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Conflicted: How Black women negotiate their responses to racial microaggressions at a historically White institution

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Abstract

Racial microaggressions are subtle, seemingly innocuous acts that target people of color. They have been found to have negative social, emotional, and psychological consequences, including increased anxiety, depression, and suicide ideation. This study examined how Black women respond to racial microaggressions at a historically White institution. Findings showed that participants’ decisions to respond were preceded by an internal conflict that caused them to question the racial implications of the experience as well as assess the potential consequences of responding. It was found that participants often did this as a way to minimize the negative emotional and psychological effects of the experience. Counterstorytelling was used to provide some insight into the internal conversations the participants had with themselves. Implications and recommendations are provided.
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Race Ethnicity and Education
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Conflicted: How Black women negotiate their
responses to racial microaggressions at a
historically White institution
Angel M. Jones
To cite this article: Angel M. Jones (2021): Conflicted: How Black women negotiate their
responses to racial microaggressions at a historically White institution, Race Ethnicity and
Education, DOI: 10.1080/13613324.2021.1924136
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2021.1924136
Published online: 04 May 2021.
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Conicted: How Black women negotiate their responses to
racial microaggressions at a historically White institution
Angel M. Jones
Department of Educational Leadership, George Washington University, Washington D.C., USA
ABSTRACT
Racial microaggressions are subtle, seemingly innocuous acts that
target people of color. They have been found to have negative social,
emotional, and psychological consequences, including increased anxi-
ety, depression, and suicide ideation. This study examined how Black
women respond to racial microaggressions at a historically White
institution. Findings showed that participants’ decisions to respond
were preceded by an internal conict that caused them to question
the racial implications of the experience as well as assess the potential
consequences of responding. It was found that participants often did
this as a way to minimize the negative emotional and psychological
eects of the experience. Counterstorytelling was used to provide
some insight into the internal conversations the participants had
with themselves. Implications and recommendations are provided.
ARTICLE HISTORY
Received 9 January 2020
Accepted 16 April 2021
KEYWORDS
Microaggressions; critical
race theory; higher
education
I cannot hide my anger to spare you guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger; for to do
so insults and trivializes all our efforts.
-Audre Lorde (1981)
As a Black woman in America, I experience racism, sexism, and gendered-racism on
a regular basis. It is commonplace for me to hear or see things that attempt to dehuma-
nize me as a Black person, objectify me as a woman, or disregard me as a Black woman.
However, what is not as common, is for me to respond to it. As much as I hate to admit it,
I remain silent far more often than would like to. While I do believe that I would be more
vocal about outright racist incidents, such as being called the ‘n-word’ or physically
harmed, I do tend to be a bit more calculated when I experience more subtle acts known
as racial microaggressions. Before deciding whether or not to respond to
a microaggression, I have an entire conversation in my head that: 1) questions the intent
of the aggressor did they mean for that to be racist?, 2) weighs the pros and cons of
a response – will the professor fail me if I challenge him?, 3) surveys the room for other
people that look like me – will anyone in here have my back?, 4) assesses my current level
of emotional fatigue do I have the energy to deal with this right now? . . . and the list
goes on. The purpose of the current paper to is to provide some insight into what this
internal conversation looks like for other Black women at a historically White institu-
tion (HWI).
CONTACT Angel M. Jones angeljonesphd@gmail.com
RACE ETHNICITY AND EDUCATION
https://doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2021.1924136
© 2021 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
Racial microaggressions
As Pierce (1974) states, ‘one must not look for the gross and obvious. The subtle,
cumulative miniassault is the substance of today’s racism’ (p. 516). In this statement,
Pierce is calling attention to the fact that although racism is still pervasive in the United
States, it is the more covert racial incidents that affect the everyday lives of people of
color. These covert acts have been identified as racial microaggressions and were
described by Profit, Mino, and Pierce (2000) as,
. . . automatic, subtle, stunning, seemingly innocuous messages, often non-verbal, which deval-
uate the blacks . . . Microaggressions, the major and inescapable expression of racism in the
United States, take a cumulative toll on black individuals . . . What may be more important is that
these cumulative, minor but incessant putdowns often remain as psychopollutants in the social
environment. Their lingering intractability is a major contributor to the continuing traumatic
stress suffered by blacks as individuals and as a group (pp. 327–328).
Within their description, the authors point out that microaggressions can be verbal or non-
verbal. An example of a verbal racial microaggressions is when a Black student is told they are
articulate. While the comment may appear to many as a compliment, it is actually a slight that
implies that most Black people are not articulate, therefore leading to the surprise of the
aggressor. On the other hand, an example of a non-verbal microaggression is when a White
woman sees a Black man walking and either clutches her purse or crosses the street. Although
she did not say anything verbally, her behavior communicated that Black men pose a threat.
