Pedagogies of Microresistance for Equity and Social Justice
By: Cynthia Ganote, Tasha Souza, and Floyd Cheung
“To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn.
That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that
there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not
merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth
of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our
students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning
can most deeply and intimately begin.”—bell hooks (1994, p. 13)
As educators, we aim to provide students with the knowledge, skills, and confidence necessary to engage in the classroom and public sphere with the ultimate goals of equity and social justice. We, as professors of sociology, communication, English, and American studies—and indeed teachers of any courses with social justice aims—can interrupt patterns and systems of inequity by enabling students to identify, name, and challenge them. Microaggressions, or brief, commonplace, and derogatory verbal, nonverbal, or environmental slights and insults (Sue et al., 2007), are rooted in larger systems of oppression and often occur in everyday interactions. When studying college students who faced racial microaggressions, Nadal and colleagues (2014) found that “while all microaggressions are harmful, microaggressions that occur in educational settings
(i.e., by professors or other students) or work settings (i.e., by employers or coworkers) may particularly hurt individuals’ self-worth” (p. 468). In addition, Sue (2010) found that microaggressions negatively impact students’ academic achievement and feelings of inclusion. Microaggressions, then, must be addressed head-on if we want to create vibrant and equitable learning environments in our educational institutions.
Our proposed antidote for microaggressions is microresistance—small-scale individual or collaborative efforts that empower targeted people and allies to cope with, respond to, and challenge microaggressions with a goal of disrupting systems of oppression as they unfold in everyday life, thereby creating more inclusive institutions. By “targeted people,” we mean those who are directly affected by that system of oppression (e.g., racism, classism, etc.). By “allies,” we mean those who move “beyond awareness of privilege to take risks, call out inequities, . . . dismantle systems of exclusion and oppression,” and avoid centering themselves and expecting recognition (Hernández, 2020, p. 150). Allyship should not be seen as an identity (Bebout, 2016); it requires continuous action. Teaching students how to practice microresistance can increase their resilience in the face of microaggressions and empower students to counter them. Our belief in teaching students how to face microaggressions is echoed in the findings of Nadal and colleagues (2014), who asserted that students should be taught how to address microaggressions in college, as a formative experience (Navarro-Garcia, 2016).
While pedagogies of microresistance can be applied in many different contexts, including faculty development and residence life, this chapter will focus on teaching microresistance strategies to students in a classroom context. In particular, we will describe how we teach microresistance, unpacking its various forms and asking students to apply specific communication tools that can be used to respond to microaggressions. In addition, we will analyze the results of a case study in which a majority of undergraduate students reported feeling more empowered to address the microaggressions they experienced or witnessed after learning about and applying microresistance strategies. Teaching students about microresistance helps them feel more prepared to communicate intentionally and act consciously in the face of microaggressions, both inside and outside the classroom.
CONTEXT: TEACHING AT THE UNIVERSITY OF LOUISVILLE
While all three of us teach microresistance at our institutions—Tasha Souza at a large, public university and Floyd Cheung at a small, private college—this chapter will focus on data collected by Cynthia Ganote on the impact of teaching microresistance to her students at the University of Louisville. The University of Louisville is a public, metropolitan university with an enrollment of 22,459 students, located in Louisville, Kentucky. Within the Department of Sociology, Cynthia Ganote teaches classes like Sociology 202: Social Problems, with approximately fifty-five students per section, and Sociology 210: Race in the US, with approximately fifty-five students per section. Both of these classes are 200-level offerings that meet “Cardinal Core” general education requirements in the dual areas of social and behavioral sciences and diversity 1, which focuses on US diversity. For that reason, students in both of these classes come from colleges and majors across the entire university. In other words, sociology majors do not make up the majority of the students in these classes; they are integrated with many other majors and minors. Students often take their core courses in their first or second year of university, but there are also junior and senior students in the classes who need to pick up these course requirements later in their programs of study.
SOCIAL JUSTICE EDUCATION AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF CRITICAL CONSCIOUSNESS
In order to advance equity as social justice educators, we strive to provide students with the skills and confidence necessary to engage in the classroom and public sphere with the aim of responsible social action (Adams et al., 2016). Goodman (2011) emphasized that social justice addresses issues of power, privilege, and psychological well-being. Attaining social justice requires changing larger unjust institutional structures as well as problematic everyday practices in order to challenge dominant ideology (Navarro-Garcia, 2016). Gewirtz (1998) described social justice as actions that support a process built on care, respect, recognition, and empathy while disrupting arrangements that promote marginalization and exclusionary processes. “In the case of social justice education, the stakes are high because we are dealing with historic and current differentials in power, privilege, and access that are manifesting concretely (even as their existence is denied)” (Sensoy & DiAngelo, 2009, p. 348). Integrating social justice into our classrooms means guiding students in critical self-reflection of their socialization into systems of oppression, analyzing the mechanisms of oppression, and empowering them with the ability to challenge these hierarchies (Cochran-Smith, 2004).
