I recently read a great piece on Inside Higher Ed shared by a friend on Twitter entitled, “3 Approaches for Confronting Microaggressions” by Tyrone Fleurizard. The piece focuses specifically on classroom occurrences of microaggressions but I think you will find the advice has broad applications for your professional practice and in your personal journey. In speaking about creating and upholding a classroom culture of social justice, Fleurizard introduced me to the idea of microaffirmations. Microaffirmation, as Fleurizard says, was a term coined by Mary Rowe (2008) where they hypothesized that if microinequalities could have long-term piled on effects, then the opposite could be true with small instances of validation and support. Rowe at the time was working in organization development at MIT studying mentoring and recruitment practices of staff and faculty when they noticed, “Micro-affirmations – apparently small acts, which are often ephemeral and hard-to-see, events that are public and private, often unconscious but very effective, which occur wherever people with to help others succeed.” (p. 4).
While Fleurizard explained well the use of micoaffirmations in the classroom, and Rowe explained their use in organizations as managers, I wondered how we can incorporate microaffirmations in student affairs practice.
My own research into microaffirmations in student affairs practice came up with surprisingly little results. One article, published actually just over a month ago from the time I am writing this, showed positive results and ideas among first-generation college students’ experiences with microaffirmations (the article covers their experiences with microaggressions as well). In their article Examining First-Generation College Student Lived Experiences with Microaggressions and Microaffirmations at a Predominantly White Public Research University (Ellis, Powell, Demetriou, Huerta-Bapat, & Panter, 2018) propose three types of microaffirmations:
Microcompliments as Ellis et. al. describe are subtle communications that show appreciation of one’s identity or heritage. Their article mentions a staff member complimenting a t-shirt of a first-generation college student’s organization was one such example of affirming one’s identity. You may consider approaching microcompliments with caution however. Microaggressions – especially microinsults – can often particularly target aspects of one’s appearance (as associated with their identity) disguised as a “compliment”. Ex. “You’re lucky you’re always tan,” and “You don’t even act gay”.
I believe genuine and authentic microcompliments can have a lot of power in the hands of a student affairs professional. Consider your own power/position and do reflect on your own unconscious biases before developing your own framework for incorporating microcompliments into practice. Additionally, it is important to remember microcompliments cannot just cancel out the impact of a microinsult, but the validation of one’s identity though a microcompliment can pile on just as a microinsult can according to Rowe’s research.
Microsupports are the small verbal or nonverbal actions to help support an individual who may feel invisible or unwelcomed. Microsupports were experienced by first-generation college students (Ellis, et. al., 2018) through personalized support, genuine interest, affirmation of belonging, and intentional communications about programs or services.
In student affairs practice, we might see many opportunities for microsupports. A big part of conveying interest and attention are your nonverbal expressions. Think nodding your head when a student is talking, eye contact, a passing smile. Particularly, student affairs professionals must be aware of the resources on campus of which support different types of students. I do not just mean the financial aid office, but what about the Afrikan Student Union (or other identity-based student organizations), LGBTQ+ safe spaces, or community resources for food and shelter insecurity. A gentle nudge, or a “hey, have you heard about _______” can go a long way as a microsupport.
Microvalidations are the small but subtle ways we affirm a student’s “experience, thoughts, abilities, or feelings”. The best way for me to describe microvalidations, is through explaining a microINvalidation. “Where did your parents go to college?” “I don’t see you as Black/queer/trans” are classic examples of invalidating the experience of those with often marginalized identities. An invalidation makes a person feel as though they are not who they believe they are and what they represent is not valued.
Rendón (1994) laid the foundation for validation in a student development context. Though they lay out six elements of validation, I’d like to point out the following for you to consider:
- Validation occurs both in and out of the classroom (with professors, university staff, peer groups and family)
- Validation is a developmental process – never ending, and a student’s experience in college can only get richer though validation
- “When validation is present, students feel capable of learning; they experience a feeling of self-worth and feel that they and everything that they bring to the college experience are accepted and recognized as valuable. Lacking validation, students feel crippled, silences, subordinate, and/or mistrusted.” (Rendón, 1994, p. 44)
Maybe you can relate to this, but microaffirmations were something I (thought) I always tried to use in my practice but until now I didn’t have a name or framework for them. My hope through you reading this is that you gain a little bit more knowledge of how little acts can snowball into larger meaning. Microaffirmations (and microaggressions) can have powerful effects but especially if used consistently over time. I’d like to leave you with a few thought-provoking questions as you consider the applications of microaffirmations in your own practice:
- Can you name an instance of micro-compliment/support/validation you have used recently?
- Have you recently been on the receiving end of a microaffirmation and what did that feel like?
- What would your environment be like if there was an established culture of affirmation?
If you are interested in viewing any of the articles I have referenced, I set up a Dropbox folder for you to view here.
Dallas Doane (he/him/his) is in his first-year as a new professional in the field of student affairs. He is currently the Honors Program Coordinator at the University of South Dakota, and is working towards incorporating social justice into his everyday personal and professional life. Dallas is a May 2018 graduate of the student affairs administration program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Please feel free to reach out to him on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/dallas-doane/) or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Book and podcast recommendations are always welcome.
Fleurizard, T. (2018, July 20). 3 approaches for confronting microaggressions. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved July 23, 2018, from https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2018/07/20/how-deal-microaggressions-class-opinion#.W1JRUc99kUQ.
Ellis, J. M., Powell, C. S., Demetriou, C. P., Huerta-Bapat, C., & Panter, A. T. (2018, June 14).
Examining first-generation college student lived experiences with microaggressions and
microaffirmations at a predominately white public research university. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/cdp0000198
Rendón, L. (1994). Validating culturally diverse students: Toward a new model of learning
and student development. Innovative Higher Education, 19, 33-51.
Rowe, M. (2008). Micro-affirmations and micro-inequities. Journal of the International Ombudsman Association, 1(1), 1–9.