Research examines microaggression

It’s a statistic that may raise eyebrows: More than 80 percent of college students say they have been the targets of microaggression.

From cringe-worthy comments on how articulate a black student is to offhand remarks on stereotypical gender roles, microaggressions are the subtle—often unintentional—offenses that knock us down a peg. With the release of movies like “Dear White People” in fall 2014, the issue of microaggressions—particularly on college campuses—has become a more common topic of conversation.

A study by Longwood professors Dr. Rachel Mathews (education), Dr. Stephanie Buchert (psychology), Dr. Maureen Walls-McKay (Counseling Center) and Dr. Don Fleming (education, retired) revealed not only the
overwhelming scope of the problem on college campuses but also the nature of the microaggressions, subtle offenses rooted in discrimination.

Microaggression can be a seemingly innocent joke about a person’s accent. Or oohing and ahhing over a black woman’s hair.

“Plenty of people see the issue of microaggression as political correctness run amok,” said Walls-McKay. “And it’s certainly true that what offends one person may not offend someone else. But what’s clear is that college students … overwhelmingly say that it’s a problem.”

According to the researchers, who surveyed hundreds of college students on their experiences with microaggression, these behaviors take three distinct forms: insults, assaults and invalidations.

“An insult is any type of communication that is rude or insensitive or that demeans a person’s unique qualities,” said Walls-McKay. Assaults are derogations of a person’s individuality, like name-calling or avoiding the person. Invalidations negate a person’s thoughts or feelings. “Students talk about how they are treated differently, without regard to their feelings, based on their height or their hairstyle,” she added.

Fleming and graduate student Gary Shepherd designed a pilot program to enhance the dialogue that often happens after these incidents. “When students have a chance to engage in meaningful dialogue—with a support person or with the transgressor—they are better at identifying the problem and finding
solutions to it,” said Fleming.