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Microaggression or micro-racism?

“‘Shuaib’ is it? You don’t sound like you’re from around here”, “I bet its really hot where you come from”, “Where are you from?” – These passing comments I have heard many times but what makes them microaggressions?

Microaggressions are subtle. They are subconscious norms, values and ideas. We use them without realising but their foundations are deeply-rooted and entrenched in our historical understanding of identity.

The notion of microaggressions really came to light when I was talking to a friend about racism, identity and power dynamics. After watching the BBCs version of Malorie Blackmore’s – Noughts & Crosses, I just felt it was time to hold a conversation about the experience of a BAME (Black, Minority and/or Minority Ethnic) teacher. I am by no means the national spokesperson for all BAME Educators nor can I homogenise all the experiences of BAME teachers. The aim of this article is to highlight microaggressions that I have personally encountered and provide practical solutions to help alleviate their impacts on staff.

I am a British Muslim and as an identity marker, I am proud of my heritage. Despite my first experience of racism coming in a playground when I was 4 years old, I was adamant that I would never use the word ‘racism’ in vain. My Grandad (Bless his soul) had his face smashed in by the BNP, thousands of Indian soldiers died in both World Wars for our freedom and the history of empire in Britain, all remain important for my very existence. I will always call out discrimination of any kind, but the power dynamics of the word ‘racism’ hold a greater significance for BAME folk. As a teacher I have, sadly on many occasions, been racially abused by students. Also, the statistics do paint a pretty uncomfortable picture. BAME teachers being labelled as ‘oversensitive’ or ‘paranoid’ when challenging poor behaviour (Gibbons, 2020). NASUWT also found that 46% of BAME teachers were not confident in reporting racial discrimination, racial bullying or racial harassment to their employer because of lack of support. We are amidst a teacher workload, wellbeing, recruitment and retention crisis. Therefore, we need to create an education system that allows everyone from all backgrounds to thrive. This needs to start with us challenging microaggressions, both our own and those of our students and fellow staff.

What is a microaggression?

The definition of ‘microaggression’ isn’t necessarily set in stone. It occupies the ‘fuzzy’ logic of so many of the words and phrases in education such as, ‘wellbeing’, ‘expectation’ and ‘non-negotiable’, just to name a few. A microaggression doesn’t have to be intentional, overt or even conscious. According to the Miriam Webster dictionary, microaggressions are:

“a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority)”.

I don’t believe microaggressions are intentional or malicious. I think they are built upon our socialised preconceptions of the norms, customs, ideals and values of others. I don’t believe we are born with prejudice in our hearts and minds, it is a socialised human condition with historical foundations. It is important to realise also that, like any form of discrimination, it evolves and it is in constant ebb and flow.

This illustration really captures the institutional nature of prejudice. Microaggressions like prejudice always evolving. As Malcolm X once reminded us ““Racism is like a Cadillac, they bring out a new model every year.”

5 microaggressions

We could list dozens of microaggressions, but I just want to focus on the five I have personally encountered. Many of these come under the umbrella of pervasive questions and assumptions.

  1. “Where are you from?” – This was an actual conversation by the way. “Shuaib, where are you from? I know you said you were born here but where are you from?”. I was born in the UK, grew up on the staple of beans on toast and my first words as a baby were in English. Why can’t it just be expected that I really am just from here? This becomes a microaggression when a distinction or focus on ‘otherness’ is created. Does it matter where my Grandparents or Parents are from? It shouldn’t but this is a microaggression that is common. I have a friend who is mixed-race, and he always gets asked “Your Dad is black, right?”. Does it matter? We share the same civil liberties, don’t we? The subconsciousness of this means many people simply accept it and, to be honest, I do find it humorous because I was socialised out of prejudice as I got older. That alone is bizarre, as it took a Social Science course at GCSE, A-level and Degree to make me reflect in a more profound way about my own biases. Where am I from? Peterborough. Happy now? 😊

  2. “That’s an unusual sounding name” and then walks away to later mispronounce your name wrong another 5000 times! – I remember going on a visit to Kashmir where people at the airport were in tears of laughter hearing the last name “Smith-Jones”. Mr. Smith-Jones was a passenger on the flight and a lovely chap to be fair. Our names and pronunciation of our names is culturally relative right? There must be over a hundred variations of how my name is pronounced and, I suppose out of courtesy, we should try to learn everyone’s names and pronounce them accurately. As teachers, we should aim to learn the names of our students pretty much as soon as. It doesn’t give me sleepless nights that my name isn’t being pronounced properly but it does get somewhat frustrating correcting people. For the sake of staff morale, we should be doing the very best we can to learn how to pronounce our fellow colleagues’ names properly.

