Reflecting (on) microaggression

By Ian Handsley

Ian lives in a small Japanese fishing village with his wife and 4 kids. Just enjoying a spot of house husbandry at the moment, but will be back at the higher-education coal face soon. Higher Education Innovationist and former member of the LSU.

I stop passersby in their tracks. I attract the stares of complete strangers, cause them to stop whatever they’re doing wherever they are, and, often, inspire a facial expression that can only be described as ‘jaw drop’.  You might think there’s something about me that the locals find fascinating, but when I tell you about children running away from me in supermarkets, old ladies going out of their way to avoid crossing my tracks, and convenience store clerks breaking into sweats when they serve me, you’d be perfectly justified to assume I’m just ugly.

That may well be the case, and to be honest, I wouldn’t really mind if it were. But what I do tire of are the churlish comments I get from those locals who work up the courage to interrogate me. “You’re really tall.” Nope. You’re just short. “How tall are you?” Three hundred and ninety centimetres (a quick numerical reckoning test which is invariably failed). “What are you doing here?” Nothing. Cue alarmed look. .. tall white guy doing nothing in this small town in this very non-tall, non-white, non-doing-nothing country. Interrogator slowly backs away, onlookers quickly look away, circling vultures fly away, and I carry on with the seemingly controversial task of doing nothing.

So… I live in Anori – a small town on the Pacific Coast of Japan that’s worryingly described by those in neighbouring areas as a haven for the backward and insular. It’s worrying because when one group of already isolationist Japanese describes another as backward and suspicious of outsiders, rest assured that the people they’re referring to are some world-champion exponents of small mindedness. And as far as I can tell, that’s what a lot of these folks are.

But I can handle it. I’ve spent my whole life ‘on the road’, so to speak, and know exactly it means to be foreign. One of my earliest memories is of Hong Kong Chinese squeezing my cheeks and pulling my baby-blonde locks – apparently that was lucky for them even though it was painful for me. More recently, when I was working in the Middle East, I was barred from entering a shopping mall in Qatar because I was alone and it was ‘family day’ at the mall*. And a recent experience that anyone who’s been to Vietnam will be familiar with: being shadowed in Saigon shops by staff with nothing else to do but follow me around, stand uncomfortably close and stare. Sometimes I would stare back at these fearless young women—as in a game of ‘Stare Chicken’—but I’m ashamed to admit that despite my years of experience confronting deer-in-the-headlights stares with my I-eat-babies look, I usually lost.

Hopefully you know what I’m talking about: those ignoble acts of a (usually) well meaning but clumsy majority performed upon on a visible minority. They’re those moments of subtle othering felt by those who just don’t fit in with the people who make the rules, be that because of nationality, ethnicity, gender, or whatever other taxonomy the dominant group holds close to its heart. They’re the negative experiences resulting from stereotypes of the weak and/or different, which in turn result from a process of deindividualisation where the ‘other’ is reduced to a set of usually undesirable traits. Well, these acts have a name: microaggressions. Originally this term was used by Derald Wing Sue to categorise “…the brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities and denigrating messages” of white Americans on non-white Americans. But a recent article here in Japan by Debito Arudou has extended it to include the experiences of, for example, tall white guys who live in Japan and who are simply trying to get on with the difficult business of sloth without the unwanted attention and banal conversation of its citizens.

But to get to the serious stuff, in this article I’d like to apply the idea of microaggression to the context of international and transnational education, as I think that many who live and teach abroad suffer them from a few different sources. Microaggressions are a real and potentially destructive force, resulting in deteriorating mental health, ailing physical health and decreased work productivity among other deleterious effects (Wing Sue). I could substantiate this with many a tale of former English teaching colleagues in Japan who were slowly worn down by their experiences with their students and, especially, their managers and who eventually ‘went postal’, often resulting in them leaving the country, usually voluntarily but also sometimes with a police escort. I’m sure many of you could tell similar stories about people you’ve worked with around the world.

