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Using Books to Teach Children About Microaggressions

Back in 1990, I was starting 7th grade in a new school in a new town after my family had relocated earlier that summer. I was an avid reader, but I never saw a book on the shelf that would help me understand this scenario: 

Boy: “Where’s your towel?” 

Me: “What?”

Boy: “Yeah, where’s your towel?” Cue lots of snickers.

Later, as I was getting off of the bus, another boy quietly said, “They think you’re Muslim.” 

I am white and was raised Catholic. I do have olive skin tones and tan very easily. The town I had moved to is home to a large mosque, which means a handful of students at my school were Muslim. Being new to town and admittedly unexposed to other faith traditions, I didn’t even know what being Muslim meant. My parents had to explain that asking about my towel was in reference to the hijab worn by some Muslim women. 

While I may have lacked the knowledge to understand the substance of this interaction (and that boy lacked the knowledge to realize skin tone is not an accurate way of determining someone’s religious faith), I knew without a doubt that this line of questioning was meant to cause pain. While I could shrug it off as a misunderstanding, you can imagine the pain comments like this cause Muslims; to have their faith traditions be likened to a bathroom accessory. This is a microaggression.

I recently read Ijeoma Olou’s incredible book, So You Want to Talk About Race. In it, Olou states that microaggressions are “small daily insults and indignities perpetrated against marginalized or oppressed people because of their affiliation with that marginalized or oppressed group.” She gives these examples: 

“That fiery Latin blood.” 

“Did you grow up in a teepee?”

“Why do black people give their kids such funny names?”

“Is that your real hair? Can I touch it?”

“You don’t sound black.” 

She also states microaggressions come in nonverbal form as well, such as clutching your purse tighter or crossing the street when you see a black person walking toward you. These are such important words and actions to learn about. Teach our children about. Take ownership of. Call each other out on. 

(Recognize the importance of step 1 above; to learn about these issues. Many white people are very naive and/or uninformed about this topic. Olou’s book is a great starting point.)

One of many ways we can do this is to point out examples of microaggressions in books that we are reading with our children. While the example might not always be directly stated by a character, an author might show the microaggression by the thoughts and actions of a character in response to one. Books give us a unique window into why microaggressions are so harmful, because unlike a movie or tv show, we often more personally connect to characters in a book.

  1. First, start by teaching your children what microaggressions are. In doing so, you might have to refer to some stereotypes your children aren’t yet aware of about marginalized people and cultures. It might feel like you are reinforcing the stereotype, but instead, you’re acknowledging the stereotype and showing them why it’s NOT ok. You need to teach them to challenge assumptions so that they know how to use words and actions to address stereotypes when they see and hear them. If you have younger children, or you feel unprepared for these discussions, this article about teaching first graders about microaggressions from Teaching Tolerance is a great resources. It also includes some really helpful book recommendations.
  2. Second, when a character uses or is a victim of a microaggression, discuss it. Why was it wrong? Why did the character say/use it? How did the character who was wrongfully attacked feel? What would you do if you witnessed this? This is the “doing the work” part that the majority of us need to do in order to be allies and stop systemic racism. Because reading is an act we do mostly in private, it gives us space to process this information without feeling defensive or ashamed. It also allows us to practice for when we are called to act in the real world. This willingness to discuss the hard questions is what ultimately moves the needle toward changed behavior.
  3. Third, apply examples from your reading to real life. If you realize you were the giver of microaggressions (knowingly or unknowingly), take ownership and discuss your errors with your children. They need to know that 1) it wasn’t ok, and 2) you’re human. We learn from our mistakes. Use resources to help you in your conversations if you feel you aren’t prepared, but your kids will appreciate your honesty.
  4. Finally, recognize when a book contains microaggressions in such a way that we should no longer be encouraging children to read it. Teachers, this is important. Many of the beloved “classics” are so full of microaggressions that they are extremely harmful, not only to students of color who are justifiably offended by the content, but also to white students, who are being sent a message that it is acceptable behavior. We’ll devote an entire post to this topic soon.

I’m in my 40s now and 7th grade was a very long time ago. So why is it that I can recall that scene on the bus like it was yesterday? As a white person, I’ll never know what being the recipient of microaggressions on a regular basis feels like, but that conversation on the bus was a window into it, in the same way that books provide similar introductions. Let’s commit to doing the work with our children to identify these hurtful actions. 

*This post contains Amazon affiliate links that support this website, as well as a link to Ijeoma Olou‘s personal website/book purchase page, which supports her work. Please also consider purchasing books from your local, independent bookstore, and/or a black-owned bookstore.

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