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For what seemed like hours, I stared in shock at the words on my computer screen. In a course feedback comment, a student had written, using a racial slur, that I was not qualified to teach the course because of my Asian identity.

There was also the time that a student openly mocked Asian cultures during a class discussion; the student seemed oblivious to the Asian instructor (me) standing in front of him.

These are examples of racial microaggressions, defined as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color”1 (p. 271). Simply put, racial microaggressions are insults or invalidations directed toward people of color. Their psychological impact is most felt when there is an accumulation or pattern of microaggressions (see this blog piece for more on the cumulative impact of microaggressions).

Microaggression scholars have noted the importance of context when studying the experience of microaggressions2 I have been pondering about how who is doing the microaggressing (i.e., microaggressor) might affect the impact of the microaggressions. Living as a person of color in the U.S., I have faced my share of racial microaggressions from strangers that invalidate or question my status here in my own land.

Each incident leaves behind an icky feeling. Moving on is not easy, but oddly enough, it helps when the perpetrator is a complete stranger; given the unlikelihood of another encounter with that person, I am eventually able to place the incident in the pile of racial slights that remind us that racial bias is a reality in this fallen world.

But when I think about the times that students have microaggressed against me, I must admit that I felt the sting of the insults or invalidations much more acutely. Why might that be?

In this blog piece, I would like to share some thoughts on why I think experiencing microaggressions from students is particularly impactful for faculty of color. Next, I will provide an initial list of adaptive responses for faculty of color, with the hope that this community of CSR blog readers can chime in with their own ideas and experiences.

[Note: Given my own experiences as a person of color, I necessarily focus the examples in this blog post on racial microaggressions. But I recognize that microaggressions can target social locations that are not race or ethnicity related (e.g., gender microaggressions, religious microaggressions)].

First, why are microaggressions from students especially impactful? Here, I will use first person singular pronouns to convey that these are my own reflections; some points might resonate with other faculty of color, while some points might not. Here are some thoughts:

1. I sometimes fall prey to the fallacy that a “Christian” classroom should mean fewer invalidations and insults. But a Christian institution is not necessarily a protective factor, and in some ways, such a setting might perpetuate unique microaggressions (see my team’s study3 on racial microaggressions on a Christian campus). Because I might have  internalized some of this misguided sense of safety because I am a part of a Christian learning community, having a pattern of experiences that is dissonant from that expectation can leave me that much more affected.

2. I am impacted by the flipped power dynamic as a result of the microaggression that has taken place. Much of the time, the power balance in the classroom is tipped toward me, as the professor. A microaggression from a student alters the relational energy and its direction, albeit momentarily, and it can be an unsettling experience.  Racism is often described as a combination of prejudice and power4, and from this perspective, the act of microaggression should be understood against the backdrop of power dynamics (e.g., a White student mocking a non-White culture as an oppressive act).

3. Microaggressions are particularly impactful in the classroom because I spend so much time with our students. To use the language of “perpetrator” and “recipient”: when the recipient of trauma encounters the perpetrator or the triggering situation more than once, this is a re-traumatizing experience. The encounter with the stranger can eventually fade into a distant memory; it is that much harder for a student encounter to be forgotten, especially if I see the student on a regular basis. This is especially true because a microaggression is an attack on a deep, personal level that other classroom challenges might not be; a student who inappropriately sends text messages in class is a challenging situation, but that problematic behavior is not centered around insulting or invalidating my personal identities.

But what can we do in response to microaggressions?  We must do something. Over and over, research shows the deleterious impact of burnout for faculty,5 including a particular type of burnout among faculty of color,6 including faculty of color in Christian higher education.7 For faculty of color, the insults and invalidations directed against our identity are a unique stressor that is in addition to the everyday faculty stressors, and it is especially important for us to find a way to cope.

Moreover, how can we redeem our experiences for the good of our students, whom God has entrusted to our care?

Here are some initial thoughts (Here, I suggest some responses for faculty of color, and therefore use “we” in addition to “I” to suggest them):

1. Continually lament to God about them in prayer. Loving our students even when they are intentionally or unintentionally microaggressing against us can take on the form of earnest prayer lifted up on behalf of our students.

2. Actively find a community (e.g., faculty of color gatherings) to process microaggressions without the fear of judgement or further invalidation. Pray with like-minded folks for God to work in our hearts and minds so that we can continue to faithfully love our students. Lean on this type of community to practice self-compassion and engage in self-care. Self-compassion can look like being gracious to ourselves for how impacted we might feel as a result of experiencing microaggressions; self-care might look like utilizing active coping strategies to restore or sense of well-being, such as being intentional about pursuing our favorite leisure activities or seeking professional support (e.g., counseling).

3. If possible, find ways to reconcile with students. I have never met a professor who said that they “cancelled” a student because they did or said something offensive in the classroom. At the same time, I must confess that at times, I might have decided in my heart to relate to a student in a manner that was more passive than what was needed for reconciliation, after they microaggressed against me. For example, instead of making an intentional effort to dialogue with a student about a microaggression, I might have “let things slide” in a way that was not ultimately truly beneficial to the student’s learning and growth, as well as our professor/mentor-student relationship.

Christian love necessitates the practice of accountability and restoration of relationships. To be clear, I am not saying that there should be premature forgiveness or unjustly skipping forward to restoration of relationships without the difficult part of naming and processing the pain. In some cases, a candid dialogue to clarify any misunderstandings might be required. But it is important for faculty to seek out ways to restore their relationship with students who have microaggressed against them, even if a positive outcome is not guaranteed. It’s living out the truth of Romans 12:18: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (NIV).

4.Model cultural humility to students. Humility8 includes both internal aspects (e.g., a sensible view of the self) and interpersonal ones (e.g., resistance to elevating the self above others). I find both of these dimensions to be consistent with a Christian understanding of ourselves as fallen but restored creatures reflecting God’s image and that we are called to also see others as such creatures (and to treat them as better than ourselves; Philippians 2:3). Applied to the topic of microaggression, I teach my students that we are all microaggressors at some point in our lives, to drive home the point that microaggressions include unintended harm that we can cause others (again, see this blog piece for more on this point). It’s truly difficult to do so, but I sometimes share my own experiences of perpetuating microaggressions against others (including my own students!), and how I went about attempting to restore injured relationships. These collective efforts stem from the practice of being appropriately vulnerable to my students, and going deeper, acknowledging the important truth that my fallenness is shared with the student who microaggressed against me (i.e., interpersonal aspect of humility).

In closing, I recognize that this blog post focused on an individual level—precisely, the recipients-of-the-microaggressions level, and how the individuals can respond. But I want to emphasize that institutional support is absolutely necessary to put into practice the ideals outlined in this post. It is too much to ask for a faculty member to carry the burden alone, in the silence of their offices or on the coldness of their computer screens, trying to process that comment in class or the email that just arrived. I hope that Christian higher education institutions and their leaders will find ways to be proactive (read: not racially colorblind) in recognizing that microaggressions do occur against minoritized faculty and creating structures to protect against the harmful effects of microaggressions.

For those who have experienced microaggressions from students, how do you cope with them? Do share your ideas!