One way to engage students in this kind of critical self-reflection and analysis of the mechanisms of oppression, while offering tools to challenge these hierarchies, is to focus on the development of conscientização, or critical consciousness, as it is often translated in English (Freire, 2000). Critical consciousness is an awareness of systems of oppression as they unfold in everyday life, combined with action taken to transform these oppressive structures (Freire, 2000). The development of critical consciousness is an integral component of Paolo Freire’s critical pedagogy, and it serves as a way for students and teachers together to unveil the mechanisms of oppression in everyday life through a method called co-intentional education. Once the mechanisms of oppression have been revealed, Freire suggests that students become agents of change who can transform reality by taking action against oppressive practices (Ganote & Longo, 2015).
The development of critical consciousness can be broken into three stages, performed iteratively: awareness, analysis, and action—what we and our students decided to call the “triple A’s of critical consciousness.” In our particular case, using pedagogies of microresistance, we can help students become aware of microaggressions as they occur in everyday life in the awareness stage. In the analysis stage, we teach them that microaggressions are everyday, commonplace manifestations of larger systems of oppression (e.g., systemic racism, patriarchy, heterosexism, classism, ableism, ageism, and American imperialism, to name a few), and we ask students to analyze how and when they occur in different social contexts. And finally, after raising awareness of and unveiling the root causes of these microaggressions in broader systems of oppression, we can teach students productive ways to take action to address them.
TEACHING MICRORESISTANCE IN THE CLASSROOM
In order to teach students to use microresistance, we first raise awareness of microaggressions by defining the term as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative . . . slights and insults” (Sue et al., 2007, p. 271). We unpack each part of the definition, asking students for examples of verbal, behavioral (nonverbal), and environmental (occurring in symbols or in access to buildings, etc.) indignities. Next, we identify different types of microaggressions, asking students for real-world examples without expecting them to self-disclose, which sharpens their awareness of microaggressions that occur in everyday life. Of course, many students are the victims of microaggressions themselves, so it’s important to give content warnings and permission for all to care for mental health by, for instance, taking a break if necessary. In the analysis phase, we situate microaggressions within broader systems of oppression, using a sociological framework that asserts that they are the everyday, interactional forms of, for example, systemic racism, patriarchy, heterosexism, classism, ableism, ageism, and
American imperialism that we encounter in today’s society.
Simply raising student awareness of microaggressions and analyzing their roots in broader systems of oppression, however, is insufficient. At best, students gain the ability to recognize them. At worst, they fall into hopelessness. Thankfully, there are many ways to empower students to respond to microaggressions. Teaching students microresistance is one promising practice. Over time, they learn that they can respond when a microaggression occurs, shore up their own defenses, and build a network of support. With practice, they can grow in confidence and sophistication with regard to practicing microresistance.
RESPONDING TO MICROAGGRESSIONS IN THE MOMENT
As instructors, it is our responsibility to respond to microaggressions and give a sense of agency to our students to do the same, whether confronted with a microaggression in the classroom or any other context. Teaching students about microresistance helps them feel more prepared to communicate intentionally and act consciously. Although there are various communication tools (e.g., Rosenberg, 2003) that can organize one’s thoughts and words when faced with a microaggression, we will describe one in detail that we find especially useful and easy to remember for organizing thoughts and responses. We introduce it to students visually at first, on a slide, and we read through each stage. This tool is called OTFD, which stands for Open the Front Door to communication (Learning Forum, 2016). The phrase “open the front door” is a mnemonic device for the four steps of this tool:
- Observe: State in clear, unambiguous language what you saw happening. Seek common ground here by stating an observation without evaluation or judgment so that all involved could agree on the speech act, behavior, or incident.
- Think: Express what you think and/or what you imagine others might be thinking based on the observation. This is your interpretation step based on the evidence you have.
- Feel: Express your feelings about the situation. It’s important to take responsibility for one’s own feelings using “I” statements (“I feel upset when . . .”) instead of placing blame (“You made me feel upset when . . .”). It is also important to actually name an emotion so if the words “I feel” are followed with “like,” this is unlikely to happen. For example, “I feel like leaving” is not naming an emotion.
- Desire: State the concrete action you would like to happen next, your desired next step. For example, this request could be for more conversation about the microaggression or a request for the behavior to change.