Additionally, the authors referral to racial microaggressions as ‘psychopollutants’ speaks to the
negative social, emotional, and psychological effects they have on those who experience them.
For example, Blume et al. (2012) examined the relationship between microaggressions,
alcohol use, and anxiety among ethnic minority students at a historically White institution.
They found that students of color experience significantly more microaggressions than their
White peers. Findings suggested that students of color are at a greater risk of binge drinking as
well as its adverse consequences. Findings also suggested that students of color have an
increased risk of experiencing anxiety which has been linked to lower academic performance
and college dropout (Blume et al. 2012).
Also interested in the psychological effects of experiencing racial microaggressions,
Nadal et al. (2014) examined the adverse impact of microaggressions on the self-esteem
of college students. Findings showed that racial microaggressions negatively predict self-
esteem, which means that the more a student experiences racial microaggressions, the
lower their self-esteem will be. Findings also showed that microaggressions that occur in
educational and workplace environments are especially harmful to self-esteem. These
findings emphasize the need for research on microaggressions on college campuses.
In addition to contributing to increased anxiety and decreased self-esteem, racial micro-
aggressions have also been linked to depression and suicide ideation. Hollingsworth et al.
(2017) examined the influence of racial microaggressions on suicide ideation through per-
ceived burdensomeness in African Americans. They defined ‘perceived burdensomeness’ as
the perception that one is ineffective in life and a burden on others (p. 106). Findings indicated
that experiencing racial microaggressions was associated with increased feelings of being
a burden on others. These feelings of burdensomeness also led to increased thoughts of
suicide. This was especially the case for participants when the microaggressions they experi-
enced made them feel dismissed or incompetent.
2A. M. JONES
Prolonged and consistent exposure to racial microaggressions has negative psycholo-
gical and physiological consequences, which William A. Smith has described as ‘racial
battle fatigue’ (Smith, Yosso, and Solórzano 2006; Smith, Allen, and Danley 2007; Smith,
Hung, and Franklin 2011; Smith et al. 2016). Dr. Smith has defined racial battle fatigue as
a theoretical framework that ‘addresses the physiological and psychological strain exacted
on racially marginalized groups and the amount of energy lost dedicated to coping with
racial microaggressions and racism’ (Smith, Allen, and Danley 2007, 555). The psycho-
logical symptoms of racial battle fatigue include anxiety, emotional and social with-
drawal, denial, anger, nightmares, and hypervigilance (Smith, Allen, and Danley 2007).
Physiological symptoms include upset stomach, tension headaches, high blood pressure,
loss of appetite, elevated heart rate, and ulcers (Smith, Allen, and Danley 2007). Smith,
Allen, and Danley (2007) highlight the fact that the effects of racial microaggressions go
far beyond what happens in the moment. They argue, ‘these negative feelings or the
associated collective memories seldom fade; instead, they become a part of a person’s life
history’ (p. 555).
Black women
Although there are commonalities among Black people with regards to their experiences with
racial microaggressions, the experiences of Black women are unique due to the intersection-
ality of their marginalized racial and gender identities. As a result, it is important that research
is done that not just examines the experiences of Black women, but also accounts for and
addresses the impact of their identities on their experiences. For example, McCabe (2009)
explored the experiences of students of color with racial and gendered microaggressions at
a predominantly White institution. She found that Black women’s experiences were unique
because they experienced more microaggressions in the classroom than any other group of
participants. This is especially concerning given the results of Nadal et al. (2014) which found
that microaggressions experienced in academic settings are particularly harmful to self-
esteem.
Lewis et al. (2016) explored the experiences of Black women with gendered racial micro-
aggressions at a predominantly White institution. They defined gendered racial microaggres-
sions as, ‘the subtle and everyday verbal, behavioral, and environmental expressions of
oppression based on the intersection of one’s race and gender’ (p. 758). Findings of the
study showed that Black women experience microaggressions that are not based solely on
their race or gender, but specifically on their intersectional identity. For example, participants
shared that the microaggressions they experienced were often based on projected stereotypes
of Black women. The two most prominent stereotypes were the ‘jezebel’, which portrays Black
women as overly sexual and promiscuous, and the ‘angry Black woman’, which portrays Black
women as hostile and aggressive. Participants also experienced microaggressions related to
their physical appearance. These microaggressions made assumptions about what Black
women’s hair and body should look like.
Similarly, Donovan et al. (2012) also explored the impact of microaggressions on the lives
of Black women. Unlike other studies, their study looked at the effects of both macro- and
microaggressions on Black women. They describe macroaggressions as overt, purposeful
discrimination, and microaggressions as subtle, typically unconscious discrimination.
Findings showed that both microaggressions and macroaggressions contributed to depressive
RACE ETHNICITY AND EDUCATION 3
symptoms in participants. Findings also indicated that experiencing macroaggressions was
a significant predictor of anxiety. This study emphasized the negative mental health outcomes
for Black women who experience racial microaggressions.
