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Letters to their attackers: using counterstorytelling to share how Black women respond to racial microaggressions at a historically White institution



Many Black women, especially those at historically White institutions (HWI), experience racial microaggressions on a regular basis. Although thought to have minimal impact in isolation, microaggressions can have severe consequences when experienced consistently over time. Among these consequences are anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. Students also struggle with Racial Battle Fatigue, alcohol abuse, and negative self-esteem. Using Critical Race Theory (CRT) and counterstorytelling, this paper shares the experiences of Black women with racial microaggressions at an HWI. Data from this study suggest that while students respond in various ways, the most common response is to remain silent. Implications are discussed and recommendations are provided.
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International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education
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Letters to their attackers: using
counterstorytelling to share how Black women
respond to racial microaggressions at a historically
White institution
Angel M. Jones
To cite this article: Angel M. Jones (2021): Letters to their attackers: using counterstorytelling
to share how Black women respond to racial microaggressions at a historically White institution,
International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, DOI: 10.1080/09518398.2021.1942292
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Published online: 02 Jul 2021.
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Letters to their attackers: using counterstorytelling to share
how Black women respond to racial microaggressions at a
historically White institution
Angel M. Jones
Department of Educational Leadership, The George Washington University, Washington, DC, USA
Many Black women, especially those at historically White institutions
(HWI), experience racial microaggressions on a regular basis. Although
thought to have minimal impact in isolation, microaggressions can have
severe consequences when experienced consistently over time. Among
these consequences are anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation.
Students also struggle with Racial Battle Fatigue, alcohol abuse, and
negative self-esteem. Using Critical Race Theory (CRT) and counterstory-
telling, this paper shares the experiences of Black women with racial
microaggressions at an HWI. Data from this study suggest that while
students respond in various ways, the most common response is to
remain silent. Implications are discussed and recommendations
are provided.
Received 1 January 2020
Accepted 8 June 2021
Racial microaggressions;
Critical Race Theory;
Black women
The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is
the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman. (Malcom X, 1962)
Although the number of Black women enrolled in historically White colleges and universities has
grown in recent years, research has failed to adequately address the mental, social, and emo-
tional well-being of these students (Green et al., 2018). Green and colleagues (2018) argue that
while Black women seek higher education to gain upward mobility, they find themselves in a
hostile environment that acts as a microcosm of the larger society where race, gender, and
power relations are present. Research has shown that Black women are the most isolated group
at historically White institutions (HWIs) which is psychologically and emotionally taxing (Shavers
& Moore, 2014). As Green et al. (2018) state,
the reality is that a disproportionate amount of Black women are the most dissatisfied students at PWIs.
Though academia is often portrayed as a field that combats inequities, many Black women find it as the
field that actually reifies racial hierarchiesand gender-biases by marginalizing some groups and privileging
others. Women of color, particularly Black women, stand at the focal point where two influential and
dominant systems of oppression meet: their race and gender (p. 306).
This was supported by Leath and Chavous (2018) who examined racial climate, racial stigma-
tization, and academic motivation among racially diverse women at an HWI. Their study high-
lighted the differences between the experiences of Black women and other women on campus.
They found that Black women experienced a more racially hostile environment and more racial
stigmatization than the other participants, both of which resulted in less academic motivation.
CONTACT Angel M. Jones The George Washington University, Washington, DC, USA
ß2021 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
Similarly, Williams and Nichols (2012), who explored the experiences of Black women on college
campuses, found that Black women regularly experienced discrimination specific to the intersec-
tion of their racial and gendered identity.
The purpose of the study discussed in this paper was to explore how Black women at an HWI
respond to racial microaggressions. Centering their intersectional identities as Black women, the
study was informed by Critical Race Theory (CRT) and Critical Race Feminism (CRF) and used
counterstorytelling to share their experiences.
Racial microaggressions
One must not look for the gross and obvious. The subtle, cumulative miniassault is the substance of todays
racism. (Pierce, 1974, p. 516)
Although you can turn on the television and see examples of overt racism (e.g. Black people
murdered and assaulted by police; violent demonstrations by White supremacists), Pierces con-
tention, even 45 years later, still holds true today. Covert acts of racism, such as racial microag-
gressions, need to be examined and addressed. While the term microaggressionwas not used
until 1970, Chester Pierce (1970) first described the subtle forms of racism experienced by Black
people as offensive mechanisms.He stated that,
To be black in the United States today means to be socially minimized. For each day blacks are victims of
White offensive mechanismswhich are designed to reduce, dilute, atomize, and encase the hapless into
his place.The incessant lesson the black must hear is that he is insignificant and irrelevant. (Pierce, 1970,
p. 303)
He later extended the concept of offensive mechanismsto microaggressionswhich he
described as, subtle and stunning blows that affect the victim to an unimaginable magnitude
(p. 266). In 2000, Profit, Mino, and Pierce introduced race-inspired microaggressions.They
describe these as,
automatic, subtle, stunning, seemingly innocuous messages, often non-verbal, which devaluate 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. 327328).
Their description of racial microaggressions as psychopollutants has been supported by
research that has found them to have significant social, emotional, and psychological consequen-
ces. For example, Sue et al. (2008) explored how Black Americans interpret and react to racial
microaggressions, as well as the consequences of the experiences. Findings showed that experi-
encing racial microaggressions led to psychological distress in participants including feelings of
sadness, guilt, anger, and frustration. Their investigation also found that the emotional turmoil
associated with each experience persisted after the incident while they tried to interpret what
happened. Participants also experienced additional emotional distress when retelling their stories
which included crying and stammering over words. This demonstrates that the emotional and
psychological consequences of experiencing racial microaggressions go beyond the time of the
incident. Black students are left carrying the pain of their racialized experiences, while still having
to deal with the traditional stress associated with being a college student. To make matters
worse, they carry these emotional burdens knowing that it will only be a matter of time before
they experience another microaggression.
