3 racial microaggressions that teachers commit every day — and how to avoid them.

Whether private, public, or charter, everyone is familiar with the idea of the "strict" school.

Even if you didn't attend one yourself, you probably had a friend or two who complained of the inflexible rules, rigid uniform codes, and discipline for even the slightest infraction.

There's a word for schools like that.


Photo by AFS-USA Intercultural Program/Flickr.

It's called "paternalistic," and according to David Whitman (who coined the term in this context), one of the aims of these paternalistic schools is to teach students "how to act according to what are commonly termed traditional, middle-class values."

On the surface, that can seem like a righteous goal. But what we now know is that those "traditional, middle-class" policies often can be pretty racist.

Fortunately, many schools have begun to dial back on administrative policies that attempt to refine urban students of color into middle-class white students. But beneath the surface of these more visible policy changes lies a more pressing issue — "microaggressions," or the indirect, subtle, or even unintentional ways that teachers discriminate against students of color and other marginalized student groups.

Microaggressions are small, seemingly innocuous daily decisions that can have a significant negative effect on students.

Often, teacher microaggressions are couched in an authentic attempt by the teacher to connect with students. Many times, however, these microaggressions are connected with the ways that teachers choose to enforce school rules.

One common occasion for microaggressions is what you might call "sweating the small stuff" — teachers giving disproportionate attention to student behavior that is, yes, technically against school rules but isn't directly tied to a specific consequence or causing anyone harm.

Photo by PacificLegalFoundation/Flickr.

For example, wearing hats and hoods in the school building is a behavior that is frequently punished, but not necessarily a "big deal" when it comes to actual harm caused. It's more about etiquette and an outdated understanding of what respect means.

The idea that hats worn inside a building is disrespectful has fallen out of favor in almost every venue with the exception of the schoolhouse. Today, people frequently wear hats inside movie theaters, formal concerts, churches, and virtually any other public place. Constantly insisting that students remove hats and hoods at school is a microaggression because it is premised on an antiquated view of respect and doesn't account for present-day cultural practices among communities of color.

Photo by Sandeep Swarnkar/Unsplash.

Policing students' language is another way teachers may unintentionally commit microaggressions in the classroom.

White middle-class teachers often have a concept of what constitutes polite and acceptable classroom language, a concept that has likely not been made accessible to their students. The teacher may be the only adult in a student’s life who wishes to produce a "G-rated" environment of language. If the student was raised in an environment where swearing wasn't viewed as a transgression, it can be difficult for them to find a way to communicate emotionally and intellectually in the classroom.

Teachers should consider the intent behind each student phrase. An unengaged student may express frustration by saying, "I don’t give a shit about this class!" In this case, empathy is a more useful tool than strict discipline. The last thing this student needs is an infraction that would remove them from the classroom and further alienate them from their own learning.

Photo by US Department of Education/Flickr.

Punishing students for sleeping in class can also be a microaggression.

Again, this is an instance where empathy for the student is more useful than uncritically enforcing a school policy. White, middle class teachers may have a concept of what it means to get a good night’s rest that simply is not available to their students. A sleeping student indicates a need for rest, not a need for consequences. Sleeping students cannot learn, but they might be able to learn better after a brief nap.

Teachers shouldn't be personally offended when students fall asleep in class, because chances are, it has little to do with their teaching and much more to do with factors outside of the classroom. (That said, teachers might benefit from some self-reflection in these moments to see if lesson plans could be more engaging.) The goal should be for students to be engaged at a level where they want — and are able — to stay awake.

So what can teachers do to recognize their microaggressions and avoid committing them in the future?

Teachers should examine their motivations when enforcing rules in order to recognize their own microaggressions. Many times, our concepts of "right," "wrong," "respectful," or "disrespectful" are grounded in our own upbringing within our community — a community that may be starkly different than the ones your students occupy.

Photo by Gabriel Lopez/Unsplash.

All teachers (and people generally!) have "pet peeves," but it's a good idea to examine yours to determine where they come from.

Ask things like: "Why does this behavior bother me so much?" "Will enforcing this rule help keep students safe?" "Do I disapprove of this behavior because of the way I was raised?" "Is enforcing a rule at a particular time worth the potential loss of relationship capital with the student?"

White, middle-class teachers are more equipped to educate effectively while avoiding microaggressions when they utilize what is called culturally responsive teaching. Teachers who are educated in how their students’ lives diverge from their own are better-equipped at recognizing their own implicit bias — which is the mindset on which the microaggressions feed.

Teachers must understand that deciding whether or not to "sweat the small stuff" isn't just a matter of classroom management. It's a matter of social justice.

This story originally appeared on Spoon Vision and is reprinted here with permission.

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Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

RELATED: This aboriginal Australian used kindness and tea to trump the racism he overheard.

Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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