The experiences of Black women at historically White institutions highlight the ways in
which gendered-racism fosters hostile environments with mental and emotional conse-
quences. In addition to having to deal with the negative outcomes that many Black
students experience when attending HWIs (e.g. isolation, lack of a sense of belonging,
racial microaggressions, etc.), Black women are also subjected to attacks on their racialized
gender identity. This is an important distinction because, as Crenshaw (1989) states,
Because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any
analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the
particular manner in which Black women are subordinated (p. 140).
Any research about Black women that does not acknowledge the impact of their inter-
sectional identity paints an incomplete picture of their experiences.
Critical race theory
In order to understand race and racism within higher education, it is important to utilize
a theoretical framework that acknowledges the role racism plays within the educational system
in the United States. One such framework, which guided the study described in this paper, is
Critical Race Theory (CRT). CRT is an explanatory framework that accounts for the role race
and racism play in the experiences of People of Color and challenges all forms of oppression
(Perez-Huber and Solòrzano 2015). It was, ‘borne out of a need for people of color to begin to
move discussions of race and racism from the realm of the experiential to the realm of the
ideological,’ (Parker and Lynn 2002, 8). Its main premise is that racism is ordinary, not
aberrant, and is so engrained within the fabric of our society that it appears normal and natural
(Ladson-Billings 2009). Also, Derrick Bell, a prominent CRT scholar, argued that racism
should not be viewed as individual acts of prejudice that can be eradicated because, not only is
racism endemic in the United States, it is permanent (Ladson-Billings 2009; Parker and Lynn
2002). Parker and Lynn (2002) identify three main goals of CRT: (a) to present storytelling and
narratives as valid approaches through which to examine race and racism in the law and in
society; (b) to argue for the eradication of racial subjugation while simultaneously recognizing
that race is a social construct; and (c) to draw important relationships between race and other
axes of domination.
Critical race theory in education
Although Critical Race Theory emerged from Critical Legal Studies, it has been adapted to
apply to various disciplines including women’s studies, sociology, and ethnic studies (Hughes
and Giles 2010; Solórzano, Ceja, and Yosso 2000). Also among these disciplines is the field of
education. A Critical Race Theory approach is needed within educational research because it,
‘acknowledges the contradictory nature of education, wherein schools most often oppress and
marginalize while they maintain the potential to emancipate and empower’ (Yosso 2005, 73).
It also allows researchers to understand the centrality of racism in university settings (Parker
1998). Solórzano (1998) defines critical race theory in education as ‘a framework or set of basic
perspectives, methods, and pedagogy that seeks to identify, analyze, and transform those
4A. M. JONES
structural, cultural, and interpersonal aspects of education that maintain the subordination of
scholars of color’ (p. 123). He argues that,
the critical race framework for education is different from other CRT frameworks because it
simultaneously attempts to foreground race and racism in the research as well as challenge
the traditional paradigms, methods, texts, and separate discourse on race, gender, and class
by showing how these social constructs intersect to impact communities of color (p. 63).
Critical race theory in education is guided by five tenets: 1) the centrality and intersectionality
of race and racism; 2) challenging dominant ideologies and deficit perspectives; 3) the
centrality of experiential knowledge; 4) interdisciplinary analyses; and 5) a commitment to
social justice (Solórzano 1998). The first tenet, the centrality and intersectionality of race and
racism, emphasizes that fact that racism is endemic and permanent. Additionally, while the
acknowledgment of racism is at the core of CRT, it also addresses how racism intersects with
other forms of oppression such as sexism and classism. The second tenet, challenging
dominant ideologies and deficit perspectives, ‘challenges the traditional claims of the educa-
tional system and its institutions to objectivity, meritocracy, color and gender blindness, race
and gender neutrality, and equal opportunity’ (Solórzano 1998, 122). CRT scholars argue that
traditional claims are used to deny the power, privilege, and self-interests of dominant groups.
The third tenet, the centrality of experiential knowledge, refers to the recognition of the
experiential knowledge of marginalized students as legitimate and crucial to the examination
of the impact of racism in education. CRT centers the experiences of students of color using
narrative methods such as storytelling, poetry, and parables. Parker (1998) argues that, ‘the use
of narrative in critical race theory adds to the racial dimension and purpose of qualitative
inquiry and ethnographic research in education’ (p. 50). The fourth tenet, interdisciplinary
analyses, refers to the use of interdisciplinary approaches that place racism within both
historical and contemporary contexts. The last tenet, a commitment to social justice, refers
to CRT’s overall goal of eliminating racism. Although CRT acknowledges the permanence of
racism, ‘fighting for justice is never just about winning. It is about the hope of winning, but
more important, it is about fighting for the right cause regardless of the odds’ (Ladson-Billing
2018, 103). CRT in education is specifically focused on social justice within the educational
system. The tenets of the framework serve to document the impact of racism on schools,
colleges, and communities of color (Parker, 2015).