Also concerned with the psychological effects of racial microaggressions, Blume et al. (2012)
investigated the relationship between microaggressions, anxiety, and alcohol use among ethnic
minority students at an HWI. Results of the study showed that Students of Color experienced
racial microaggressions at a significantly higher rate than White students. Results also showed
that Students of Color who experienced a greater number of microaggressions were at a greater
risk for anxiety and underage binge drinking. These findings emphasize the negative psycho-
logical and health consequences for Students of Color who experience racial microaggressions at
an HWI. This study is also important because it calls attention to the maladaptive coping strat-
egies being employed by Students of Color and the need to support these students by teaching
them healthy ways to cope.
Another consequence of experiencing racial microaggressions is the negative effect it has on
self-esteem, a relationship that was examined by Nadal et al. (2014). The results of the study
showed that there is a significant negative correlation between racial microaggressions and self-
esteem, which suggests that the more microaggressions one experiences, the lower their self-
esteem. The results showed that microaggressions that are experienced in an educational setting,
such as by a professor or classmate, are especially harmful to self-esteem. The study also found
that Black participants reported significantly more experiences with being treated as inferior
than White or Asian students and reported more experiences of being treated as a criminal than
any other racial group.
In addition to affecting anxiety, alcohol use, and self-esteem, racial microaggressions also
have an impact on depression and suicide ideation. OKeefe et al. (2015) investigated the rela-
tionship between racial microaggressions, depressive symptoms, and suicidal thoughts in ethnic
minority young adults. The results showed that although all racial groups reported experiencing
racial microaggressions, the rate at which they were experienced varied by racial group, with
African American students reporting the greatest rate of frequency. The results also supported a
positive relationship between racial microaggressions and depressive symptoms, which suggests
that the more exposure one has to microaggressions, the greater chance they have of experienc-
ing depressive symptoms. Additionally, the increase in depressive symptoms is associated with
an increase in suicidal thoughts. These findings are consistent with the work of Hollingsworth et
al. (2017) who also explored the relationship between microaggressions and suicide ideation.
Racial battle fatigue
Profit et al. (2000) stressed the fact that microaggressions, take a cumulative toll on black indi-
vidualsand their lingering intractability is a major contributor to the continuing traumatic
stress suffered by blacks as individuals and as a group(pp. 327328). The lasting trauma caused
by experiencing racial microaggressions is a topic that has been extended by the work of Smith
(2007). He identified this trauma as Racial Battle Fatigue (RBF), 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 et al., 2007, p. 555). Physiological symptoms have included: tension headaches, elevated
heart rate, upset stomach, high blood pressure, ulcers, and loss of appetite (Smith et al., 2007).
Psychological symptoms have included: anxiety, nightmares, anger, frustration, hypervigilance,
denial, and emotional and social withdrawal (Smith et al., 2007). Smith et al. (2007) argue that
feelings of shock and anger are normal and expected when someone experiences a traumatic
event. However, when it comes to Black students who experience RBF, these negative feelings
or the associated collective memories seldom fade; instead, they become a part of a persons life
history(p. 555).
In addition to the mental and emotional taxation that results in experiencing microaggres-
sions, Pierce (1995) emphasizes the additional strain of having to respond to them. He contends
that, the most baffling task for victims of racism and sexism is to defend against microaggres-
sions. Knowing how and when to defend requires time and energy that oppressors cannot
appreciate(p. 282). Not only do Black women have to suffer the consequences of experiencing
both racial microaggressions and gendered-racial microaggressions, but they are also tasked with
the burden of having to decide if and how to respond. This struggle is what informed the cur-
rent study, whose purpose was to explore how Black women respond to microaggressions at
a HWI.
Gendered-racial microaggressions
Although Black women do experience racism and sexism on a daily basis on college campuses,
it is important to also address the gendered-racial microaggressions that they experience.
Gendered-racial microaggressions have been defined by Lewis et al. (2013) as, the subtle and
everyday verbal, behavioral, and environmental expressions of oppression based on the intersec-
tion of ones race and gender(p. 51). Just as racial microaggressions are rooted in deficit-based
stereotypes about people of color, gendered-racial microaggressions are motivated by negative
stereotypes about the intersection of racial and gender identities in this case, as Black women
(Vaccaro, 2017). Thomas et al. (2004) argue that due to the legacy of slavery, particularly the
requirements for heavy labor and sexual victimization, societal images of African American
women differ from White women(p. 428). They identify the three most prevalent stereotypes of
Black women that were derived from slavery: Mammy, Sapphire, and Jezebel. The first stereo-
type, Mammy, was often depicted as an overweight, dark-skinned woman, who worked in the
house and often served as the maid or nanny (Wingfield, 2007). The second stereotype,
Sapphire, was portrayed as loud, argumentative, and emasculating (Thomas et al., 2004). This
stereotype set the stage for what is now known as the angry Black woman. The third stereo-
type, the Jezebel, portrays Black women as promiscuous, hypersexualized, and unable to control
her sexual desires (Thomas et al., 2004). These stereotypes are consistent with the Gendered-
Racial Microaggressions Scale (GRMS) created by Lewis and Neville (2015) which details the four
categories in which Black women often experience gendered-racial microaggressions. The cate-
gories include: assumptions of beauty and sexual objectification (microaggressions influenced by
standards of beauty or physical appearance), silenced and marginalized (microaggressions that
silence or marginalize Black women), the strong Black woman stereotype (comments about a
Black womans level of assertiveness or independence), and the angry Black woman stereotype
(instances when a Black woman is deemed angry when advocating for herself).
