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GSCBlogPic Jan 22, 2020

Experiencing Microaggressions in Academia

Racial microaggressions are defined as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color” (Sue et al., 2007, p. 271). As an immigrant woman of color, I first experienced racial microaggressions when I moved from India to the U.S. to begin my undergraduate studies in a predominantly white institution. When my peers would learn that I was from India, they would compliment my English-speaking skills, based on their assumption that English was not my first language. Professors would hesitate to pronounce my name, often ignoring me in their classrooms. In graduate school, individuals have often confused me for another South Asian student who looked nothing like me. I share these with you because these experiences of racial microaggressions are an everyday reality for individuals from marginalized identities.

Graduate school is already stressful with all the different hats we wear as students, teachers, researchers, counselors, and supervisors. Therefore, experiencing racial microaggressions can significantly add to the daily stressors in one’s life. Examples of racial microaggressions include: being invalidated or ignored in conversations, assigned academic readings focus only on the dominant groups, ascription of intelligence based on your visible racial identity, being mistaken for someone else of the same race, and many more. Racial microaggressions are pervasive in every setting, whether classroom, supervision, teaching, and/or counseling. Over time, this can build and begin to take a significant toll on those experiencing daily microaggressions. This can result in students feeling isolated, doubting their abilities, and overall feeling disconnected from the academic community. 

So what can we do when we experience microaggressions in academia? Here are a few tips that have helped with my experiences that I would like to share with you in the hopes that I can provide some support and direction for graduate students who struggle with microaggressions and advocacy while in school:

1.  Build a community of allies: It is important to remember that you are not alone in this experience. Identify friends and family that you can talk about these experiences and who can validate you. Remember, because racial microaggressions are subtle and often unintentional, when confronted, perpetrators may invalidate your feelings and experiences. Therefore, being able to talk to friends who can empathize and validate can help you feel supported and heard. Joining organizations within campus and within the counseling field may also provide a strong community of allies.

2.  Check in with a mentor: Mentors can be role models and provide suggestions on how to navigate some of the challenges of racial microaggressions in academia. For me, I found a strong support and mentor in my dissertation chair. I also signed up for mentoring programs through organizations like the NBCC. 

3.  Advocate, when it’s safe: Advocating to make changes can have lasting impact, especially for students who may come into the program after you. If you experience or witness microaggressions, you could bring up your concerns to the peer, professor, and/or student perpetuating these. However, your safety is paramount. It is important to feel safe in a space to express your thoughts without being attacked or dismissed. Alternatively, you could also consult with a colleague or talk to a trusted ally regarding how to proceed in addressing microaggressions.

4.  Pick your battles: I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to conserve your energy as a graduate student. Not all battles are worth fighting and sometimes you may have to walk away from a situation just for your own self-care and safety. So, during those times when you choose to walk away, practice self-compassion! Advocating for yourself or others can be exhausting and doing this often can lead to early burnout.

Whether you are an incoming master’s level student or a PhD student, do not feel defeated when you experience microaggressions while in your academic program. Remember, you are not alone! Build a community, reach out to people, and advocate for yourself and those around you.

 If you identify as an ally and are wondering how you can advocate, check out my article Walking The Talk: Are We Practicing What We Preach? in the SACES newsletter (p. 19).

       Contributing Author

Shreya Vaishnav, MC, NCC, LPCA is a doctoral candidate at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She received her master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Arizona State University and is currently a Licensed Professional Counselor-Associate (LPC-A) in North Carolina. Shreya is interested in studying the impact of racial microaggressions experienced by graduate students in academia, social justice advocacy, and integrating multicultural competencies in counselor education programs.

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