CRT & microaggressions
Perez-Huber and Solòrzano (2015) contend that using CRT to analyze microaggressions
allows researchers to, ‘more clearly articulate the structural and systemic forms of racism that
operate in everyday racist acts’ (p. 131). As a result, they introduced a racial microaggressions
model to help analyze the ways in which microaggressions are more than just individual acts
and actually part of a larger system of institutionalized racism. At the center of their 3-layer
model is the experience with the microaggression. They argue that, although microaggressions
are of subtle and subconscious, they are reflections of larger racist ideologies. The second level,
which surrounds microaggressions, is institutionalized racism. They describe institutionalized
racism as, ‘formal or informal structural mechanisms, such as policies and processes that
systematically subordinate, marginalize, and exclude non-dominant groups and mediates
their experiences with racial microaggressions’ (p. 303). This level of the model emphasizes the
RACE ETHNICITY AND EDUCATION 5
importance of acknowledging the ways institutionalized racism creates conditions that allow
microaggressions to happen. The final level, the macroaggression, includes both microaggres-
sions and institutionalized racism. They define macroaggression as, ‘the set of beliefs and/or
ideologies that justify actual or potential social arrangements that legitimate the interests and/
or positions of a dominant group over non-dominant groups, that in turn lead to related
structures and acts of subordination’ (p. 303).
Counterstorytelling
A major component of CRT is counterstorytelling. Counterstorytelling has been defined
by Solórzano and Yosso (2002) as,
a method of telling the stories of those people whose experiences are not often told (i.e., those on
the margins of society). The counter-story is also a tool for exposing, analyzing, and challenging
the majoritarian stories of racial privilege. Counter-stories can shatter complacency, challenge the
dominant discourse on race, and further the struggle for racial reform, (p. 32).
I chose this methodology because it allowed me to challenge a majoritarian story (stories that
privileges Whites, men, the middle and/or upper class, and heterosexuals by naming these
social locations as natural or normative points of reference, Solórzano and Yosso 2002) by
providing a platform for Black women to tell their stories in their own words. Drawing upon
the experiential knowledge of the participants, a tenet of CRT, using counterstorytelling
allowed me to ‘reveal the absurdity that lies within dominant narratives,’ (Green et al. 2016,
300). Additionally, while a main goal of counterstorytelling is to tell nonmajoritarian stories, it
‘can also serve as a pedagogical tool that allows one to better understand and appreciate the
unique experiences and responses of students of color through a deliberate, conscious, and
open type of listening,’ (Delgado Bernal 2002, 116).
There are three types of counterstories – personal, biographical, and composite, (Solórzano
and Yosso 2002; Smith, Allen, and Danley 2007). A personal counterstory is autobiographical
in nature and usually involves the author sharing her own experiences. A biographical
counterstory shares the experiences of another person. Lastly, a composite counterstory
draws upon various forms of data including empirical and personal. The counterstory in
this paper is a composite counterstory that was created using the findings of the current study,
literature on the experiences of Black women with racial microaggressions, and my personal
experiences. I chose this type of counterstory for three reasons. First, I wanted to show the
commonalities that exist within the ways Black women experience racial microaggressions.
Second, while I wanted to show our similarities, I also wanted to show that the experiences of
Black women are not monolithic. Lastly, I chose this type of counterstory after a review of the
literature in which other scholars have successfully used a similar approach (e.g. Aguirre Jr.,
2000; Solórzano and Yosso 2010, Solórzano and Yosso 2002; Smith, Allen, and Danley 2007).
It is important to note that, although composite counterstorytelling involves the creation of
composite characters, it is not the same as fictional storytelling. ‘The “composite” characters
we develop are grounded in real-life experiences and actual empirical data and are contex-
tualized in social situations that are also grounded in real life, not fiction,’ (Solórzano and
Yosso 2002, 36). I chose to write the counterstory as a letter because I wanted to: 1) center only
the voices the participants, and 2) provide them with a platform to respond to their aggressors.
6A. M. JONES
Methods
The purpose of this study was to explore the experiences of Black women with racial
microaggressions at a historically White institution. The research questions that guided
the study were: 1) How do Black women respond to racial microaggressions at an
HWI?, 2) What factors influence if and how they respond?, and 3) How do they cope
with their experiences? Participants were five first-year students at an HWI that identified
as women. Students had various majors and were all from different states across the U.S.
They all identified as Black, and two also identified as African. Students were recruited via
a flyer that was posted in the multicultural center on campus as well as in residence halls
that serve first-year students.