Theoretical frameworks
Critical race theory
I used CRT as a theoretical framework to inform this paper. It is an explanatory framework that
acknowledges the impact of race and racism on the lives of People of Color (Perez-Huber &
orzano 2015). The use of CRT in educational research is guided by five tenets: (1) the perman-
ence of racism; (2) challenging dominant ideologies and deficit perspectives; (3) the centrality of
experiential knowledge; (4) interdisciplinary analyses; and (5) the commitment to social justice
(Yosso et al., 2009). I used each of the five tenets to inform this paper as well as the qualitative
study I describe later. First, because racism is permanent, the prevalence of racial microaggres-
sions, while not accepted, should be expected. As a result, this paper is not about if students
experience racial microaggressions, but how they respond to them. Second, this paper challenges
the dominant narrative that claims we live in a post-racial society where race and racism are no
longer issues (Bonilla-Silva, 2018). The experiences of the women shared in this paper demon-
strate the inaccuracy of this narrative. Third, this paper centers the experiences and voices of an
often marginalized group Black women. Fourth, this paper uses a transdisciplinary lens that is
concerned with the sociological, psychological, and political factors that affect the experience of
these women. Lastly, in alignment with CRTs commitment to social justice, while the focus of
this paper is sharing the experiences of Black women, an additional purpose of sharing this work
is to bring about changes that positively impact the lives and well-being of these women.
Furthermore, CRT can be used as a tool to help dismantle racism and other forms of discrimin-
ation experienced by Students of Color (Perez-Huber & Sol
orzano, 2015).
I also chose CRT to inform this study because it is a framework that is often used to study
racial microaggressions. For example, Minikel-Lacocque (2013) used CRT to frame her study on
the impact of microaggressions on Latinx students during their transition to a predominantly
White university. Her contention was that normative frameworks attempt to identify the needs
of Students of Color within a paradigm that is designed for White, middle-class students.
However, CRT centers the experiences of Students of Color which makes it more appropriate for
studies that focus on this population of students.
Critical race feminism
In addition to CRT, the study was also informed by CRFto acknowledge the unique experiences
of Black women.
Critical race feminism stresses conscious consideration of the intersection of race, class, and gender by
placing Women of Color at the center of the analysis and reveals the discriminatory and oppressive nature
of their reality. Critical race feminists are concerned with practice, not just theory. They address actual needs
and emphasize practical applications in an effort to bring about change and progress within society. (Wing
& Willis, 2009,p.4)
CRF, which was birthed from CRT, accounts for the impact of gender, class, and sexuality on
the experiences of Black women (Floyd, 2010). Additionally, CRF acknowledges the fact that race
and gender are not monoliths. Wing (2000) argued that our anti-essentialist premise is that
identity is not additive. In other words, Black women are not White women plus color, or Black
men, plus gender(p. 7).
CRF is guided by four tenets which include: (a) race is socially constructed and is not object-
ive, inherent, fixed, or necessarily biological; (b) individuals have potentially conflicting identities,
loyalties, and allegiances; (c) intersectionality is negotiated; and (d) minority status presumes a
competence for minority writers and theorists to speak about race and the experiences of mul-
tiple oppressions without essentializing those experiences (Delgado et al. 2017; Few, 2007). In
addition to these tenets, CRF also shares several of the tenets of CRT including, the permanence
of racism in the U.S. and the importance of storytelling and counternarratives in disrupting nor-
mative views about the world (Childers-McKee & Hytten, 2015).
I also chose CRT & CRF as frameworks for this paper because of their use of counterstorytelling.
Counterstorytelling is a form of storytelling used to challenge dominant narratives and ideologies
(Yosso, 2006). Counterstories traditionally fall into one of three categories: autobiographical (shar-
ing the authors experiences), biographical (sharing the experiences of others), or composite (a
combination of sources) (Smith et al., 2006). Motivated by the work of Smith et al. (2006) and
their use of composite characters, the counterstory in this paper draws upon a combination of
empirical findings (data from a qualitative study described later in this paper), secondary data
(review of the literature on the experiences of Black women with racial microaggressions), and
personal experiences. The counterstory in this paper is a letter written by a composite character.
As articulated by Smith et al. (2006), the counterstory presented in this paper should not to be
confused with fictional storytelling. While there are fictional aspects within the letter, it is,
grounded in real-life experiences, actual empirical data, and contextualized in social situations
that are also grounded in real life, not fiction(p. 304). Sol
orzano and Yosso (2002) also posit
that counterstorytelling is different from fictional storytelling because counterstories do not
involve the creation of imaginary characters placed in fictional situations. Instead, the letter I pre-
sent in this paper highlights the real-life experiences of Black women college students attending
an HWI.
In addition to being supported by CRT, storytelling is also consistent with African American
womenliteracy tradition (Baker-Bell, 2017). Baker-Bell (2017) contends that, storytelling reflects
Black womens multiple consciousness and is one of the most powerful language and literacy
practices that Black women possess(p. 532). She also posits that storytelling provides Black
women with an opportunity to share their stories of resistance and serves as a tool for self-heal-
ing. Similarly, Richardson (2003) argues that storytelling allows Black women to communicate
their knowledge and truth, which is consistent with CRTs emphasis on the value of experien-
tial knowledge.
