East Lansing High School aims to reduce racism through “microaggression” education

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Experiencing microaggression can be viewed as a “death by a thousand paper cuts,” said Dr. Jessica Garcia, an intercultural education specialist at Michigan State University.

MSU photo

Jessica Garcia offered a presentation on implicit bias.

But Krishnakali Mujumdar, the mother of a 10th grader at East Lansing High School, views microaggression as explicit racism.

With multiple different definitions coming from multiple different perspectives, the basic definition of microaggression is a statement or action that is indirectly or unintentionally discriminating against a member of a marginalized group.

Garcia, who works in MSU’s Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives, gave a presentation on implicit bias and microaggressions at the East Lansing High School Parent Council meeting on Feb. 13. She was invited by Parent Council Vice President Donna Kaplowitz, who also works in the Office for Inclusion. Garcia’s presentation received a lot of interest among parents at East Lansing High School, including Mujumdar and Diane Donham, who stayed late after the presentation to discuss the topic even further. 

“My school cares. They’re doing things to make it more inclusive,” said Mujumdar, a sociologist and a former colleague of Garcia.

Mujumdar said it was important for parents of students to be educated on the topic. She recalls her son being called a slur in 5th grade and microaggressions she experienced herself from other adults.

“Saying, ‘I’m surprised you’re articulate, oh you speak English very well.’ I have been speaking English since I was three,” Mujumdar said. “So, I’m very thankful of the intercultural dialogue that my son participated in 9th grade.” 

Diversity in curriculum

In 9th grade, East Lansing High School students participate in an eight-week curriculum led by MSU students on diversity and topics such as implicit bias and microaggressions. Kaplowitz teaches the class at MSU where students are trained to lead this intergroup dialogue embedded in the English curriculum.

Donham, who has students in 7th and 10th grade, said it is important for these kinds of conversations to take place.

“A college professor can have students saying ‘why has no one told us this before?’” Donham said. She also noted that some families, primarily non-white families, include the topics of implicit bias and microaggressions in their dialogue since their children were young, whether these kinds of educational resources are available or not. 

Diversity in East Lansing

“I think a lot of families choose to come here because it’s a diverse community,” Kaplowitz said. “But for a long time, we looked very diverse, but we didn’t talk about it. So what we’re trying to do through this new curriculum is give students the skills to really listen and learn about differences.”

Assistant Principal Nick Hamilton, who represents the high school administration at parent council meetings, said helping parents being aware of what’s going on in society, such as implicit bias and microaggression, helps the culture and climate in the community.

“It’s relevant to society today, so not necessarily just East Lansing culture,” Hamilton said. “We do have a very diverse culture here and that’s something that East Lansing prided itself on for a long time. There’s a lot of backgrounds here, and I don’t know if it’s because MSU brings in a lot of culture as well. But bringing that topic into the forefront for people to talk about is so beneficial for our students as a whole just because of how diverse we are.”

Implicit bias and microaggression

During Garcia’s presentation, parents saw images of people from various backgrounds and discussed what their first impressions were of them. Many said they noticed gender and race first, and later made assumptions about their personalities, such as whether they were troubled or unhappy. Garcia also discussed real-world examples of implicit bias and microaggressions.

Garcia said it is important for parents to bring up these topics to their high schoolers.

“It’s important that they’re being guided in inclusive directions at an early age and that the parents stay consistent with that,” Garcia said. “Parents are people, too, and so they have their own biases and they may not realize what they’re even carrying around and the subtle messages they’re passing on to their kids, even if it’s not intentional.

“So hopefully, raising that level of awareness for themselves will change the ways they interact with their kids but also will help them be more supportive of their kids as they’re trying to figure out how to see the world.”

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