Microaggressions: The Shift from Intent to Impact

Chapter 2 of Lukianoff’s and Haidt’s “The Coddling of the American Mind” highlights the recent trend at colleges to accept students’ assertions that emotional reasoning is as valid as intellectual reasoning. I’ve seen this applied by many high school students, parents, and admins.

With this trend, the oft used phrase “perception is reality” comes to mind; it is often used to validate someone’s interpretations of events even though the perception may not align with reality at all as is discussed in the online Scientific American article: Looks Can Deceive: Why Perception and Reality Don’t Always Match Up.

Our conscious perception of the world, though relatively stable, is not static. We are incapable of being fully objective, even in our most mundane observations and impressions. Our awareness of the objects around us is informed and fine-tuned by any number of transient factors—our strength and energy levels, our sense of confidence, our fears and desires. Being human means seeing the world through your own, constantly shifting, lens.


According to Lukianoff and Haidt, the term microaggressions, popularized and defined by a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College in 2007, encompasses “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color;” they go on to state that the term is now applied much more broadly than in its initial usage.

The authors highlight that the professor’s inclusion of “unintentional” slights that are defined “entirely in terms of the listener’s interpretation” encouraged misperceptions that may grossly exaggerate the impact of the perceived slight. I experienced multiple moments where parents complained directly to administrators excluding me in their correspondence or meetings where parents simply amplified, and distorted, their child’s perception. For nearly 100% of these incidents, students were aghast that I encouraged them to rise to the challenges facing them rather than rescuing them at every instance.

I will provide specific examples of these incidents in time, however, detailing their complexity takes an enormous amount of time and effort. Hence, for now, please believe that the John Dewey quote that’s been on my website’s banner since 2010, and my blog’s focus and tone, reflects my sincere desire to help all students. It’s just that as a result of my five plus decades of life experiences, both good and bad, I’ve developed a keen sense for what students need to experience about how to learn in order for them to succeed at their highest potential. And it is not by quietly and dutifully writing down what a teacher writes on a white board for subsequent regurgitation.

“Felt” Impact versus Actual Intent

Sadly, we’ve moved from assuming the best of intentions to allowing our feelings to lead us to react negatively to a perceived threat irrespective of whether there is any intent to cause harm.

If a member of an an identity group feels offended or oppressed by the action of another person, then according to the impact-versus-intent paradigm, that other person is guilty of bigotry.

My experiences these past seven plus years teaching high school students are filled with times where students and their parents cast me as a microaggressor when I held students to high expectations behaviorally and academically. Oftentimes it seemed that they were shocked that I did not meet their expectations, as set by math teachers inexperienced with teaching much more than procedural fluency or beaten down by the torrent of complaints that follow from raising expectations. I refused to lower my standards or expectations.

Instead, I invested incredible amounts of time, effort, and expense developing online supplemental resources for all of my courses. While I succeeded in a variety of ways, and scores of students have emailed me from college thanking me for being one of the few teachers, if not the sole teacher, who truly prepared them for the rigors of college mathematics and science courses, doing so in the face of what seemed to be an incessant stream of opposition took too much of a toll on me.

Also, it seemed as if I was a lone voice in the wilderness regarding raising standards and expectations. More emphasis seemed to be placed on how students felt than whether they learned. And meaningful challenge of near any sort fell by the wayside.

Teaching students to use the least generous interpretations possible is likely to engender precisely the feelings of marginalization and oppression that almost everyone wants to eliminate. And to add injury to insult, this sort of environment is likely to foster an external locus of control.

Ironically, all of my efforts centered on getting students to recognize their agency, voice, and ownership in their learning, which would better prepare them to succeed in the course and afterwards. Many students got it in time. However, a vocal minority with their abhorrence of my methods, either rejected it either outright or accepted it disdainfully, both of which choices minimized their growth opportunity and ability to endure in the face of true adversity.

A great deal of research shows that having an internal locus of control leads to greater health, happiness, effort expanded, success in school, and success at work. An internal locus of control has even been found to make many kinds of adversity less painful.

About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Independent consultant and junior college adjunct instructor. Former secondary math teacher who taught math intervention, algebra 1, geometry, accelerated algebra 2, precalculus, honors precalculus, AP Calculus AB, and AP Statistics. Prior to teaching, I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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