Research study
The empirical data I used to create the counterstory in this paper was from a qualitative study I
conducted that explored the responses of Students of Color to racial microaggressions at a pri-
vate HWI in an urban area. Although six women participated in the study, this paper only dis-
cusses the five participants who identified as Black (one participant identified as Latina and was
unable to complete the entire study). The participants were all first-year students with different
majors and were from different cities across the United States. I recruited participants via flyers
that were posted in the multicultural center on campus as well as shared on its social media
sites. I also shared the flyer with various student organizations that are targeted to Students
of Color.
I began data collection for the study with two focus groups. Each one had three participants,
lasted about one hour, and took place in a study room on campus. Sample questions included,
(1) what does it feel like to be a student of color at a HWI? (2) how do you respond to racial
microaggressions on campus? and (3) what factors influence how you respond? Focus groups
were chosen as a method because they help researchers gain information about the experiences
and beliefs of participants through a facilitated discussion (Yosso et al., 2009). Yosso et al. (2009),
whose work was also informed by CRT, noted that group dynamics help to provide insight, elicit
new perspectives, and allow for diverse views to emerge. Additionally, Harwood et al. (2012)
found that the use of a focus group, specifically when examining microaggressions, provided
them with the most enlightening information because participants were able to validate each
others experiences, which deepened the researchersunderstanding of the phenomenon. This
validation process was present within both focus groups conducted as several of the participants
mentioned feeling better after participating because it helped them realize they were not alone.
The information gathered from the focus groups helped to inform the data collection
that followed.
Next, I asked participants to keep a journal to document any experiences they had with racial
microaggressions on campus. Journal entries were submitted online via a Google form. I chose
this method to address the lack of literature that examines what occurs immediately after a stu-
dent experiences a microaggression (Wong et al., 2014). The journals in this study, therefore, pro-
vided participants with a place to describe their experiences immediately after they happened.
This method was effective in allowing me to gather information that would not have come out
during the focus groups or subsequent individual interviews because participants often reported
not remembering what they wrote about in their journal entries.
The last method of data collection that I used was individual interviews that lasted between
30 minutes to an hour. The purpose of this method was twofold. First, I wanted an opportunity
to talk to the students about their individual stories. Although several of the participants shared
commonalities within their experiences, I wanted to give them time and space to share the
uniqueness of their experiences as well. Second, I wanted an opportunity to talk to the students
about any of the incidents they shared while journaling to ensure that I was understanding and
interpreting their experiences accurately. The questions in the interview were geared toward dis-
cussing their journal entries as well as any personal experiences they did not share during the
focus groups (e.g. please tell me more about the first incident you shared in your journal). The
combination and specific sequencing of the methods was very beneficial as participants all men-
tioned becoming more aware of their surroundings as a result of participating in the focus
group, which contributed to the richness of their journaling, and ultimately led to more detailed
individual interviews.
I used open coding was used to analyze the data from the focus group interviews, journal
entries, and individual interviews. I was intentional about not having any codes prior to the ana-
lysis process because I wanted to minimize the impact of any preconceived notions I had based
on my personal experiences as a Black woman at an HWI. After coding the data, I used thematic
analysis to identify three themes that answered my original research question how do Black
women college students respond to racial microaggressions at an HWI? The data showed that
students responded in three main ways they refrain, reframe, or reclaim. The first, and most
prevalent theme, refrain, refers to when students chose not to respond to the incident. This
theme is the focus of the current paper. The second theme, reframe, refers to instances of stu-
dents deciding to change the narrative of what happened, often to one that did not involve
racist undertones. The final theme, reclaim, refers to studentsdecisions to reclaim their power in
the moment and respond to the microaggression. Once I identified these themes, I used triangu-
lation by making sure that each theme was present in the data from all three methods of data
collection focus groups, journals, and individual interviews. Lastly, I used member checking in
two ways. First, I shared the preliminary themes I had identified after conducting the focus
groups and reading their journal entries with participants during their individual interviews. This
provided them with an opportunity to share their input as well as clarify anything I might have
misunderstood or misinterpreted. Second, after creating the counterstory, I sent it to the partici-
pants for feedback.
I identity as a cisgender, Black, AfroLatina woman. At the time of this study, I was a doctoral stu-
dent at an HWI. I was motivated to conduct this study based on a review of the literature on the
experiences of Black women at HWIs, as well as my personal experiences with gendered-racial
microaggressions at the HWIs I attended for both my undergraduate and graduate degrees. My
personal experience with microaggressions, as well as macroaggressions, included: being called
the n-word, being told I was pretty smart for a Black girl,and being accused of being an
angry Black woman.Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, these experiences were common and
consistent. They were also taking place while I was doing the study, which allowed me to relate
to most of what was shared by the participants. However, while I see the similarities of our iden-
tities as a positive thing for building rapport and trust, I was hyperaware of the potential for this
to impact my analysis of the data. As a result, I relied heavily on memoing to keep track of what
I was feeling, what I was thinking, and why I was analyzing the data in certain ways.
The theme, refrain, was present throughout the data collected from each of the three methods.
Every participant reported not feeling comfortable responding to racial microaggressions when
they happen to them on campus. One of the most common reasons for refraining was tied to
the socially constructed and negative angry Black womanstereotype. All participants expressed
concern that their potential responses would be perceived by White people as validation for the
stereotype. Kaitlyn, while explaining why she wouldnt confront a group of White people using
the n-word,said, Id feel kinda like intimidated to say something because Id be like like, oh,
now theyre just gonna think that Im the angry Black girl whos just yelling and screaming and
basically approving of their stereotype.’”
Another common reason for refraining was because students felt alone and unsupported,
which was particularly the case within classroom environments. After one of the participants,
Aria, described an experience she had with a group of White men in her class, I asked her if
she would feel comfortable reporting the incident to her professor. She said that she would
not and then further explained, Ive never talked to him before. He probably wouldnthave
(seen) it from my side . I dont know. I just get that feeling, I guess.It was clear to me
that a lack of a relationship with her professor contributed to her silence because she stated
that she probably would have felt more comfortable speaking up if her and the professor
were cool.
Similarly, Kaitlyn shared that she often refrained from responding because she didnt feel sup-
ported by those around her, who were predominantly White. When asked if there had ever been
a time she didnt respond but wished she had, she described a situation when a group of White
men mocked her while she was speaking on the phone with her mother in her native language.
She went on to say, I know my dad wouldve wanted me to say something, but I didnt because
it was a group of White people and I was the only Black person I didnt feel like anybody
would have my back in the situation.
Creating the counterstory
Although there are a number of ways to create counterstories, I was intentional about choosing
a letter to represent the data collected in my study. CRT emphasizes centering the voices of
marginalized people who are too often silenced by dominant groups. The data in the study pro-
vided additional evidence for this act of silencing as participants shared countless stories of
experiencing racial microaggressions but being unable to respond in the moment. With that in
mind, I decided to use the construction of a letter as an opportunity for participants to talk back
to those who have attacked them with words and/or actions. Although I created the letter, it
was informed by the participants who were asked during the focus group how they would
respond if they had the chance. The letter describes the experience of a composite character,
Maya, and was inspired by the experiences of one of the participants in the study. The letter
was also informed by information shared by other participants, racial microaggressions literature,
and my own personal experiences. The subject of the letter is inspired by an experience that
was shared by Aria. I chose to highlight this specific incident because all of the participants in
the study had very strong reactions when she shared her story during the focus group. The letter
is also informed by their reactions, as well as reasons they shared as to why they often refrain
from responding to microaggressions.
Dear John,
I woke up this morning in a great mood. I spent the last week studying for our bio test and I just knew I
was going to ace it. But just in case, for some extra good luck, and a touch of home, I decided to wear the
headdress my mom sent me from Ghana. She made it for me by hand and I wear it when I want to feel
like a boss. When I put it on, I am reminded of those who came before me and sacrificed so much for me
to be where I am today. Wearing it makes me feel grateful and proud. So, when I walked into class today,
thats exactly how I felt. In my head, I could hear my mothers voice whispering, you got this,over and
over again. And she was right, I did.
But as I walked by your desk, her voice was suddenly drowned out by the sounds of you and your friends
laughing at me and singing one of the songs from the Lion King soundtrack. In that moment, I went from
proud and grateful, to broken and defeated. Although you never said an actual word to me, let me tell you
what your actions said. They said that I am laughable. My existence, my race, and my culture are all a joke
to you. They said that I am beneath you. Because why else would you feel so comfortable publicly
disrespecting me? They also said that you are untouchable. You knew that you could belittle me in a room
full of people with little to no fear of consequences.
You wanted a few laughs, and you got them. But what you didnt get, was a rise out of me. You wanted
me to react, but I refused to give you the satisfaction. And let me tell you why. First, I had better things to
do . like ace that test. I didnt have the time, nor the extra energy, to let you get to me when I need to
keep my head in the game. If I stopped to address every racist comment hurled at me by some ignorant
White person, I wouldnt be where I am today. Id be too busy fighting. All the time. And while were on
the topic of fighting, that leads me to reason #2 as to why I didnt say anything. I refuse to play into the
angry Black womanstereotype that White people slap onto Black women who dares to express her
feelings on a situation. Did I have the right to be angry with you? Absolutely. Do I have the privilege to be
visibly angry with you? Absolutely not. As a Black woman in a predominantly White space, I am in a
constant game of chess that requires me to think 3 moves ahead of my opponents.
Lets say I did respond to you and your friends in class, what do you think would have happened? If an
argument had ensued, whose side would the class full of White students have taken? What about the White
professor, who would he have believed? Notice how I didnt ask which one of us would have been right,
because we both know that doesnt matter. There are graves full of Black and Brown bodies that
demonstrate that.
So no John, I couldnt give you the satisfaction of a response because its one of the many privileges I do
not have. So instead, I chose to ignore your need for attention, sit down, and concentrate on my test. And
since youre such a big fan of the Lion King, I decided to focus on a different scene in the movie. Your
voice has now been replaced with Mufaasas. He says look inside yourself Maya, you are more than you
have become. You must take your place in the circle of life Remember who you are.Thanks for the
reminder, John. I almost forgot.
With gratitude,
This letter calls attention to several aspects of Black womens experiences with racial microag-
gressions at an HWI. First, we are able to see the psychological impact. Maya started the day
feeling confident and ready to ace her test. However, after experiencing the microaggression,
she went from proud and grateful, to broken and defeated.This is consistent with the literature
discussed earlier that shows students who experience racial microaggressions struggle with
depression and lower self-esteem (Nadal et al., 2014,OKeefe et al., 2015). Second, we are able
to see the different reasons why students choose to refrain from responding: (1) the fear of per-
petuating the angry Black womanstereotype, (2) feelings of aloneness because they are the
only Black person in the classroom, (3) experiencing emotional fatigue. Lastly, we are able to see
that although experiencing the racial microaggression affected Maya emotionally, she was still
able to navigate the situation mentally and not allow the students to knock her off of her game
The counterstory in this paper highlights the everyday experiences Black women have with racial
microaggressions at an HWI. Although they respond in different ways, the most common
response, which every participant shared at least once, was to refrain from responding at all.