Focus groups
The study began with focus groups because they allow participants to discover that they
are not alone and they empower them by, ‘hearing their own stories and the stories of
others, listening to how the arguments against them are framed, and learning to make
arguments to defend themselves,’ (Solórzano and Yosso 2002, 27). This was demon-
strated by Yosso et al. (2009) whose study found that students realized they were not
alone is experiencing racial microaggressions on campus. This sentiment was also echoed
by the participants in the study. During the focus group, one of the participants said, ‘oh,
so I’m not crazy. I really thought it was just me.’ The other participants agreed with her
and mentioned feeling better knowing they weren’t alone. Focus groups have also been
used by many other scholars for similar reasons, (e.g. Levin, Jaeger, and Haley 2013;
McCabe 2009; Solórzano, Ceja, and Yosso 2000; & Sue et al. 2007). Additionally, even
though Nadal et al. (2014) used a quantitative approach to study the effect of racial
microaggressions, the authors still noted that, ‘discussions about microaggressions with
students can also help to normalize their experiences, which can promote healthier senses
of self while preventing students from feeling isolated or alone,’ (p. 469). Lewis et al.
(2012) also contend that due to the subtlety of microaggressions, focus groups allow
participants to ‘share their experiences and receive validation from their peers about
whether their experiences represent subtle forms of racism and sexism,’ (p. 57). I chose to
start the study with them because they offer the most comfortable environment for
participants, especially those discussing sensitive topics, (Levin, Jaeger, and Haley
2013). Questions asked during the focus group included, What does it feel like to be
a Black woman at a predominantly White university?, Please describe any experiences
you’ve had with racism on campus?, How have these experiences made you feel?, Please
describe any experiences you’ve had with microaggressions on campus?, How have these
experiences made you feel?, and How did you cope with these experiences?
Journaling
After participating in the focus groups, participants kept a journal for 30 days. This
provided them with a place to document any experiences they had with racial micro-
aggressions on campus. This method was chosen to address a limitation mentioned in
previous studies on microaggressions. For example, Wong et al. (2014) reviewed racial
RACE ETHNICITY AND EDUCATION 7
microaggression research and found that a gap exists with regards to the immediate
reaction phase of the microaggression process. There is a lack of literature that examines
what occurs immediately after a student experiences a microaggression. The purpose for
having participants keep a journal was to provide them with a place to describe their
experiences immediately after they happen. This also helped with another limitation
often mentioned in studies with regards to memory recall. The journals allowed me to
gather information that may not have come out during the focus group or individual
interview. This was made evident during the individual interviews conducted during the
study. When asking participants about specific incidents they described in their journal,
several of them mentioned forgetting about them. Having the journals to refer back to
helped them remember, as well as elaborate on their experiences.
Individual interviews
After the 30 days of journaling, the women participated in individual interviews. The
main reason for choosing this method was to help me gain a better understanding of
the experiences described in their journals. Truong & Mueus (2012), who explored
how doctoral students respond to racism, state that the use of individual interviews,
specifically those that are semi-structured, are beneficial because they allow the
researcher to ask follow-up questions. Individual interviews were also used by other
scholars who explored the experiences of students of color with racism and racial
microaggressions (e.g. Gildersleev et al, 2011; Levin, Jaeger, and Haley 2013; &
McCabe 2009 who used both focus groups and individual interviews). Interviews
lasted between 45–60 minutes.
Analysis
The data analysis process was informed by CRT and focused on centering the voices of
participants. To do so, I used Braun & Clarke’s (2012) six phase approach to thematic
analysis, which they defined as:
a method for systematically identifying, organizing, and offering insight into patterns of
meaning (themes) across a data set. Through focusing on meaning across a data set,
thematic analysis allows the researcher to see and make sense of collective or shared
meanings and experiences (p. 57).
The six phased include: familiarizing myself with the data, generating initial codes,
searching for themes, reviewing themes, defining and naming themes, and producing
a report. I chose to use this approach because it allowed me to triangulate the data by
identify themes across the three data collections methods focus groups, journals, and
individual interviews. I also used member checking by sharing preliminary themes from
the focus groups and journals with participants during the individual interview. Lastly,
I relied on memoing to detail my thoughts and feelings throughout the process given the
fact that I was also a Black female student attending a historically White institution at the
time.
8A. M. JONES
Findings
After analyzing the data, I identified three main themes with regards to how the
participants responded to racial microaggressions on campus – refrain, reclaim, and
reframe. The first theme, refrain, refers to the participants not responding at all. This
was the most common response and was influenced by various factors including: not
wanting to be perceived as the ‘angry Black woman,’ fear of consequences, and
feeling too emotionally drained to respond. The second theme, reclaim, refers to
when participants chose to reclaim their power in the moment by responding to the
aggressor and challenging their behavior. This response was less common and often
required two conditions. First, the aggressor had to be a peer. The participants
shared that they were often too afraid to respond to microaggressions from profes-
sors because of the power dynamic but felt less fear when dealing with their
classmates. Second, the microaggression had to have obvious racial overtones. The
women expressed feeling more comfortable, and justified, responding to something
that could not be argued as unintentional. The last theme, reframe, refers to the
internal dialogue participants had with themselves while trying to understand or
rationalize the experience. This theme is the focus of the current paper.