  1. Derald Wing Sue, Christina M. Capodilupo, Gina C. Torino, Jennifer M. Bucceri, Aisha Holder, Kevin L. Nadal, and Marta Esquilin, “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: implications for Clinical Practice.” American Psychologist 62, no. 4 (2007): 271-286.
  2. Sue, Derald Wing, Sarah Alsaidi, Michael N. Awad, Elizabeth Glaeser, Cassandra Z. Calle, and Narolyn Mendez, “Disarming Racial Microaggressions: Microintervention Strategies for Targets, White Allies, and Bystanders.” American Psychologist 74, no. 1 (2019): 128-142.
  3. Paul Youngbin Kim, Dana L. Kendall, and Katharine E. Bau “Racial Microaggressions on Christian Campuses: Instrument Development and Exploratory Factor Analysis,” Christian Higher Education 20, no. 5 (2021): 325–340.
  4. Beverly D. Tatum. Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race [Revised Edition]. Basic Books, 2017.
  5. Zaynab Sabagh, Nathan C. Hall, and Alenoush Saroyan, “Antecedents, Correlates and Consequences of Faculty Burnout,” Educational Research 60, no. 2 (2018): 131–156.
  6. Frank Tuitt, Michele Hanna, Lisa M. Martinez, M. Salazar, and Rachel Griffin, “Teaching in the Line of Fire: Faculty of Color in the Academy,” Thought & Action 25, no. 20 (2009): 65–74.
  7. Jung H. Hyun, Paul Youngbin Kim, Hee-Sun Cheon, and David Leong, “Asian American Faculty’s Racialised Experiences in Christian Higher Education,” Mental Health, Religion & Culture 25, no. 2 (2022): 207–225.
  8. Don E. Davis, Joshua N. Hook, Everett L. Worthington Jr, Daryl R. Van Tongeren, Aubrey L. Gartner, David J. Jennings, and Robert A. Emmons, “Relational Humility: Conceptualizing and Measuring Humility as a Personality Judgment,” Journal of Personality Assessment 93, no. 3 (2011): 225–234.

Paul Y. Kim

Seattle Pacific University
Paul Youngbin Kim is Professor of Psychology in the School of Psychology, Family, and Community at Seattle Pacific University


  • Gordon Moulden says:

    Hi, Professor Kim:

    As a white Canadian Christian living “up the road” from you in Metro Vancouver, BC–where, like Seattle, there are is a large Asian presence, I would like to share my thoughts. I lived in Japan for 21 years, and so have experienced the feelings of being both a cultural minority and an outsider returning to my home culture and experiencing the challenge of relating to locals of my own ethnic background who have never ventured outside their cultural bubble.
    The main sentiment I’ve experienced in both environments is that those who do not share your experience do not understand your perspective, and very often lack both empathy towards you and comfort in your presence. There is also a lack of comfort and empathy in general among human beings towards those considered “different”. We frankly do not handle people we regard as different from us very well; humankind’s history is rife with examples, from Ishmael’s mocking attitude towards Isaac and Sarah’s dislike of both Hagar and Ishmael, to Abraham’s own discomfort going into Egypt, an Egyptian Pharaoh’s fear towards the increasing Hebrew population in his country’s midst, resulting in their slavery and command to kill every newborn Hebrew male, to many Jews dissing of people from Galilee in Christ’s time–”Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Our discomfort or dislike those who are different can result in microagressions at the very least and outright hate-filled aggression and even attempted genocide (Nazi Germany, Yugoslavia, Rwanda). It too often starts in childhood, “inherited” from adults and can last a lifetime. I experienced it in Japan from both the very young and old, even from white missionaries who’d grown up there, while at the same time being in immigration offices and realizing it was better to be white than a non-local Asian.

    So I honestly do not expect unbelievers to “behave” well towards those who are different. There are too many filters, too many attitudes “nurtured” since childhood. But . . . I do think we have a right to expect and require members of a faith community, whether it be a church, company, or college/university, to handle differences, in particular ethnic differences, far better. First, Acts 17 tells us that every member of every ethnic group has a common ancestor–”one blood”. Whatever differences we have, that commonality needs to be emphasized in any multiethnic faith community. Second, as Paul wrote to the Galatians, there is, spiritually, “neither Greek nor Jew” . . . . in any Christian community; “all are one in Christ Jesus”. That attitude must be evident to please Christ, himself a regional minority in Jerusalem. Therefore, I believe the leaders of every Christian university need to articulate clearly, in writing, that mistreatment of any member of the community, verbal or physical, on the basis of cultural, physical, or cognitive differences, will not be tolerated. We are to “be devoted to one another in brotherly love”, to “give preference to one another in honor”, and to “do everything in love” to everyone in our midst. There will, of course, still be slip ups, still problems. But a Christian institution does not need to tolerate them on the part of any of its members, including those unbelievers who choose to be a part of that community. We MUST do better than those in our surrounding culture. Our communities need to be oases from the ethnic troubles going on around us.