This was motivated by two main factors. First, was the fear of perpetuating the angry Black
womanstereotype. While students discussed feelings justified in their anger, they still felt they
had to remain silent due to the belief that their White counterparts would perceive their
response as overly emotional or hostile. The second factor that influenced their responses was
feeling alone. Participants often discussed being the only Black person in a situation and not
responding out of fear of no one having their back.They believed that not only would they be
alone racially, but they would also be alone with regards to their perspective of the situation.
These findings are consistent with the GRMS created by Lewis and Neville (2015). Specifically,
the findings correlate with two of the four categories described earlier in this paper: silenced and
marginalized (microaggressions that silence or marginalize Black women) and the angry Black
woman stereotype (instances when a Black woman is deemed angry when advocating
for herself).
Recommendations to support students
As mentioned earlier, one of the tenets of CRT is a commitment to social justice. As a result, my
goal with this paper is not just to share the experiences of these women but to also provide
suggestions on how to support them. Keeping in mind another focus of CRT, centering the voi-
ces of marginalized populations, I wanted to make sure that these suggestions were not mere
speculation or even my own interpretations. Instead, I asked the participants what they thought
would be helpful for them, so the suggestions that follow are informed by the women in
the study.
Creation of counterspaces
Although safe spaces like multicultural centers are important for Black women, they also need
more active spaces known as counterspaces (Sol
orzano et al., 2000). First, if racism is endemic
and racial microaggressions are an everyday occurrence, we need to teach students how to
respond to and cope with them. Second, we need to teach students how to challenge dominant
narratives that tell them they are inferior to their White counterparts. They need to be intro-
duced to concepts like community cultural wealth, so they can be made aware of all of the cap-
ital they actually have (Yosso, 2005). Lastly, we need to show them the value of their experience
and teach them that they have a place in higher education, not despite their backgrounds, but
because of them.
Intentional faculty
Faculty members need to do more than just put a safe spacesticker on their door or copy and
paste a diversity blurb in their syllabi. They need to be intentional about creating a classroom
environment that doesnt just keep students safe physically, but also provides them with mental
and emotional safety. Students need to know that racism, bigotry, and discriminatory behaviors
will not be tolerated in their space. They also need to know that if something does happen, the
professor will be the one that steps in to handle it. For this to happen, faculty need to receive
training that teaches them how to identify and respond to microaggressions. Given the fact that
microaggressions are sometimes unintentional, it is possible that faculty are unaware of what is
happening in the space. Additionally, they need to be taught the importance of critical self-
reflection so that they can identity and address the ways that they may also be contributing to a
hostile environment. This is important because Black women shouldnt be given the additional
burden of addressing injustices in the classroom while the professor remains silent. Lastly, openly
hostile faculty who are unwilling to change need to be held accountable. Too often, Black
women, myself included, have remained quiet about the racial hostility we experienced from a
professor because we did not believe the University would do anything about it. This causes
Black women to experience many of the symptoms of RBF discussed earlier, such as anxiety and
emotional withdrawal.
10 A. M. JONES
Increased diversity
Although participants mentioned wanting more Black peers, their main request was for more
Black faculty. All five participants shared that they did not have any professors that were Black
women. Black women deserve to have people that look like them in the classroom because it
allows them to see whats possible. Black faculty also allow students to have someone to go to
when they are struggling with race-related issues without the fear of judgment or consequences.
Culturally competent counselors
Lastly, Black women need counselors that are culturally competent. As mentioned earlier, experi-
encing racial microaggressions has negative psychological effects and students need someone
that can help them cope. One participant, Aria, shared that she met with a White counselor on
campus to discuss race-related issues she was having and felt immediately dismissed. She said
that the counselor wasnt taking her concerns seriously and wouldnt acknowledge the racial
implications of what she was experiencing. Aria experienced what Sue et al. (2008) refer to as a
microinvalidation the dismissal or minimization of experiencing a racial microaggression. It is
hard enough for students to seek out help from a counselor, but its even harder knowing that
you also have to educate your counselor on the psychological and physiological effects of RBF.
There is also an underutilization of mental health services by Students of Color due to a lack of
diverse and culturally competent counselors (Brownson et al., 2014; Hayes et al., 2011; McGee et
al., 2019).
Recommendations for future research
Every participant in the study talked about being influenced by the angry Black womanstereo-
type. This demonstrates the fact that their experiences are not just the result of racism, but gen-
dered racism specifically. As a result, future research should examine the experiences of Black
women with gendered-racial microaggressions at HWIs. Additionally, future research should look
at the experiences of Black graduate women with gendered-racial microaggressions. These
women have achieved great academic success despite having to deal with microaggressions on
a regular basis. As a result, they may have insight for younger Black women with regards to navi-
gating racially hostile environments.
Using CRT as a framework, and counterstorytelling as a methodology, I centered the experiences
of Black women and sought to provide them with an opportunity to talk back to their aggres-
sors. The use of a letter was especially effective because it allowed women who had been previ-
ously silenced by microaggressions to have their voices heard and their stories told. This is
important because, although many students are silent, they still have a lot to say.
1. Additional microaggression literature informed by CRT includes, McCabe, (2009), Vaccaro (2017), and Yosso et
al. (2009).
I would like to thank Dr. William A. Smith for his support and mentorship while I conducted the study and wrote
this paper.
Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).
Notes on contributor
Angel M. Jones is an adjunct faculty member at George Washington University. Her work focuses on how racism
impacts the mental health of Black and Latinx students at historically White institutions. Her research interests
include racial microaggressions, Racial Battle Fatigue, Critical Race Theory, counterstorytelling, and gen-
dered racism.