My reference above to management shouldn’t go unexplained, as I think it’s a source of particularly virulent microaggression toward foreign teachers. Typically, international and transnational institutions exist on the fringe of a country’s education system and must tip toe around domestic politicians, bureaucrats and industry gatekeepers who—it is thought— are patiently waiting for an opportunity to hobble the institution with some kind of tax, red tape or even deregistration.  That may well be paranoia on behalf of the school’s management but regardless, the result can be an untrusting managerial atmosphere in which teachers are considered potential liabilities. We’re seen as outspoken, insensitive, immature, irresponsible and—in the worst cases—as an embarrassing international incident just waiting to happen. In response, managerialistic tactics call for the removal of academic privileges, the ban or archaic control of social media and other ICTs, the implementation of cookie-cutter course design, the use of unfair employment contracts, and the general distrust of any employee forum in which speech is free and thought is critical. So basically, a complex and diverse international workforce is reduced to a set of rather undesirable qualities and managerial policies are set accordingly, all for the good of the institution. The result? Angry, frustrated and stressed-out teachers in classrooms and students who are very aware of it.

Needless to say, living overseas and working for international schools can be a demeaning experience at times, but perhaps there’s a powerful benefit for teachers who have experienced so many microaggressions: the opportunity to reflect on how we treat our students. Do we as teachers deindividualise them and reduce them to set of negative traits? If yes, how does that impact on students’ learning experiences and, more importantly, on how students feel about themselves?  To give you an example, I remember a critical thinking workshop I taught in Vietnam in which I would eagerly tear apart the absurd idea that playing basketball makes you tall (a claim I heard quite few times from my students—being tall ‘n all—and one that drove me crazy). One day I asked the students in the class to indicate whether or not they agreed with it. Of those who did—yes, a few actually did—I demanded evidence that the statement had a basis in fact. One young gentleman stated that his grandmother told him, so he respected it. Hearing this, I promptly led the class through some argument mapping and brought them to the logical conclusion that the statement had no basis in fact, leaving that young fellow to ponder the very un-Vietnamese realisation that his grandmother’s thoughts on the causal relationship between sport and physical growth were not to be respected. Was this a case of me being microaggressive to the student? From what I know about how microaggressions make me feel, I certainly hope not, but from the way he reacted, I suspect yes. And what of those students who knew from the outset that the idea was bunkum? I can imagine them sitting there watching all this and thinking “He thinks we’re idiots. What an idiot”.

I’m going to claim here that the above example actually reveals a cycle of microaggression which is not uncommon in international education. The cycle goes like this: the actions, beliefs and habits of the local population and of the institution’s management serve to reduce the international teacher to a set of negative traits. The international teacher feels microaggressed by this and unwittingly responds with his or her own reduction of students to traits. That is, the process of deindividualisation is reflected back upon those who—it is thought—initiated it. So, microaggressions beget microaggressions, which in turn beget more microaggressions and away we go. Maybe I’m being overly analytical here, but I think a lot of teachers with international experience would admit to having been a part of this cycle. I will, because I have.

What’s the impact of these subtle slights, insults, indignities, and denigrating messages on those we are attempting to educate**? In addition to those unpleasant effects listed earlier, the result can be an additional level of affective difficulty to what’s already challenging for students cognitively, strained and perhaps dysfunctional relationships with teachers, and learning experiences that are, potentially, wholly dysphoric. So what do we do about it? I think it’s just too easy to say ‘stop it’. For some teachers, a reduction of students to traits has become the subconscious foundation on which their teaching expertise is built, and in some courses, curricula and syllabi come with their own microaggressive messages***. We can’t just flick a switch and get rid of it all. But what we can do is retreat to that most valued of teacher qualities—student centeredness—and reflect honestly on how what we do benefits students. If we do it regularly enough, critical analysis of our interactions with students can reveal the right path through the affective complexities of cross-cultural communication. It isn’t easy by any means—the most honest and insightful reflections are often self-incriminating (see above)—but when we start to recognise students as potentially vulnerable individuals who are playing a very high-stakes higher education game, the imperative to carefully manage students’ affective responses to us becomes quite clear.

And what should we do about those microaggressions we experience from our management and our hosts? One chap I know here in Japan speaks elegantly about making peace with them, while at the other end of the scale, Debito Arudou seems to be calling for an assertive engagement of those who reduce us to traits. From my own perspective, I recognise that I belong to a group of people which enjoys more economic and social freedom than most, so I tend to let it slide, so to speak. I also think there’s nothing to be gained from confronting it or trying to transform society (or management) to the point where it’s no longer an issue. Try as I may, the people of Anori will never be comfortable with the strange white guy who does nothing, lots of people in Vietnam will always think I’m tall because I played basketball, and the contract I sign for my next job (god forbid) will include some absurdly restrictive clauses aimed specifically at my innate tendency to be a troublemaking foreigner. But if you’re reading this, no doubt you’ve spent a good deal of time living and working overseas and have your own answers to the questions I’ve asked here – comment away!

