Bias & Microaggressions

Our identities are ingrained in our being and the intersectionality of our identities make up the sum of who we are. Those identities include:

  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Gender
  • Sex
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Religion
  • Socioeconomic status
  • Physical, Emotional, and Developmental (Dis)Ability
  • National Origin
  • First Language

Most of us have a tendency to view the world from the perspective of our own culture and may tend to view different cultures as inferior or below one’s own. This is referred to as ethnocentrism. This creates barriers to building collaborative learning spaces for children, families, schools, and communities that celebrate and elevate all members of that learning community.  Reflecting on this affords us the opportunity to acknowledge that no culture is better or worse than any other, only different.

As we investigate our perspectives, we find that we are a product of our environments and as such, have absorbed some of the thinking and ideas that have been passed to us from our family of origin. The relationship between children, families, schools, and communities is delicate.  Our goal is to promote collaboration that is deeply respectful of one another.  As such, we must self-reflect on areas of our own stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination and take care to mitigate or eliminate them from harming those relationships.



Table 1.2:  Connecting Stereotypes, Prejudice, and Discrimination 

Item Function Connection Example
Stereotype Cognitive; thoughts about people Overgeneralized beliefs about people may lead to prejudice. “Yankees fans are arrogant and obnoxious.”
Prejudice Affective; feelings about people, both positive and negative Feelings may influence treatment of others, leading to discrimination. “I hate Yankees fans; they make me angry.”
Discrimination Behavior; positive or negative treatment of others Holding stereotypes and harboring prejudice may lead to excluding, avoiding, and biased treatment of group members. “I would never hire nor become friends with a person if I knew they were a Yankees fan.”

The American Psychological Association defines bias as “…an inclination or predisposition for or against something.”  Bias often results in unfair treatment, in either positive or negative ways.  Consider the following forms of bias:

  1. Explicit bias: attitudes and beliefs (positive or negative) that we consciously or deliberately hold and express about a person or group.  This kind of bias is outwardly and intentionally displayed through body language, facial expressions, speech, or other forms of communication.  It is observed easily and oftentimes creates conflict between people.
  2. Implicit bias: attitudes and beliefs (positive or negative) about other people, ideas, issues, or institutions that occur outside of our conscious awareness and control, which affect our opinions and behavior. This kind of bias occurs automatically as the brain makes judgments based on past experiences, education and background. These judgments, if left unexamined, can cause friction with relationships.
  3. Confirmation bias: our subconscious tendency to seek and interpret information and other evidence in ways that affirm our existing beliefs, ideas, expectations, and/or hypotheses. Therefore, confirmation bias is both affected by and feeds our implicit biases.

Whether we mean to or not, we sometimes offend people by not thinking about what we say and the manner in which we say it. One danger of limiting our social interactions to people who are from our own social group is in being insensitive to people who are not like us. The term microaggression refers to acts of insensitivity that reveal our inherent biases, cultural incompetency, and hostility toward someone outside of our community. Those biases can be toward race, gender, nationality, or any other diversity variable. The individual on the receiving end of a microaggression is reminded of the barriers to complete acceptance and understanding in the relationship. Let’s consider an example.



Table 1.3:  Microaggressions 

(9.3 Navigating the Diversity Landscape – College Success | OpenStax, n.d.)

Category Microaggression Why It’s Offensive
Educational Status or Situation “You’re an athlete; you don’t need to study.” Stereotypes athletes and ignores their hard work.
“You don’t get financial aid; you must be rich.” Even an assumption of privilege can be invalidating.
“Did they have honors classes at your high school?” Implies that someone is less prepared or intelligent based on their geography.
Race, Ethnicity, National Origin “You speak so well for someone like you.” Implies that people of a certain race/ethnicity can’t speak well.
“No, where are you really from?” Calling attention to someone’s national origin makes them feel separate.
“You must be good at _____.” Falsely connects identity to ability.
“My people had it so much worse than yours did.” Makes assumptions and diminishes suffering/difficulty.
“I’m not even going to try your name. It looks too difficult.” Dismisses a person’s culture and heritage.
“It’s so much easier for Black people to get into college.” Assumes that merit is not the basis for achievement.
Gender and Gender Identity “They’re so emotional.” Assumes a person cannot be emotional and rational.
“I guess you can’t meet tonight because you have to take care of your son?” Assumes a parent (of any gender) cannot participate.
“I don’t get all this pronoun stuff, so I’m just gonna call you what I call you.” Diminishes the importance of gender identity; indicates a lack of empathy.
“I can’t even tell you used to be a woman.” Conflates identity with appearance, and assumes a person needs someone else’s validation.
“You’re too good-looking to be so smart.” Connects outward appearance to ability.
Sexual Orientation “I support you; just don’t throw it in my face.” Denies another person’s right to express their identity or point of view.
“You seem so rugged for a gay guy.” Stereotypes all gay people as being “not rugged,” and could likely offend the recipient.
“I might try being a lesbian.” May imply that sexual orientation is a choice.
“I can’t even keep track of all these new categories.” Bisexual, pansexual, asexual, and other sexual orientations are just as valid and deserving of respect as more binary orientations.
“You can’t just love whomever you want; pick one.” Bisexual, pansexual, asexual, and other sexual orientations are just as valid and deserving of respect as more binary orientations.
Age “Are you going to need help with the software?” May stereotype an older person as lacking experience with the latest technology.
“Young people have it so easy nowadays.” Makes a false comparison between age and experience.
“Okay, boomer.” Dismisses an older generation as out of touch.
Size “I bet no one messes with you.” Projects a tendency to be aggressive onto a person of large stature.
“You are so cute and tiny.” Condescending to a person of small stature.
“I wish I was thin and perfect like you.” Equates a person’s size with character.
Ability (To a person using a wheelchair) “I wish I could sit down wherever I went.” Falsely assumes a wheelchair is a luxury; minimizes disabilities.
“You don’t have to complete the whole test. Just do your best.” Assumes that a disability means limited intellectual potential.
“I’m blind without my glasses.” Equating diminished capacity with a true disability.

Pause to Reflect!

Review Table 1:  Family Structures.  As you answer the following questions, think about implicit, explicit, and confirmation bias both for and against the diversity of family structures.

  1. What judgements or assumptions do I have about different family structures?
  2. Identify examples of times when families are recipients of negative implicit, explicit, or confirmation bias from schools or communities.
  3. Reflect on a time when you experienced or witnessed a microaggression in a family, school, or community:
    1. Describe what happened.
    2. What was the hidden message?
  4. Calling out bias and microaggressions in schools and communities takes advocacy and courage.  Describe concrete ways to bring awareness to and devise strategies around identifying and combating bias and microaggressions.



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