Angel M. Jones
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... Knowing that they are thus positioned in institutional discourses provoked these Assistants to express intersectional discomfort with this framing, as discussed below. Following Belluigi and Thondlhana (2020) and Jones (2021), I conceptualise intersectionality as an anti-essentialist theorisation of identity, which approaches all identities as fluid and socially constructed. Moreover, and as attested by the research participants, constructions of racialised, gendered and classed identities are not simply additive, but instead, 'individuals have potentially conflicting identities, loyalties and allegiances', which are constantly negotiated and re-negotiated during everyday interactions such as tutorial sessions (Jones, 2021, p. 6). ...
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Critical race theory interrogates how systemic inequities in higher education are reproduced through institutional cultures and everyday practices, which interact with material disparities in broader society. Actors positioned within these institutions can collude with or resist unjust systems, within their means. The discourse analysis that anchors this article explores how contractually-employed teaching assistants (henceforth simply Assistants) contribute to, or resist, injustice while working with students in the context of tutorials that directly topicalise systemic racism. Based on individual interviews with Assistants serving in a Department of English and Cultural Studies at a historically-white South African university where the contemporary student body predominantly identifies as black, I unpack the discursive practices through which Assistants implicate their own institutional embeddedness in students’ learning experiences. I hone this article on Assistants’ openness to vulnerability as they interrogate their own systemic embeddedness, and how they experience themselves as becoming vulnerable to expectations from students.
There is still much to be understood about the intersections of race and gender and how Black women student-athletes experience and navigate various academic and classroom environments and situations, particularly at predominantly White institutions. Using critical race feminism and narrative inquiry, this study unpacked the academic experiences of Black women student-athletes at predominantly White institutions. The findings reveal challenges navigating academic and athletic roles, responsibilities, and priorities; experiences of being the only Black girl in the classroom; and aspects of preparing for life after sports. Implications for research and practice are discussed.
This chapter addresses the experiences of three female faculty of color throughout the pandemic. The authors challenge the linear narrative associated with progression through doctoral programs, entering higher education and progressing towards tenure track through the use of counternarratives. The chapter applies a critical race theoretical lens to deconstruct the multilayered intersectionality a part of academia when women of color enter spaces centered in hegemonic, white, male-dominated practices. The chapter concludes with a recognition of where the journey for faculty of color is today and strategies to continue while grappling with Black fatigue.
This chapter focuses on the impact of a culturally relevant course centering the experiences of Black women attending a Historically White Institution (HWI). This chapter will provide an overview of the course creation, implementation, and positive implications of a gender-specific course steeped in the African Diaspora. Using Black feminist thought, the authors examine how Black female students experience community, self-discovery, and academic success. The chapter highlights student voices and discusses the lasting impact of the case design on the students and collegiate community. In addition, the co-creators share the impact of the course on their own well-being and its larger impact on the collegiate campus.
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Background/Context It is well documented that Black doctoral students in engineering and computing fields experience more stress and strain during doctoral training than their White and Asian peers. However, few studies have examined how Black engineering and computing doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers experience these challenges and stressors or focused on the psychological effects, behavioral responses, or health costs for these students. We interviewed 48 Black PhD students and postdoctoral researchers in engineering and computing departments to find out how they describe, make sense of, and cope with stressors and strains in their training programs. Study participants (29 men and 19 women) ranged from first-year doctoral students to recent PhDs. Students attended various institutions and institution types, primarily in eastern and central time zones. Nine participants attended historically Black colleges and universities, and though we anticipated that their experiences would be vastly different, their experiences closely resembled those of students in other institutions. Research Design Each person participated in either an individual interview or focus group. Data were collected via video- and audio-recording. All focus groups took place at either a national engineering-/computing-related conference or at the students’ home institutions. Twenty-three participants were interviewed, while the remainder participated in focus groups of three to five students (maximum of ten). Interviews and focus groups were semistructured, using open-ended questions but allowing some flexibility to develop new ideas and order topics differently. Data Collection and Analysis This study employed transcendental phenomenology, using three steps to investigate and make meaning of participants’ experiences: examining the phenomenon with intentionality, eidetic reduction, and constitution of meaning. Transcendental reduction allowed for examining the experience of Black doctoral students in engineering and computing in general and separating what the research perspectives supplied from what our intuitions offered, guided by our theoretical frameworks of role strain and racial battle fatigue. Transcendental phenomenology also gave the authors a context to examine and disclose our own experiences and feelings. Findings Consistent with prior research on role strain and John Henryism (i.e., trying to overcome a chronic stressor by working harder), we found that seeking success in training, employment, work, or career was more important to these Black graduate students and postdocs than safeguarding their mental or physical health. Meeting the demands of a PhD program or postdoctoral fellowship were critical priorities congruent with their phase of life. Their focus and sacrifice may have helped them complete their degrees, but our findings suggest that these strategies exacted psychological, emotional, and physical costs. The study deepened our understanding of significant interrelated dynamics for this population in four key ways. We found that (a) the stresses and strains made students question their qualifications; (b) racialized experiences were often the source of stress, strain, and academic performance anxiety; (c) discordance between the racial make-up of their academic environments and their racialized engineering and computing identities appeared to exacerbate impostor phenomenon; and (d) the students’ proactive coping mechanisms took an emotional toll. Participants discussed the nature and sources of their feelings of self-doubt. The implications extend beyond the dwindling numbers of Black students earning STEM doctorates; this racial climate also affects the academic workforce and the professional landscape. Although Black researchers who leave academia after completing doctoral training can influence scientific innovation through other positions, it is alarming and problematic that potentially qualified future professors are dissuaded from pursuing academic careers because of their training experiences. Their absence from faculty can hinder critical innovation, breakthroughs, and the training of succeeding generations of scholars who might have learned from and collaborated with them. Conclusions and Recommendations The added stress, strain, and toll on Black students’ well-being is an underappreciated reason for their relinquishing of academic careers. Our findings illustrate the students’ resilience and strength. Continued research on added stressors (e.g., impostor syndrome, racialized stress) and strengths could add much-needed consideration of cultural, structural, and interpersonal racism and the ways that Black students earning doctoral degrees in STEM fields manage to succeed despite cultural and institutional barriers. Future research should explore how to modify the microculture of STEM programs and departments to allow Black students to feel that these are healthy, safe, and fair spaces in which they can make contributions. Otherwise, an invaluable diversity of perspectives may disappear altogether from academic environments. In addition, diversifying the faculty and students in doctoral engineering and computing programs could help to reduce impostor syndrome, isolation, and other damaging psychological stress. Forthcoming research, programs, and policies should consider what Black students in STEM endure, because simply surviving racially toxic environments should not be the end goal.