Reframing
One thing I noticed with all of the participants was a tendency to question whether their
experiences were racially motivated or not. For example, when I asked the group if they
had experienced any racial microaggressions, Aria responded right away. However,
before she got into the details of her story, she provided us with the disclaimer, ‘I can’t
say this is why they said it but . . . ’ She then described an incident that happened in one of
her classes. She came into class wearing an African head wrap for the first time, and as she
walked to the front of the room, she heard a group of White boys begin to sing one of the
songs from the Lion King movie. She said her first thought was, ‘I know they didn’t just
do that because of my head wrap!’ She then talked about convincing herself to just ignore
it and take her seat. She said that she wanted to have a good day, so she decided not to let
them bother her. Although she began the story by saying that she didn’t know if the boys
sang the song because of her, it was clear that she believed the boys’ actions were directly
related to her head wrap and intended to mock her African culture.
Similarly, when Angela responded to my initial question (have you experienced racial
microaggressions on campus?), Angela responded, ‘maybe one, but it could be like either
way.’ She then went on to describe an experience of being told by her White friend that
she was perceived as scary because she did not smile enough. Although Angela prefaced
the story by implying that it might not be racially motivated, it was evident that the
experience was hurtful and offensive to her. Angela stated,
she (her White friend) didn’t understand how that language has often been used to target
Black women. So that was very offensive to me, that she perceived me to be scary because
I wasn’t going out of my way to make her super comfortable all the time.
She tried to reframe the incident as one without racial implications, but ultimately
acknowledged that it was offensive because it perpetuated the ‘angry Black woman’
RACE ETHNICITY AND EDUCATION 9
stereotype, which portrays Black women as hostile and aggressive (Ashley 2014). The
‘angry Black woman’ stereotype was also a factor in the internal dialogue Aria had when
deciding how to respond to microaggressions. When she talked about responding to
those who repeatedly harass her, she said, ‘I wouldn’t just go out and like burst out or say
something angry, I would have to do it in a calm, cool manner, because if you explode,
you’re gonna be seen as the angry Black girl.’ Not only do the participants have to
negotiate whether to respond or not, they also have to decide how to do so.
The inclination to question the potential racial undertones of a situation was some-
thing that was present throughout several of Kailyn’s responses. For example, when asked
during the focus group about any experiences with racism on campus, she said that
nothing had happened so far. Almost immediately, she then said, ‘well maybe. They
weren’t being racist towards me. Well, in a sense, yeah.’ She then went on to describe an
incident that happened while she was on the campus shuttle. She was on the phone
talking to her mother in her native language, when she heard a group of White boys in
the back of the bus begin to mock the language. When I asked her if they were making fun
of her specifically or the language in general, she said, ‘I don’t think they heard me. At
least I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt.’ She also shared that although she
wasn’t sure if the boys’ comments were directed at her personally, she has heard one of
the boys in the group make numerous racist comments in the past. Even though she was
the only student on the bus speaking the language, and one of the boys had a history of
making racist comments, she still wanted to convince herself to give them the benefit of
the doubt.
During her individual interview, Kaitlyn described another incident on the campus shuttle
in which she struggled to determine if it was racially motivated of not. She started by saying
that, on the shuttle, boys normally sit next to other boys and girls sit next to girls. She explained
that she assumes they do this out of comfort. However, when White students get on the
shuttle, whether male or female, they will avoid sitting next to her, even if it means having to
walk to the back of the bus or stand. She described a specific instance when a White female
student got on the bus and passed the open seat next to her and sat next to a White male
student. When I asked her how she felt about the situation she said,
I kinda felt like, it is because I’m Black, or is it just because you’re attracted to the dude? I just
didn’t understand. I tried to like justify it, in order to, ya know, so that I’m not jumping to
conclusions or assuming anything . . . . but at the same time, is it because I’m Black?
She struggled to make sense of the situation and, once again, tried to give the student the
benefit of the doubt. However, as with Aria earlier, she believed that the act was
a personal attack against her Blackness.
In addition to questioning if their experiences were racially motivated, the participants
also had a tendency to either downplay the impact of the experience or question whether
they even had a right to be affected by it. For example, Angela did not write in her journal
as much as the other participants, and when she explained why, she said,
It is stressful for me to write about them (experiences with racial microaggressions) because
they’re all such minor things but they mean something to me. But I don’t know if it always
comes across that way when translating it. I don’t know if it’s like, oh this was a serious thing
or was it just like a very minor thing that you should ignore? So I don’t know. It’s just always
stressful for me to think about.
