Fighting Back: Implicit Bias, Micro-aggressions, and Micro-resistance

Please find this post at:

I have been planning to do a post on diversity in graduate education, but it requires me being vulnerable and I wasn’t even sure how to even do it. On Tuesday, in my first-year graduate proseminar, we had a session on implicit bias, micro-aggressions, and micro-resistance, and ironically, 2016 was the first year that I have included this session. I thought as I taught that class that the glass ceiling would be shattered that night and that the need for a class on these topics would become less necessary over time. How wrong I was. Now, more than ever, the necessity of promoting diversity, and strategies for dealing with implicit bias in the academy and life, have never been more important.

What is implicit bias?

Implicit bias is a major pathway through which privilege is enacted. Using the definition from Ohio State’s Kirwan Institute: “implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.  These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control.  Residing deep in the subconscious, these biases are different from known biases that individuals may choose to conceal for the purposes of social and/or political correctness.  Rather, implicit biases are not accessible through introspection.”

Our implicit biases cause us to make assumptions about others based on their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, where they grew up, etcetera. You can check your implicit bias related to many topics, including weight, race, skin tone, sexuality, disability, at Harvard’s Project Implicit.

What are micro-aggressions?

Micro-aggressions can be defined as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative . . . slights and insults” (Sue, Capodilupo, Torino, Bucceri, Holder, Nadal, & Esquilin, 2007, pp. 273).

As someone who 1) is a straight, white, Christian, cis woman and is married to a straight, white, Christian cis man, 2) grew up in an environment where virtually everyone presented as straight, white, Christian, and cis, and 3) went to college and immersed herself in social network of presenting straight, white, Christian, cis people, I have perpetuated countless micro-aggressions. About three years ago when I was confronted and called out on my own implicit bias. It was difficult and painful and I am still working on confronting my own implicit bias and making it explicit so I can take action to counter it. Here, I want to give some examples of micro-aggressions that I have done to others to show you that no one is immune to implicit bias. There are countless more examples including many that I am sure I am not even aware of.

  • I assumed a woman was straight and wanted to be in a romantic relationship.
  • I mixed up two of my colleagues of color who weren’t even the same race.
  • I assumed a student who was Black was less involved in our graduate program due to a lack of passion and skill, not a lack of the program reaching out to her or creating an environment of inclusiveness.
  • I said to a male student, “you like sports, right?”
  • I assumed a student who was a racial minority lived in a predominantly minority neighborhood in Columbus.
  • I did not learn how to pronounce my Chinese student’s name correctly.

What is micro-resistance?

According to Ganote, Cheung, Souza’s excellent webinar available from the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, micro-resistances are “incremental daily efforts to challenge white privilege” as well as other kinds of privilege based on gender, sexuality, class, etc.  They help targeted people “cope with micro-aggressions” (Ganote, Cheung, Souza; Irey, 2013, pp. 36).

Ganote, Cheung, and Souza recommend several strategies for micro-resistance.

  • Increasing your personal and psychological resources and strength through self-care, keeping in mind the big picture of why you are in the academy, and remembering that there will be bigger fish to fry
  • Increasing your social resources by participating in mentoring programs, cultivating multiple and diverse mentors, and practicing gratitude
  • Speaking up with communication strategies like Open the Front Door communication, or more subtle strategies like those used by women in the White House

I have done micro-resistance when I called out my department when 3 white men and 1 white woman were nominated for a university fellowship out of a diverse pool. I also now require my students to go to at least a few diversity-related events each year. With the election making me seriously upset, I tried to practice micro-resistance this week by still getting academic writing done even though I was really upset and distracted.

How to counter micro-aggressions and encourage micro-resistance in your professional life

It is not the job of the oppressed to educate the oppressors. I repeat, it is not the job of the oppressed to educate the oppressors. Thus, do not think to yourself – ok – I will just ask my friend or fellow student or colleague who is a person of color or gay or a woman to help me with this. It is not their job to educate you on how you are enacting your privilege or engaging in micro-aggressions. Here are some strategies to come to terms with your own privilege and engage with students around it:

  • Diversify your social media. I think a large part of the problem is the increasing homogeneity of social networks in the US. That is, everybody is friends with people like them. Thus, you do not see alternative viewpoints. I think a great way to diversify your point of view is on Twitter. Twitter is less private and more open than Facebook, and it is easy to follow people who are different than you. I follow many scholars and individuals of color, who are LGBTQ+, who have different religious beliefs than me including none. Hearing their perspectives changes and expands my own.
  • Show up. Go to diversity events and meetings on your campus or at your workplace or in your community. Once I was confronted with my own privilege, I started to attend diversity-related events on campus. I still say ridiculous things at these meetings from time to time because of my own implicit bias, and luckily others call me on it (thank you Valerie). But if I am not vulnerable and show up, I am never going get the courage and knowledge and opportunity to fight institutional and relational racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia.
  • Practice micro-resistance. Do the strategies recommended above. Confront micro-aggressions when you see them. Apologize and call yourself out when you are the perpetrator. Approach colleagues who are victims of micro-aggressions to see if you can help. Fight the system when you are in positions to do so.
  • Teach students about implicit bias, micro-aggressions, and micro-resistance. I had a student who did several micro-aggressions in a relatively short period of time, including commenting on my appearance and personality and commenting on women’s mood swings during their period at a meeting with several women. Before he started working with me, the student had been primarily in settings with others that looked and believed like him, and he had never confronted his implicit bias or even knew what that was. I asked him to attend some diversity workshops and events on campus, and informed him that I would not write him a letter of recommendation until I was confident that he was going to at least make his best attempt to treat all people equally, with dignity and respect. What happens if I send a student to a professor job at another university, or to a graduate program, or to any job if I believe they will treat women and men in their classroom differently, or that a student of color will be treated differently than a white student, or that a trans student will be treated differently than a cis student, or likewise, that they will treat their coworkers and/or suboridantes differently based on race, gender identity, or disability status. Then I am perpetuating the problem. By the way, the student took the message to heart, and I do think he grew and became more self-aware.

Given everything that is going on in the US right now, choosing courage and fighting privilege at the institutional level is more important than ever. I have multiple actions I am taking in my life, and these are just a few of them. Join me, and if you need someone to talk to or strategize with, or if you just need to be seen and told that you matter, my email is . I am here. You matter. You matter.

23 thoughts on “Fighting Back: Implicit Bias, Micro-aggressions, and Micro-resistance

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *