Subtle insults toward people of color can be commonplace and delivered automatically or unconsciously. Over time, they can do measurable damage.
Even when the offender is unaware of their affronts, subtle racist remarks, jokes and assumptions are all too real and can negatively affect people of color psychologically and physically, particularly as they accumulate through the years, said Dr. Lindsay Pérez Huber, associate professor of Advanced Studies in Education and Counseling.
These subtle insults, known as racial microaggressions, can be verbal, nonverbal and visual in nature.
Pérez Huber researches, teaches and writes about how Critical Race Theory can be used to explain racial microaggressions in the daily experiences of people of color.
Pérez Huber said she focused on racial microaggressions because it resonated with her own experiences.
“I faced low expectations in academia because of stereotypes of Latinas,” she said. “Learning about racial microaggressions from Dr. Daniel Solorzano (professor of education at UCLA) as a graduate student allowed me to name my experiences. Today, we work together as colleagues to add to that literature.”
Pérez Huber teaches graduate-level courses in the Social and Cultural Analysis of Education program. A National Academies Ford Foundation Fellow, she is also a Visiting Scholar at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.
Her published research argues that the concept of racial microaggressions can be a powerful tool for identifying, disrupting and dismantling the racism that marginalizes, subordinates and excludes people of color inside and outside of the educational environment.
She co-authored, “Racial Microaggressions as a Tool for Critical Race Research,” published in the journal Race Ethnicity and Education that presented a new framework for analyzing racial microaggressions – a tool that provides a useful resource for understanding “everyday” racism.
“Our model addresses identification and recognition of racial microaggressions, two important steps in taking action to challenge them.” Pérez Huber said. “We address the types and context of racial microaggressions, how and why they happen, and the effects they can have on people of color, which can include increased stress and even negative health outcomes. We also examine how people of color respond to them.”
Her research draws from multiple academic disciplines to analyze racial inequities in education, the structural causes of those inequities, and how they mediate educational trajectories and outcomes of students of color. In addition, she examines how those students challenge and resist the oppression they encounter within and outside of education.
She has conducted studies within each segment of the educational pipeline, from K-12 schools to community colleges and four-year universities. The goal of her work is to create greater education and life opportunities for communities of color.
Pérez Huber’s research looks into racial stress, excessive unexplained deaths in the African American community and other physiological tolls that people of color face living in a racist society. “People of color experience ongoing stress and negative health outcomes much more frequently than people in other groups,” she said.
It has been established that over time, microaggressions negatively affect the health and academic achievement of students and faculty of color, she said.
Pérez Huber said an important component of the racial microaggressions framework is to examine the ways students of color at campuses throughout the United States are responding to microaggressions in order to challenge them.
“For example, students engage in activism to demand that administrations recognize racism and how it shapes their everyday experiences in higher education institutions,” she said. “Other examples of responses are challenging racialized comments, or even institutional policies that can inadvertently support the marginalization of students of color.”
So, what can individuals and society do to recognize and challenge racial microaggressions?
“Without recognition, there is no moving forward,” Pérez Huber said. “Higher education institutions must be proactive in engaging discussions about racism and microaggressions. They should determine how and why racial microaggressions occur, and then put policies in place to challenge them.”
At the individual level, she said countering racial microaggressions begins with asking questions.
“When someone says something offensive, you can ask the person to clarify what they meant, which prompts reflection,” she said. “It gives them the opportunity to stop and think about what they’ve said.”
Pérez Huber added that challenging racial microaggressions should not consistently fall on people of color.
“It’s important for all people to identify and challenge racism. Remaining silent stops communication and contributes to the inequity and injustice people of color face,” she said. “I hope that my research provides strategies to begin these important conversations with students, faculty, staff, and administrators at their institutions.”
As a leading scholar of racial microaggressions, Pérez Huber is in demand as a lecturer, speaker and presenter. In September, she was scheduled to lead a campus event at Santa Monica College for students, faculty and staff on racial microaggressions. She spoke at a student equity conference at El Camino College and gave a talk to the UCLA Principal Leadership Institute. She has also provided training for university administrators in the University of California system and Colorado State University. She has served as vice president for the Critical Race Studies in Education Association, a national organization of critical race scholars, activists and educators committed to racial justice in education