity must become as much a part of any course as the content is.
Diviney, H. (2022). Opinion: I called out Lizzo and Beyonce for song lyrics. They actually heard me. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2022/08/04/opinions/lizzo-beyonce-music-lyrics-ableism-disability-diviney/index.html
Foste, Z., & Ng, J. (2021). “Didn’t mean to mean it that way:” The reduction of microaggressions to interpersonal communication errors among university resident assistants. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education. https://doi-org.libauth.purdueglobal.edu/10.1037/dhe0000297
Microaggression. (2022). Psychology Today. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/microaggressions-lgbtq-people-deal-with_l_60c12080e4b059c73bd556e2
Patterson, C. A., & Domenech Rodríguez, M. M. (2019). Microaggression detection measurement impact on white college students’ colorblindness. Psi Chi Journal of Psychological Research, 24, 127–138. https://doi-org.libauth.purdueglobal.edu/10.24839/2325-7342.JN24.2.127