Microaggressions Have No Place in School

When a student directed an LGBT slur at a classmate, this teacher missed the teachable moment. He won’t let that happen again.

Among other labels, I am a white, male, heterosexual, nearly middle-aged, solidly middle-class, public middle school social studies teacher. With much of my “middled” identity, readily normalized by American social standards, I am rarely questioned about “what” I am. In this way, I am unfairly privileged. This privilege comes not just from possession, but from what I do not have: namely, perceived atypicalities that people ignorantly challenge through marginalizing discourses or microaggressions.

As a term, microaggression has been around since psychiatrist Chester Pierce’s work in the early 1970s. As an action, microaggression has been present as long as subjugated categories of people have been created. The term was first used in racialized contexts. More recently, its use has expanded to interpret gender and sexuality insults.

Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court heard cases regarding marriage of same-sex couples. Though public opinion is shifting in support of this equality and its concomitant economic benefits, one might look to American teenage vernacular to find contrary evidence. In the halls of my school, in the classroom where I teach, racial, gender and sexuality microaggressions are far too common—and far too commonly ignored.

During a small-group activity in my classroom, I overheard one male student say to another, in what I considered to be an insulting tone, “Does your mom know you’re gay?” My reaction was unfortunately punitive and noneducational: I sent the insulting student out of the room. There was no dialogue, simply a banal monologue on my part about appropriate classroom behavior. Within the rules of the school, this was an acceptable response. And because of this response, I realized that I was guilty of a microaggression against LGBT individuals.

I did not invoke a “teachable moment” and open a discussion with the rest of the students. Another microaggression. Cowardly, I moved on with the class as though the incident had not occurred. I didn’t even speak to the student to whom the comment was directed. I operated under the assumption that he was a default heteronormative preadolescent who needed to ignore comments like the one he had just endured.

Had the comment been about race, class or gender, I would not have avoided the discussion. But this was about sexuality. It’s a contradiction. Were this high school rather than sixth grade, I imagine I would have addressed this issue. LGBT activists, advocates and allies would point to my response and rightly charge that I had not created a safe space for LGBT issues to be acknowledged.

Our students deserve respectful, informed and critical discussions about historically marginalized people. Ignoring these issues with students who are coming of age with respect to their sexualities is a microaggression that demands immediate eradication.

Heise is a sixth-grade social studies teacher living in Utah and  working toward a Ph.d in education, culture and society.

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