The strength of this tool is that it encourages transparent communication yet allows for flexibility. The following is an example of what the use of this tool might look like employed by a professor or a student in a classroom in response to a tokenism microaggression: “I noticed that an individual was asked to speak for an entire group (Observe). I think we need to resist the temptation because it’s a lot to place on someone to ask them to speak for a whole community (Think). I feel uncomfortable with this request (Feel) and would like us all to simply ask others to speak for themselves (Desire).”
After explaining and modeling OTFD with a microaggression example, we then separate the students into pairs and offer two different scenarios for them to apply the steps of OTFD and receive feedback on their application. The microaggression scenarios range from a tokenism example to an example involving a pattern of interruptions. For instance, the latter scenario, projected on a screen and read aloud, looks like this: “You are in the middle of a group discussion at your table, and you observe Jane (a White woman) interrupting Tanya (a woman of color) two times. You’ve noticed that Jane has done this same thing before, in other class periods.” Again, content warnings and permission for self-care should precede this activity.
After initial OTFD practice, we offer an additional communication framework called ACTION (Souza, 2018), which expands upon OTFD with the addition of inquiry questions directed at the microaggressor, along with impact exploration. So rather than beginning with the Observation, students can respond with questions to get clarification and unpack intent (e.g., “Can you tell me a bit more about what you mean by the word ‘feminazi’?”). The next step is to summarize what they observed and ask questions to encourage the microaggressor to explore the impact on others of what was stated/done (e.g., “How do you think other people who are Jewish or who identify as feminists may 1. ACTION stands for Ask Questions, Come from Curiosity Not Judgment, Tell Observation, Impact Exploration, Own Thoughts/Feelings re: Impact, Next Steps. feel when hearing that word?”). The following steps in ACTION are similar to the TFD part of OTFD: students share their thoughts and feelings about the microaggressive act and ask for a desired next step. We then guide students in applying ACTION to hypothetical microaggression scenarios (ones in which person A plays the observer of the microaggression, and person B plays the perpetrator), which are set both in and outside of classroom contexts. We always note that we are practicing these communication tools in an environment where a microaggression has not just occurred, so that we may be more prepared in a moment when one actually occurs in the future.
After these application opportunities, we debrief with students about their experience. What was easy, difficult? What did you learn from using the communication tools? How might you use these in the future? The debrief assists students in thinking about their own communication skills in terms of strengths and areas for improvement as well as reflecting on how they can respond to microaggressions with microresistance, which increases their sense of agency. We make sure to inform students that they don’t have to use the tools perfectly; a clunky response is often better than no response at all, as silence can suggest complicity. We are simply trying things out with each other in a low-stakes environment in an attempt to find microresistance approaches that work for each of us in future situations.
SHORING UP DEFENSES AND BUILDING A NETWORK OF SUPPORT
Shoring up defenses and building a network of support increase one’s ability to endure, resist, and respond. These promising practices develop personal resilience and social capital, both of which can serve one well when faced with microaggressions. One key step in the pedagogy of microresistance is to remind students that self-care is a resistant and even revolutionary practice, especially for those who constantly face microaggressions. For inspiration, we share with students Audre Lorde’s assertion that “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” (1988, p. 131). After hearing Lorde’s words, students have talked about how liberating it feels to learn about the importance of caring for themselves, especially since dominant US culture does not often promote self-care.
Faculty can promote self-care by highlighting wellness programs that many campuses sponsor. For instance, Goucher College promotes wellness with the memorable acronym SWEET, which stands for Sleep, Water, Exercise, Eat, and Time (Bowen, 2018). Not surprisingly, getting enough sleep, keeping hydrated, exercising, eating healthfully, and managing time efficiently are foundational to leading a good life. All of these behaviors shore up one’s defenses before a microaggression occurs.
Social networks are also crucial, as found in Irey’s (2013) research on how women faculty of color practiced microresistance at Bellevue College. While individuals can practice microresistance on their own, having a network of colleagues who look out for one another provides additional strength. Irey credited these networks, which were often affinity groups created by faculty and staff colleagues, with fostering an “alternative leadership paradigm,” based on shared personal values like the “strong desire to empower and advocate for others” (p. 165). Irey called this paradigm “the ultimate form of microresistance” (p. 166).