*Family days at these malls were days on which only families were allowed inside. I never quite understood why individuals would be barred until a Qatari explained to me that family days were a way for these malls to prevent Qatar’s many South Asian ‘guest workers’—almost all of whom have left their families behind—from loitering inside the air-conditioned mall.

**The best answers here will come from students. If you’re a student and you’ve experienced microaggression in the classroom, please tell us about it in a comment (no names, of course).   

***Every teaching and learning paradigm carries with it assumptions about what knowledge is, how it can be represented and how it should be consumed.  Generally these paradigms serve communities well, but when they’re exported—as in the case of transnational education—those assumptions can conflict with local values and beliefs. 

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6 responses to “Reflecting (on) microaggression”

  1. sb says :

    Very insightful and balanced. It’s great to get an analysis of a phenomenon many are are aware of but, perhaps can’t articulate quite so well.

    • Ian says :

      thanks sb. I think ‘microaggression’ is a term that needs much critical analysis, but it’s definitely a useful way of looking at these issues.

  2. Elizabeth Handsley says :

    Ian a lot of what you say can also be translated to the ‘general’ experience of post-Bradley education within Australia. I haven’t taught off-shore, and I’ve had very few international students – but I find I’m teaching more and more students for whom higher education means something quite different from what it means to me. There are days when it feels like we actually do come from different countries!

    The difficulty is that the difference in our values relating to higher education goes to the heart of what I think the enterprise is all about. I think it’s about empowering oneself as an informed citizen through critical thinking. They think (or appear to think) it’s a series of hoops you jump through in order to get a job.

    It’s also felt at the level of what (I think) you refer to as the ‘teaching and learning paradigm’: I don’t think of education as something I do to my students, but rather as something I help them to do to themelves. Based on many years of sometimes bitter experience, I’ve realised that I need to explain my paradigm, and the expectations that go with it. But I suspect that sometimes my doing so is experienced as a microaggression; and your article has helped me to reflect on the way my reliance on sometimes bitter past experience could be just another way of saying I’ve reduced my current students to the undesirable traits observed in (some) past ones.

    No easy answers, of course – just an ongoing process of reflection and elaboration. Thanks for a helpful article.

    • Ian says :

      Thanks for your comments on how this issue relates to you, Liz. If there was any objective in this article, it was to inspire such things.

      I absolutely agree that the learning enterprise is all about empowering oneself through critical thinking, and your experiences with students who see it, rather, as a series of hoops to jump through would be shared by many. Myself included.

      In the last few years I’ve been taken by ideas about transformational learning, which are a discussion of why and how it is beneficial for students to reflect critically on their own assumptions about the world (and, therefore, on the assumptions of others). I believe strongly that if there is any function of higher learning, it’s to transform people and their communities. However, I (and probably you too) I have been hobbled in this exploit by administrators and industry-oriented lecturers who would much rather just go through the paces and get student bums on salaried seats. That is, they see higher education as as a process of assimilating students into the economic and political status qou. The result is students who have managed to do just fine until they get to the point (our classes) where their house of cards comes falling down around them. And the result of that can be students complaining that their lecturer is a bit of a b*stard, and that can be understood in terms of microaggression.

      I guess the question is, can a such an affront to belief systems and understanding be justified? I think it can, and I think that literature on transformational learning shines much light on it. But of course, as with any issue in the (dark) art of teaching, it comes down to the finer details of execution. I know, myself, that I sometimes I neglect these finer details, and I think that it’s in those moments where I do a disservice to what is a noble intention.

      Thanks again.

      • Elizabeth Handsley says :

        Well put. I think that for various reasons I’ve been reasonably sheltered from the kind of hobbling you describe – for me it comes mostly from students themselves for (I like to think) the kinds of reasons you mention. (And in some cases it has gone way further than ‘a bit of a b*stard)

        By the way I think your article, and your response to my comment, are a really good example of the results of transformational education – your willingness to question your own self and your own motives. Not for the faint hearted :)

  3. clare magee says :

    This made me laugh a bit as I recognized all the frustrations of VN. Very empathetic writing – it is not always easy to see both sides of the story. Good writing and good reading – thanks for taking the time.

    Maybe you should at least pretend to catch some fish – I’m joining the basketball team!

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