  3. “You will know what to do/say”Anticipating that my gender, race, ethnic, age or sexual orientation makes me some sort of ‘national spokesperson’. This is a mere correlation and not a causation. I was once asked to do duty in the boy-heavy Year 11 yard as it was assumed “we have many commonalities” and that the kids “relate to people like me”. I didn’t read into it, just did my duty and loved it. I think it’s a dangerous subconscious assumption to presume an identity marker makes a person have greater empathy with a group. Some of the best teachers I have observed strike rapports with all types of students and bridge the gap with them through their pedagogical knowledge and skill. As opposed to their gender, religious dress or youthfulness. I don’t believe this is a deliberate delegation of staff towards specific groups or issues but when I was asked to lead a trip to a Sikh temple as being a Muslim was ‘”close enough”, I think you get the idea. A friend of mine was asked to attend a meeting about FGM. Leaving that meeting she did ask her Head why she was chosen, and the reply was something along the lines of, “It’s something we thought you know about”. Clearly sharing the same belief as the pupils involved meant she had ‘insider knowledge’ of FGM right? Can you see how this creates unease? Expecting anyone to represent a group is simply wrong. Before we assume, we must think.

  4. You speak really good English – This has waned as I have got older, but I still hear teachers use this as a passing comment, especially towards EAL students. This comment is built upon the assumption that people who, at face-value don’t look like or sound like they have native British family (if there even is such a thing), that their mother tongue isn’t English. This is a microaggression as it presumes cultural traits of others. I am as guilty of this as anyone! At a parents’ evening I had a Polish student whose Mother I complimented for her English. Her reply was “I have been living her 10 years”. We may assume with certain names or last names, linguistic traits and even writing styles that other people may not have the levels of fluency with English. Albeit a passing comment, we should be promoting good levels of literary fluency amongst everyone in education.

  5. “What are your views about… (cue controversial topic)? Or ‘We’d love a foreign perspective” – I have worked in rural settings and the whole concept of ‘alternative views’ always seems to fascinate me. “What do you think about Donald Trump?” or “How do you feel about Brexit?”. This assumes that my own opinions are widely and radically divergent from yours, right? Truth be told, I don’t think about Donald Trump and well, Brexit, suppose it means Brexit. There seems to be an infatuation that a BAME person will provide a passionately different view from everyone else, possibly even tinged with controversy? Seeking an alternative viewpoint is something we should be encouraging our students to do. It is helping embed evaluation and promotes critical thinking. Why should a ‘foreign’ perspective have to be so divergent? During my NQT year a Year 11 student asked me “Sir, as a Muslim, are Muslim funerals sad occasions?”. I was taken aback because funerals are sad occasions for everyone despite religion, race or belief. It was socially engineered into this student psyche that Muslims are profoundly different, even in grief. This was a belief he was socialised into and I am not pointing fingers, but this could become a microaggression later in life, if not worse. With such a belief system, we are looking for the differences that divide us rather than similarities that unite us.

In Summary:

How do eradicate microaggressions? How do we challenge pre-historical assumptions? How do we break this paradigm? Collectively we can but this isn’t an overnight process. With the five microaggressions I have named, and there are many others, we reflect more critically on our own beliefs and practices. The only way to tackle a problem is to identify there is a problem in the first place. Therefore, with racism, sexism, homophobia or any form of discrimination is so difficult to challenge because as they are institutional, deeply embedded and subconscious. We are all a product of microaggressions.

I just hope Educators can keep on chipping away to help create a more socially just society where everyone is accepted. Where differences are embraced and respected. Our own microaggressions need to be challenged internally and we need to acknowledge that assumptions can be nebulous, dangerous and even offensive. As reflective practitioners, teachers are best equipped to want to learn, develop and grow. Asking questions about ourselves is the first step. Lets take it together.

Thank you for reading.

Shuaib Khan

Twitter: @shuaibkhan26

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