Felten and Lambert (2019) argued that students, too, can join and build similar “webs of relationships.” Ready-made student groups or spaces on most campuses include gender equity centers, cultural or intercultural centers, sports teams, affinity organizations, and performance groups. Students can be encouraged to find such groups and spaces or develop them with student, staff, or faculty collaborators. We, as teachers, can support them in the development of networks in class by employing simple techniques like making sure students learn one another’s names and asking them to use them when building off classmates’ comments during a discussion, along with more complex ideas like designing and implementing thoughtful group projects that require collaboration and accountability. Books like Collaborative Learning Techniques by Barkley, Major, and Cross (2014) have offered advice on how to do this successfully. The goal is to create opportunities for students to develop relationships that can lead to empowerment and advocacy for others. As Wheatley (1999) observed, quoting Grace Lee Boggs, “We never know how our small activities will affect others through the invisible fabric of our connectedness. In this exquisitely connected world, it’s never a question of ‘critical mass.’ It’s always about critical connections” (p. 45).
Rowe (2008) called these small acts “microaffirmations,” which she defined variously as “tiny acts of opening doors to opportunity, gestures of inclusion and caring, and graceful acts of listening,” as well as “providing comfort and support when others are in distress” (p. 46). Hence resistance need not look aggressive or hard. It can be subtle and soft. Microaffirmation is a powerful form of microresistance.
EXAMPLES AND EVIDENCE OF SUCCESS
In our microresistance unit, we first raised students’ awareness of microaggressions and taught them different microresistance techniques while giving them an opportunity to practice in a low-stakes environment. Next, we asked students to provide written feedback on the experience of learning and practicing OTFD with a partner, and whether they might use microresistance in their own lives. Students were asked to write these short reflections for a minimal number of points, and they received points based on their depth of reflection, not on whether they said they found OTFD useful or were likely to use microresistance in the future.
The data we analyzed for this chapter are from Ganote’s Sociology 202: Social Problems class (n = 44) and Sociology 210: Race in the US class (n = 34), both in Fall 2018 at the University of Louisville (total n = 78). After collecting student responses, we used a grounded theory qualitative analytical approach in order to identify themes that emerged from the data (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). In the grounded theory method, instead of applying existing concepts to the data, coding is done through labeling words and phrases that emerge. After labeling words and phrases, we identified broader themes. In analyzing the student response data, we realized that the data grouped around the third A, the action stage, of the “triple A’s of critical consciousness” model (awareness, analysis, action). Because microresistance is a form of action that can be taken in the face of microaggressions, the majority of student responses centered on OTFD in particular, and microresistance in general, as an antidote to microaggressions. For that reason, we will amplify nuances in the action stage of critical consciousness that emerged from our student response data.
The themes that emerged were echoed by a majority of undergraduate students and include that microresistance was easy and useful, took little effort but offered a big impact, and gave them strategies to become an effective ally. In addition, they agreed that OTFD was an effective teaching and accountability tool that can be deployed beyond the classroom, ultimately aiding social justice aims. Taken as a whole, these emergent themes reinforce the idea that microresistance is a useful tool for supporting equity and social justice from the students’ perspectives.
EASE AND UTILITY
A majority of students reported that the OTFD tool was easy to learn and put into action, and that they believed that OTFD would be effective in addressing microaggressions. Students reported that a lack of plan or structure can lead to inaction, but as one student noted, OTFD can be “modified based on the situation and person and can be used when dealing with any microaggression.” Another student, in a representative comment around this theme, wrote: “The OTFD exercise with a partner showed how easy it is to put this tool into action. It didn’t take very long at all for me or my partner to come up with an OTFD response to a microaggression example. This makes me feel like I will use this tool in the future because it is very simple and also very effective in standing out against a microaggression.”
SMALL STEP, BIG IMPACT
Mulitple students wrote about microresistance as taking small actions that can lead to a much greater impact. For example, one student claimed that “if everybody would show resistance, then things would not get blown away. . . . Microresistance will prevent a bigger problem by squashing the smaller one and if everybody comes together there would be more peace more peace.” Another student offered the following comment, asserting that microresistance, as a small response in proportion to the microaggression itself, can be very effective: “I think that microresistance can definitely be helpful because it works in the same way that microaggressions do. If a small insult (microaggression) can be powerful then a small effort against that insult (microresistance) can be just as powerful. If people speak out against microaggressions it shows that we will not stand for this behavior and we are willing to show you just that. Microresistance is how we put a stop to microaggressions.”
Many students highlighted the role of microresistance in helping people become effective allies. For example, one student wrote that OTFD gives them “an idea of how to stand up for another human! It is a concept I am very grateful to have learned.” One Black student noted that microresistance could encourage White bystanders to follow the lead of those targeted and step up as allies. She stated, “If more people of all races would speak up about them [microaggressions], then we could progress as a nation.” Another student found that before learning OTFD, “I would have not known the proper steps on how to resolve this sort of problem, and would have either had no idea what to say, or not known how to help another individual that was being victimized from these microaggressions. . . . Being able to be placed in a scenario that I might actually face in life, and knowing how to respond allowed me to feel more beneficial if someone needed my assistance, and made me feel like I’d be less of a bystander.”