10 A. M. JONES
Angela was able to acknowledge that experiencing racial microaggressions negatively
affected her, but it didn’t stop her from questioning if she had a right to her feelings. On
the other hand, Roslyn, another participant, wasn’t immediately aware of the impact of
her experiences. For example, she shared that she was a member of a counseling group on
campus that was led by a White woman. She also mentioned that she was the only Black
participant. I asked her if she had experienced any microaggressions since joining the
group and she hesitantly said that the group leader made her uncomfortable. She said, ‘if
a White person says something, she’s like more vulnerable and more willing to under-
stand where they’re coming, but it’s like when I say something it’s not the same type of
reaction.’ She went on to describe a specific instance when she shared a very personal
story but received no reaction from the leader. However, following her story, a White
participant shared a very similar experience and the leader was moved to tears. When
I asked her how she felt about it, she said, ‘I was iffy about that and it made me feel like,
did I not share the right . . . it made me like question my story.’ Almost immediately, she
said, ‘but that might just be her face,’ in a way to remove any potentially racist motiva-
tions from the leader’s behavior. Later in the interview, I asked Roslyn what would make
her feel more supported by the University. She said that she would feel more supported if
she knew racist people on campus would have to deal with consequences for their
behavior. I then asked her what she thought would be an appropriate consequence for
her group leader and she shared that she should be fired. I asked her if she noticed that
when she described the instance earlier in the interview that she minimized the impact of
the group leader’s actions but now was stating that her actions warranted her removal
from the position. She then acknowledged that she sometimes downplays the emotional
effects of her experiences as a way to cope.
Counterstory
The following counterstory is a letter written by Tyesha, a composite character, and was
created to demonstrate how and why students reframe their experiences on campus.
I wanted to provide some insight into the internal dialogue students are forced to have
with themselves when experiencing racial microaggressions. The incident described in
the letter was shared by one of the participants, the content was informed by several of
the participants’ stories, and the internal dialogue was inspired by Uzoamaka Nwanneka
Aduba, a Nigerian-American actress, who has shared a similar experience in talks and
interviews.
Dear Dr. Williams,
I want to start off by thanking you for meeting with me today. I really appreciate your
time. However, the meeting didn’t turn out quite the way I had hoped. As you know,
I came to you to discuss the potential of becoming a sociology minor, but instead of
feeling advised and supported, I left your office feeling confused and disappointed.
Although I doubt you’ll remember because it was probably insignificant to you, but
the meeting started with you mistaking me for Toya, you know, the other Black girl in the
class. And if that wasn’t bad enough, you then proceeded to butcher my name . . . which
was disappointing since I have been in your class for 3 months now. But in the moment,
as usual, I tried to make sense of what was happening by attempting to rationalize it. This
RACE ETHNICITY AND EDUCATION 11
is something Black people have to do often, mainly to placate White people, but also to
retain our own sanity. We are constantly having an internal conversation that debates
possible explanations. Here is what was going on in my head at the time:
Me: did he really just confuse me with Toya? We don’t even look alike.
Also me: well, you do both have braids.
Me: would he confuse two White girls with ponytails?
Also me: hmm, probably not.
Me: I’m so sick of them thinking we all look alike! We don’t! Oh, and why can’t he
pronounce my name correctly? It’s not that hard!
Also me: Tyesha isn’t exactly a super common name, at least not for White people
Me: but it’s phonetic! Ty – e – sha! It’s not that hard! And, if White people can pronounce
Tchaikovsky, they can pronounce Tyesha. They just choose not to try.
Also me: Ok, you might have a point. But it’s not that deep. He probably didn’t mean
anything by it. So just laugh it off and stay focused on why you’re here.
So that’s what I did. I laughed. Not because your inability (or unwillingness) to learn my name is
amusing, but because my options in situations like that are limited. So, I often choose to
convince myself that the White person in question didn’t mean it the way I received it. And
although that strategy has proven to be helpful in keeping microaggressors, like yourself,
comfortable, it does nothing for my own mental and emotional well-being. But if you don’t
care enough to learn my name, you probably care even less about that.
Giving you the benefit of the doubt,
Ty-E-Sha
This letter highlights several aspects of the participants’ experiences. First, it provides a look
into a typical conversation Black women have with themselves when experiencing a racial
microaggression. We know what happened was racially motivated, but we still have this
internal dialogue with ourselves for various reasons. Some of the reasons provided by the
participants where: wanting to give the person the benefit of the doubt; needing to calm down;
and trying to remove the racial implications in order to protect themselves emotionally. The
letter also demonstrates the silencing effect of experiencing microaggressions, especially from
a person in power. Although Tyesha was hurt by the professor’s behavior, she still felt
obligated to stay quiet. This was shared by one of the other participants who said that she
didn’t respond to professors who make racist comments in class because she doesn’t want to
come off as disrespectful, despite feeling disrespected herself.