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In this article, I used Black feminist–womanist storytelling to weave together stories from my childhood and early years on the tenure track to illuminate how Black female language and literacy practices and the strongblackwoman trope develop across a life span. Through these stories, I illustrate how I existed, resisted, and persisted during my first 3 years on the tenure track as a Black woman and emerging language and literacy scholar with a family. This research is significant as scholarship that centers Black women literacy researchers’ lived experiences is missing from the field. As such, this work contributes to presenting a fuller narrative of Black women literacy researchers’ experiences and working lives within and beyond the academy. This research also expands the field’s knowledge of what counts as literacy research by understanding the complex racial and gendered life span literacies of a literacy researcher of color. It is important for institutions and organizations to consider the knowledge, experiences, and stories I include in this article as recommendations to sustain Black women in academic spaces and shift the culture of academia to better support Black women’s work and journeys.
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The present quantitative study examined racial climate, racial stigmatization and academic motivation among racially diverse women from a predominantly White university. The authors used a comparative lens to highlight how Black women’s experiences compared to Women of Color and White women, and a within-group design to contextualize Black women’s experiences as a unique group. The authors also explored how Black women’s racialized experiences and motivation beliefs varied across STEM and Non-STEM majors. Overall, Black women experienced a more hostile racial climate and less academic satisfaction than women from other racial/ethnic groups. Black women reported similar levels of academic competence, suggesting their determination to excel despite experiencing race-related challenges in their institutional context. Finally, racial stigmatization was negatively associated with academic motivation.
A qualitative case study with 18 Women of Color at a predominantly White women’s college yielded counter-narratives about racial microaggressions that challenged dominant ideologies of colorblindness, meritocracy, and equal opportunity in education. Their experiences with racial microaggressions also contrast with majoritarian narratives (i.e., oppressive narratives constructed and “normalized” by individuals with power) found in the higher education literature and college marketing materials that suggest women’s colleges are welcoming and empowering spaces for all students.
Chicanas/os are part of the youngest, largest, and fastest growing racial/ethnic 'minority' population in the United States, yet at every schooling level, they suffer the lowest educational outcomes of any racial/ethnic group. Using a 'counterstorytelling' methodology, Tara Yosso debunks racialized myths that blame the victims for these unequal educational outcomes and redirects our focus toward historical patterns of institutional neglect. She artfully interweaves empirical data and theoretical arguments with engaging narratives that expose and analyse racism as it functions to limit access and opportunity for Chicana/o students. By humanising the need to transform our educational system, Yosso offers an accessible tool for teaching and learning about the problems and possibilities present along the Chicano/a educational pipeline.
Racial microaggressions are a contemporary form of subtle discrimination that occur in everyday exchanges, and are associated with a variety of negative mental health outcomes, including suicide ideation. Previous work (e.g., Torres-Harding, Andrade, & Romero Diaz, 2012) has identified 6 dimensions of racial microaggressions: invisibility, criminality, low-achieving/undesirable culture, sexualization, foreigner/not belonging, and environmental invalidations. The current study examined whether the 6 dimensions of racial microaggressions were associated with increased suicide ideation through perceived burdensomeness and thwarted belongingness among 135 African American young adults. Results indicated that perceived burdensomeness, but not thwarted belongingness, mediated the relationship between 3 racial microaggression dimensions (i.e., invisibility, low-achievement/undesirable culture, and environmental invalidations) and suicide ideation. These results imply that for African American college students, experiencing certain dimensions of racial microaggressions was associated with higher levels of perceived burdensomeness, which in turn was related to increased levels of suicide ideation. Clinical and societal implications are discussed. This study found that specific types of racial microaggressions were associated with higher levels of perceptions of being a burden on others, which in turn was associated with higher levels of suicide ideation in a sample of African Americans. These findings are important as they demonstrate 1 possible avenue through which racial microaggressions can negatively impact mental health. (PsycINFO Database Record
The number of Black females enrolled in colleges and universities has grown in recent years, particularly at predominately white institutions (PWIs). Currently, research on the rise of Black females at PWIs is limited and fails to adequately address the emotional, social, and mental well-being of these students. Recent studies also largely ignore the critical roles that natural and formal Black female faculty play in serving as a buffer between Black female graduate students (BFGS) and PWIs more broadly. From a critical perspective using counter-narrative, we address the limitations of the scholarly literature on BFGS and other challenges faced by BFGS. We come to the disappointing – albeit unsurprising – conclusion that PWIs should do more to make the academy a welcoming place for BFGS, however, the ways in which PWIs function make support for BFGS unlikely. We conclude with a discussion about the implications of continued marginalisation of BFGS at PWIs for individuals, families, communities, disciplines, and for PWIs across the nation.