#FEMSmicroBlog: Addressing microaggressions in academia


Microaggressions are common in academia. In particular, Persons Excluded from science because of Ethnicity and Race (PEERs) suffer from discriminative behaviour. This often leads to decreased academic performance as well as increased stress levels. The commentary “Responding and Navigating Racialized Microaggressions in STEM” published in Pathogens and Disease formulates concrete actions to handle microaggressions to PEERs. One of the authors, Antentor Hinton, Jr, talks in a #BehindThePaper interview about what microaggressions mean in academic environments and how we can best overcome such behaviour.

What do you understand as a microaggression?

A microaggression is a statement, action or indictment regarded as an instance of indirect or unintentional discrimination against members of a group, such as racial or ethnic minorities. It can also be a marginalized group or a sexual and gender minority. However, microaggressions can also happen to people in a majority group. That might be a misconception, but everyone can face microaggression.

In comparison, macroaggressions are superfluous outbursts that are well-intentioned, but not well-intended. These are more outward acts of discrimination.

Negative and discriminatory behavior does need to be overt. It can come in “small doses” that do not seem big enough to be cause for alert, but they should be.

Alfredo Garzino-Demo, co-Editor-in-Chief of Pathogens and Disease

What are the different types of microaggressions? And how can one distinguish them?

Situational microaggressions include verbal and behavioural microaggressions. Verbal microaggression is about saying hurtful things, while behavioural aggressions involve actions towards another individual.

The three types that we focus on in our commentary “Responding and Navigating Racialized Microaggressions in STEM” are microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations. Microassaults happen when a person intentionally behaves in a discriminatory way, for example saying “I was just joking”. Microinsults are a common action that is unintentional discriminatory like describing someone. An example of this is to have a black doctor in the family and hearing “your people must be so proud”. Microinvalidations are comments that invalidate or undermine the experience of a certain person or group.

Microaggressions are potentially as dangerous as overt attacks, exactly because of their seemingly low-impact consequences. Yet, they create a toxic environment that lowers the ability of the receiver to counteract them and augments their feeling of not being able to break through the barriers.

Alfredo Garzino-Demo, co-Editor-in-Chief of Pathogens and Disease

How should one address microaggression if one experienced it in an academic environment?
While this can be very challenging, it depends on whether a discriminatory behavior happened to the person in a group setting or not. In a group setting, you may not address it at that very moment. But then you should come back to it when you have a clear mind, able to have concise words without being aggressive based upon the behavior that hurt you. Make sure to tackle that conversation in a constructive manner.
a big STOP against microaggression in academia within a word cloud
Combating microaggressions in academia. From Marshall et al. (2021).
It might also help to write down how this discriminatory behavior made you feel and what you would need to be done to not have that feeling anymore. If you’re going to do that, keep mindfulness in mind. You want to take a step back from what you’ve heard and you want to objectively demonstrate that this could cause harm.
Why do we need allyship to promote PEERs?

To advance the culture of inclusion for individuals, we need allyship. Allyship is incredible. Allyship is done through intentional positive thoughts or efforts to make another group feel more included. It’s to actively promote the inclusion of groups, that are not thought of as scientists, into the academic community. Allyships allow for individuals to work together, and to be able to help them be more well-rounded individuals.

Like in all interactive communities, it is important to keep in mind that the things you do impact an individual. And the things you do also impact those individuals, that people interact with. Hence, you’re not only affecting one person, but you’re affecting a group of people. So, having a positive experience through science not only keeps another individual in science but also allows for better training long-term.

As a minority in science, there simply aren’t enough of us to fight every battle. Often, there are times when the message is better received when the messenger (ally) is someone who isn’t perceived as a threat.

Andrea Marshall, lead author of Marshall et al. (2021)

What encouraged you to study the field of microaggressions?

I do a lot of mentoring. One of the things that I love about mentoring is to try to understand what is important to form a well-rounded student or trainee. Successful mentorship requires observing a profile of who that individual is. This includes understanding their mental state, where they want to grow with their goals and trying to understand what challenges they may have.

Here the challenges are very important. The only way to be able to solve or tackle a challenge is with a good plan. As a mentor, I’ve learned that there are a lot of microaggressions and macroaggressions. Unfortunately, trainees are often not able to overcome these without the aid of a mentor. And so this is why I wanted to draw more attention to microaggressions that individuals face. We can and should all work together in the scientific community to create a training and learning environment in which no one feels marginalized.

The whole scientific community should work together to create a training and learning environment in which no one feels marginalized.


About the interviewee of this blog

Potrait of Antentor Hinton JrAntentor Othrell Hinton, Jr. is a former Burroughs Wellcome Fund Postdoctoral Enrichment Scholar, EE Just Postgraduate Fellow in Life Sciences, and Ford Foundation Fellow who worked at the University of Iowa in the laboratory of Dr. E. Dale Abel. During his postdoc, Dr. Hinton elucidates the mechanisms by which insulin signaling regulates Optic Atrophy 1 Protein activity in skeletal muscle, heart, and brain. In Fall 2021, he will matriculate to a tenure track Assistant Professor Position in the Department of  Molecular Physiology and Biophysics at Vanderbilt University.

About this blog section

#BehindThePaper interviews on the #FEMSmicroBlog aim to bring the science closer to different audiences and to tell more about the scientific or personal journey to come to the results.

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