Those who are typically targets of microaggressions described how reassuring it is to have allies using microresistance. For example, one student wrote that “when people feel like they have someone or others who can back them up, it gives them strength. When you feel like you’re the only one who faces something, and others witness it, but no one backs you up, it’s like putting you down all over again because that’s telling you that they feel like it’s acceptable. Even if the microaggression was not toward you or your group, I do believe it is important to be the strength someone needs. It can help prevent future microaggressions from that aggressor or other aggressors.”
A TEACHING AND ACCOUNTABILITY TOOL
Similar to the previous student, several others mentioned that microresistance is important because it lets people know that their actions are problematic. One student said, “Microresistance is so important because it calls individuals out and lets them know that their actions are not okay. It is helpful in the way of ending racism.” Another student said, “I think it could be helpful just to start the conversation because if you never stop them, the person will think that’s okay. It will help address the situation and start to fix that perception.” Another student expressed how dangerous they thought it would be to brush off microaggressions as ignorance: “I think that the most helpful thing that you could do to help increase the amount of microresistance against these discriminatory comments is to not just brush off these comments as ignorance. If you just let these kinds of comments be made then the person who stated them is just going to keep making
them and similar ones because they aren’t being told not to. Ignorance will only continue to grow if you continue to let it do so.”
DEPLOYING MICRORESISTANCE BEYOND THE CLASSROOM
A majority of students reported that they planned to use OTFD in the future in various contexts. For example, a student claimed, “I will most likely be utilizing it with some of my family during the holidays, which should help me gain enough proficiency and confidence in the method to apply it in other social situations.” Another student, in a representative comment around these themes, wrote: “I feel like I was able to practice an appropriate response to racist comments in a non-hostile environment, with a level head. It was something I would be 100 percent comfortable repeating to a parent, coworker, relative, friend, or acquaintance. It felt like I could actually have a conversation and connect with someone enough to educate!”
A majority of students asserted that they believed that microresistance would be an effective tool for creating social change. One student expressed the power of one person to make a change, stating that “microresistance creates hope that microaggressions will fade away. Many people believe that one person cannot make a difference or change within society, however, with the belief of hope then we will see change in the long term.” Another student put it in the following way: “Microresistance is, in my view, a vital strategy going forward. I believe that most microaggressions are committed out of ignorance rather than malice, and microresistance methods are excellent tools to combat that ignorance without inciting malice. This is an important step moving forward in society and bridging the divides that segregate us.” Another student emphasized that “creating awareness, listening, and acting against microaggressions with the help of microresistance will hopefully one day change our society for the better and destroy Microaggressions.”
While there were a few students who claimed they would not use microresistance or would use it only in certain contexts, an overwhelming majority of students asserted that microresistance was easy and useful, took little effort but offered a big impact, and gave them strategies to become an effective ally. In addition, they agreed that OTFD was an effective teaching and accountability tool that can be deployed beyond the classroom, ultimately supporting social justice aims. Microaggressions can occur anywhere, including colleges and universities. In our classrooms, we can leverage our role as professors to examine microaggressions through an academic lens. Furthermore, we can teach our students about microresistance to help them feel more prepared to communicate intentionally and act consciously in the face of microaggressions, both inside and outside the academy. With practice in the relatively safe space of the classroom, students may develop interventional skills like OTFD, which they can deploy in any context. If they take our advice to shore up defenses and build networks of support, they will have greater personal and social resources to draw upon when faced with microaggressions. Of course, some injustices occur at the macro level and call for macro-scale response. Through small acts of resistance, however, we and our students can live to fight another day toward equity and social justice and take positive steps toward changing the microclimates that we touch.
The authors wish to thank Lindsay Bernhagen and Pamela Roy, who first invited us to present on microresistance at the annual meeting of the Professional and Organizational Development Network (POD) in 2015. In addition, we are grateful to the students at Saint Mary’s College of California who codeveloped the language of the “triple A’s of critical consciousness” with Cynthia Ganote.
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 ACTION stands for Ask Questions, Come from Curiosity Not Judgment, Tell Observation, Impact
Exploration, Own Thoughts/Feelings re: Impact, Next Steps.
 In the classic grounded theory method, respondents would be interviewed until theoretical saturation
is reached. In this case, we modified the approach, simply using the responses of students on the day
that we presented the unit on ways to meet microaggressions with microresistance.