    • Brian Howell says:

      Hi Gordon (if I may),

      As a fellow white person, and one who has studied racial identity and systems over the years, I think what you’re talking about – “ethnic” differences and discomfort with those who are “different” – is not quite the same thing as the racial microaggressions that Prof. Kim is talking about. There certainly can be ethnic microaggressions, but “race” is a different category. I don’t know Dr. Kim, but it would not surprise me if, culturally, he were very much like his students in virtually every external way. The only “difference” being that of race, which is, as I’m sure you know, a culturally constructed category with no fixed or “natural” content. Thus, racial microaggressions come from a cultural context in which white supremacy has been thoroughly inculcated in the population. Unfortunately, I have often found that it is definitely unbelievers who have been most intentional about rooting out the practices and ideology of white supremacy that afflict individual and communal behavior and thought.

      I certainly agree that we have the resources in our faith to address racial thinking, but I fear an approach that primarily emphasizes one-ness and a zero tolerance to mistreatment will not fundamentally address the ideological and practical consequences of white supremacy.

      Dr. Kim, I very much appreciate your willingness to share your experience. It was good for me to think more deeply about the role of microaggressions from student to professor and the particularity of THOSE dynamics. I know that several of my colleagues have reported that being able to share these experiences with colleagues (including their white colleagues), while difficult, has been healing for them, with the enormous caveat that they are listened to and *believed* without second guessing, or minimization (which is a kind of microaggression all its own, of course.) I have certainly tried to develop my own understanding of racial dynamics to be someone my colleagues can trust will listen and seek to understand without inserting my own experience. I think there is a heavy responsibility on those of us who read white to educate ourselves and learn to listen well, in order to help support all our colleagues.

      • Gordon Moulden says:

        Thank you for your point, Brian. Actually, it brought to mind an incident here in Vancouver that occurred during the pandemic: an elderly Asian man was pushed to the ground by a woman. What was obvious from the video, and which later became official with an arrest, was that the woman was also Asian. Personally, in Japan, I experienced more microaggression from some longtime white missionaries than I did from any of my Japanese brethren from whom, truly, I experienced none. Yet there are members of other Asian communities who have a more difficult time with other Asians outside their culture, not only in Asia but also in Metro Vancouver.

        I don’t believe that a no-tolerance policy will serve to eradicate microaggressions. I do know of people with deeply-engrained bigotry that impacts their behaviour. There is much of this in my country’s history. Nevertheless, I do think Christian organizations need policies in place, given the principles we have in scripture, against behaviour and speech that would be displeasing to Christ. Francis Schaefer wrote a book, based on John 13:34-35, called “The Mark of the Christian”, the point of the book being that unbelievers who witness a lack of love among believers have every right to question the genuineness of our faith. “By this the world will know that you are My disciples by your love for one another.” That command is in place; violating it does not lessen is credibility even if keeping it may be a pipe dream for some.

      • William Pannell says:

        I side with Brian on this issue. I agree with our Canadian brother of course, but down here, in Yankee country, the issue is a cultural one. And most white students bring a cultural bias with them to campus and most of them are unaware of it or how deeply they are affected. I have been on and off Christian campuses for years; I have been a board member on several, and have honorary degrees from several. Now at a somewhat ripe age of 94 I simply assume that when I speak in a chapel at such a site, there are young people out there who find me a tad strange. What they need is a walk across campus to the place where there is an ample supply of coffee and donuts. They will be impressed by what they discover me to be.

      • Paul Youngbin Kim says:

        I appreciate this response, Brian. Especially, your point about believing faculty of color, without minimization or qualifications, is so valuable. Thank you for your allyship. Also, grateful for you reading my post and engaging in this message board conversation!

    • Paul Youngbin Kim says:

      Thank you for reading my post and engaging the ideas, Gordon. While I do not agree with everything that you wrote in response (e.g., I believe that microaggressions are not the same thing as “lack of comfort and empathy in general” toward others), I appreciated your point about the importance of a clear institutional stance against microaggressions on Christian campuses. As Brian noted in the below response, I feel like Christian campuses often do not live up to this ideal, which is so sad because our faith has so much to offer in terms of inclusivity and belonging.