Discussion
Critical Race Theory acknowledges that racism is endemic and permanent. It is engrained
within the fabric of our country and impacts the everyday experiences of people of color. As
a result, the purpose of this study was not to examine if Black women experience racial
microaggressions because, dishearteningly, it is to be expected. Instead, the purpose of the
12 A. M. JONES
study was to explore how Black women respond to racial microaggressions, as well as the
factors that influence their responses. The goal of this paper was to share the internal conf
Black women experience when deciding whether or not to respond to the microaggression.
One major finding of the study was the participants’ tendency to question the
motivation and intent that influenced their experiences. The participants often described
wondering if the aggressor’s behavior was racially motivated. This was done for various
reasons. For example, one participant said that she didn’t want to jump to conclusions
and wanted to give people the benefit of the doubt. Another participant shared that she
often tried to convince herself that the incident wasn’t racist as a way to minimize the
emotional impact of the experience.
Another finding revealed that even when participants acknowledge the racial motiva-
tion and implications of their experiences, they often downplayed the severity and/or
emotional consequences of situation. We saw this with Angela who described racial
incidents that bothered her, but she questioned if the situations were serious enough to
warrant her emotional response, or if they were minor and she should just let them go.
Similarly, Roslyn shared having racist experiences but often said that they didn’t really
bother her. However, after asking follow-up questions, she able to see that the experi-
ences actually affected her more than she initially let on.
The findings of this study demonstrate the implications for both student affairs profes-
sionals and researchers. Because this study was informed by CRT, a theoretical framework that
values experiential knowledge, I wanted to make sure that the recommendations I provided in
this paper came directly from the women in the study. When asked what the University could
do to support them better, a common response was to increase diversity. This was in terms of
both students as well as faculty. When sharing her experience being a Black woman at an
HWI, Angela said, ‘I didn’t realize how much what I see every day would affect me and I don’t
see myself most of the time. It’s just hard.’ Being the only Black person in several spaces on
campus negatively affected her socially and emotionally.
Another common suggestion made by the students was related to diversity training.
Students shared that other students should have to take a diversity class and professors
should also be trained. They believed this would help to minimize the frequency of racial
microaggressions on campus. Additionally, they believed training would teach others
how to recognize the microaggressions and motivate them to speak up in the moment.
Participants often mentioned not responding to microaggressions because they felt like
their White peers wouldn’t see the racial undertones of the situation and would not
support them if they chose to address the microaggression. Kaitlyn mentioned several
times feeling like no one had her back. During her interview, she said, ‘no one is here to
have our backs expect for ourselves. And even in that, we don’t have each other’s back,
because we’re so broken.’ This is an important quote be not only does it demonstrate how
Black students don’t feel supported by students of other races, they also feel like they can’t
be supported by their Black peers because of the emotional fatigue they feel from
experiencing racial microaggressions on a daily basis.
Another suggestion was a need for culturally competent counselors. Given the severe
psychological consequences discussed earlier in this paper (e.g. lowered self-esteem, depres-
sion, suicidal ideation), counseling is crucial to the well-being of students of color at HWIs.
Aria shared that she was really struggling with the racially hostile environment and decided
to go to the counseling center on campus. She said that the experience was almost as
RACE ETHNICITY AND EDUCATION 13
emotionally traumatizing as experiencing racial microaggressions on campus because the
counselor was dismissive of racial implications of Aria’s experiences. Aria shared that she
felt like the counselor thought she was crazy and didn’t believe her when she shared her
experience with racism on campus. I empathized with her because I have had very similar
experiences with the counseling centers at HWIs. However, while not all of the counselors
at the University counseling are culturally competent, it does offer walk-in hours twice/
week specifically for students of color. I was able to convince Aria to give the counseling
center another try and took her back during the walk-in hours for students of color.
Although these walk-in hours are a step in the right direction, it is not enough. Students of
color should be able to go to the counseling center at any time, on any day, and know that
they can speak to someone that won’t just acknowledge the racial implications of their
experiences, but will also provide them with the support they need to cope with them.
Future research should examine the psychological effects of each response. For example,
what are the effects of not responding to a racial microaggressions versus responding? Future
research should also repeat this study with graduate students. Graduate students have been
able to navigate racially hostile campuses well enough to get to the graduate level and may have
coping strategies that are helpful for undergraduate women and other Black women in
general. Lastly, future research should examine how Black women respond to gendered-
racial microaggressions. Black women have uniquely nuanced experiences based on the
intersectionality of their identities. While the current study focused on racial microaggres-
sions, studies are needed that directly address the impact of gendered-racism on Black women.
Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).
ORCID
Angel M. Jones http://orcid.org/0000-0001-6903-0863
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