How to Manage Microaggressions in Online Classrooms

June 25, 2024
a student meeting people virtually on a laptop

Walden University faculty and doctoral graduates share their microaggression experiences, tips, and research. 

Doctoral and post-master’s students at Walden University who are interested in learning how to teach online often take “Online Teaching Simulation” with Dr. Nichole Karpel. The course, which is itself online, provides realistic scenarios for participants to develop their online instructional presence. So that they can learn how to create an inclusive online classroom, part of that course focuses on microaggressions.

Dr. Karpel defines microaggressions as brief actions or exchanges that result in indignities and insults about a particular group. They can be intentional or unintentional, sometimes subtle, and the result of conscious or unconscious biases. Given the state of general online discourse, especially on social media, microaggressions can occur in online courses just as they do in person.

a headshot of Nichole Karpel
Many students outside the field of education either haven’t heard the term ‘microaggression’ or don’t know how to recognize them in an online classroom. When they do see them in discussion boards or group assignments, they can be reluctant to address them because they haven’t learned how.

Dealing with Microaggressions in Online Classrooms

Unlike something said in person, a microaggression posted in an online classroom remains there for everyone to see. Consequently, it can impact those being offended in addition to the entire class.

“You can’t hope that it goes away or sweep it under the rug,” Dr. Karpel says. Other students could see it and add a comment before a faculty member. “You might need to address it with the entire class and link to resources that educate everyone on recognizing microaggressions and their impact.”  

Dr. Karpel views microaggressions as both a responsibility to support social justice and as a learning opportunity for her students. In her experience, many are unintentional and the result of unconscious biases everyone has. “Most students aren’t going to a discussion board to disparage someone,” she says. “Your response can be constructive instead of punitive. You can use them to open up a dialogue.”

CARE Framework for Addressing Microaggressions

To help educators navigate microaggressions in online classrooms, Dr. Karpel developed the CARE framework:

Clear: Be clear and communicate with the impacted students about the microaggression. Even if it was unintentional, an email to the student creates a record in case you need it for the future. These emails can be tough to write. They require a balance between pointing out the offence and understanding that it may not have been intentional.

Aim: Use the situation as a learning opportunity. They may have been using language like this their entire lives without anyone addressing it, so they may not see it as offensive. When you point it out, most students recognize the microaggression. Faculty need to model respectful behaviors and support growth and learning. Don’t insist that one student apologize to another student. Letting them realize that they need to is part of the learning opportunity.

Resources: Be prepared with resources to send to the student. It’s helpful when the student handbook, code of conduct, and syllabus have policies that are clear about language usage. Articles and videos about microaggressions are helpful to have on hand to share.

“All students, including online students, need to feel that they are in a safe learning environment. Otherwise, it can affect student engagement and student learning,” says Dr. Karpel. “Our responsibility as instructors is to make sure there aren’t obstacles getting in the way of student success.”

Expectation: Let the student know what your expected behavioral change is. If there isn’t another issue with the student, let them know you’ve seen improvement. Depending on the severity of the microaggression, you may need to delete the entire post and send the class an email. Discussion boards need to stay focused on course content.

Tips for Spotting Microaggressions

We all have internal biases and areas that fall outside of our sensitivity, says Dr. Karpel. That can make us unaware of some microaggressions. She recommends that online instructors:  

  • Look for strongly opinionated or emotional words in discussion posts where there should be factual knowledge supported by research.
  • Be vigilant. Some topics are more vulnerable to microaggressions.
  • Keep their eyes and ears open for images that depict stereotypes when discussion posts or group assignments use photos, audio, or video. 
  • Openly communicate. If they aren’t sure something is a microaggression, get a second opinion from another colleague. 

Dissertation Research on Microaggressions

Lived experiences with microaggressions have inspired Walden students to dedicate their doctoral research to the topic.

Dr. Marcella Rolle earned a PhD in Counselor Education and Supervision in 2021. Growing up she faced blatant racial aggressions and then microaggressions in higher education. Today she is a Licensed Professional Counselor, executive director of Cornerstone Counseling Ministries, and has taught at several universities.

“I would come home feeling just as hurt as I did in grade school but couldn’t pinpoint why because I had conditioned myself to ignore microaggressions,” she says.

a photo of Marcella Rolle
Once I began to go through my own racial identity development, I learned new terms and realized I had been experiencing this my entire life. So, it was a natural choice to explore the term and the experience more in my research.

Her dissertation, “Are Black Girls Okay: Microaggressions and Academic Strategy Development for Black Women in Doctoral Programs,” offers recommendations for social change, including ways to support Black women in academia. When it comes to microaggressions in education and job settings, she recommends telling people what they’ve done and why it was inappropriate. “Doing so shines a light on next steps,” she says.

Microaggressions in Healthcare: 61% of Black women went to healthcare visits prepared to be insulted or were careful about their appearance in the hopes of being treated fairly, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey.

Dr. Letitia Browne-James got interested in researching microaggressions early in her PhD in Counselor Education and Supervision program at Walden.

She is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Board Certified Counselor, and the founder of two counseling practices: Victorious Living Counseling and Consulting, which emphasizes cultural competency, and the nonprofit LBJ Behavioral Services for un- and under-insured clients. In both she’s had people say they were depressed or angry but didn’t know why.

a headshot of Letitia James Browne
As we talk and they get to know me and trust me, they start talking about their experiences with racism or sexism in the workplace, the community that they live in, or the school they attend. That’s when I realize that microaggressions can be the source of their presenting problem.

One microaggression she sees regularly is with Black parents of highly intelligent children. When their child does well on a test, the teacher asks if they have a tutor or accuse them of cheating. But they’ll say “good job” to a white child who did just as well. Dr. Browne-James says microaggressions like those lead to test anxiety and students being nervous about going to school.

She also met people who had experienced racial microaggressions in counseling sessions. That led to her dissertation, “Black Individuals’ Lived Experiences with Racial Microaggressions and Implications in Counseling,” and graduation in 2018. She pursued her dissertation topic to help fill gaps in counseling so that when counselors work with people of Black descent, they can understand the implications of microaggressions on their presenting problem and how to approach their treatment.

“I hope my dissertation is a roadmap. If we are aware of microaggressions, and we know how to combat them, then we are less likely to continue perpetuating the cycle.” 

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