Inclusive Learning

Combatting “Micro”aggressions

Inclusion and diversity are vital ingredients for creating safe, equitable learning environments and fostering a sense of belonging. They’re prerequisites for meaningful work. In fact, the data show that science is more effective when diverse perspectives have a seat at the table, and when folks feel included. In an open letter to academia, Founder of RARE Coaching & Consulting and UNC graduate Aiko Bethea reminds us to “stop demanding the business case for investing in diversity, equity, and inclusion work. Just do it.” Recognizing the humanity of those who make up our community shouldn’t require a business case. Importantly, a workplace can be diverse without being inclusive. In other words, we can have a diverse array of perspectives in an organization, but if individuals do not feel welcomed, safe, or that their contributions matter–if they do not have agency or power–then inclusivity is absent.

An environment characterized by inclusivity and diversity cannot coexist where microaggressions are common or unacknowledged. Dr. Derald Wing Sue defines microaggressions as “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” As Canadian racial justice educator, healer, speaker and writer Rachel Ricketts observes, “Microaggressions are anything but micro…[this] is yet another tool to minimize the harms against the marginalized and perpetuate white supremacy. For this reason,” she notes, “microaggressions should really just be labeled what they are–aggressions.” Ricketts refers to microaggressions as “Heartbreaking Acts of Racism,” or H.A.R.M. for short.

Being able to recognize, prevent, and repair harms done by microaggressions is one way we can strive for a more diverse, inclusive and anti-racist community. So what do microaggressions look like? Our friends at UNC spell out some examples here. Below, we summarize this article from the American Society for Microbiology to illustrate some of the ways these harms show up in STEM:

Data show that men are more likely to be recognized as “Dr.” than women. A study published in the Journal of Women’s Health found that “women introduced by men…were less likely to be addressed by professional title than were men introduced by men.” Although this data reflects a narrow and binary view of gender, it demonstrates an alarming manifestation of sexism through “subtle exclusion.” Other subtle exclusions include incorrect pronunciation of someone’s name or pronouns and misgendering. Combatting these forms of microaggressions looks like asking someone how they identify and how to pronounce their name, listening, and making amends when you fall short.

Microaggressions can also take the form of excluding BI&POC from considerations for collaboration; underrepresentation in hiring and promotion; and discrimination in the workplace. To combat these forms of aggression, organizations must create clear policies for hiring, promotion, and other opportunities to ensure leaders and committees are held accountable for these decisions. Training in implicit bias can also mitigate this form of discrimination.

As the American Society for Microbiology notes, eradicating microaggressions will require creating an environment that is “accessible, welcoming and safe to all gender identities, gender expression styles, body types, body sizes, physical and mental abilities, race, [and] ethnicities.” It will mean abdicating the responsibility to recognize and address microaggressions from folks with marginalized identities and placing the onus on those in power. It will mean holding leaders accountable to the impacts of their words and actions–regardless of intention–and listening to and believing Black, Indigenous & women and femmes of color when seeking restitution.


Bethea, A. (2020). An Open Letter to Corporate America, Philanthropy, Academia, etc.: What Now? Medium.

Derald W. S. (2010). Microaggressions: More Than Just Race. Psychology Today.

Files, J. A., Mayer, A. P., Ko, M. G., Friedrich, P., Jenkins, M., Bryan, M. J., … & Hayes, S. N. (2017). Speaker introductions at internal medicine grand rounds: forms of address reveal gender bias. Journal of Women’s Health26(5), 413-419.

Reese, A. (2022). Combating Microaggressions in Science: Making Science More Welcoming and Inclusive. American Society for Microbiology.

Ricketts, R. (2021). Do Better: Spiritual Activism for Fighting and Healing from White Supremacy. Atria Books.

Science benefits from diversity. (2018). Nature, 558(5).

Censorship, Cancel Culture & Free Speech

In a 2021 survey to assess free speech on American undergraduate campuses, Duke University ranked #18 out of 154 ranked schools for overall free speech (for reference, Princeton and Harvard ranked at or lower than #130). Rankings were based on a composite score of 7 sub-components: openness, tolerance for conservative speakers, tolerance for liberal speakers, administrative support for free speech, comfort expressing ideas, disruptive conduct, and a policy review of a school’s written commitment to free speech. Among its findings, the survey reports that more than 50% of students identified racial inequality as a difficult topic to discuss on their campuses and just two in 5 (40%) say they are comfortable disagreeing with a professor. You can find the full report, including the complete ranking list and survey, here. I share this report with you not to boast Duke’s “achievement,” but to probe you with an inquiry: how can we foster a culture of intellectual diversity and critical thinking that allows space for healthy disagreement?

In an opinion piece for the New York Times, UVA senior Emma Camp cautions the rise of “monotonous echo chambers…mired in socially safe ideas” if we are unwilling or intolerant of divergent thinking. Shaming our classmates for unpopular ideas is a short walk from a culture defined by pervasive anxiety, fear, obedience, conformity, self-censorship, isolation and decreased participation. At Duke, we have to do better. We must recognize that (1) DEI work is inclusive—and that includes diverse ideologies; (2) effective DEI work is growth-oriented, not shame oriented; and (3) cancel culture threatens to further marginalize, exclude and alienate our community.

Want to learn more about free speech and censorship? Listen to this episode of Brené Brown’s podcast Unlocking Us with civil liberties attorney Ben Wizner. Looking for tips on cultivating a growth-mindset? Check out Mindset: the New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck (link).

Calling Out vs. Calling In

Sometimes harmful words or behaviors, like bias or discrimination, require careful discernment in choosing how we respond. Havard’s Office for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging maps the difference between two tools we can use to take action when we witness these harms in our community: “Calling In” and “Calling Out.” Calling In is an invitation for a more personal, educational conversation to help someone understand why their behavior was harmful and how to prevent it moving forward; Calling Out brings public attention to an issue. As Harvard’s Office for EDIB points out, these two methods are not mutually exclusive. You can read about the difference between Calling In and Calling Out, when and how to use them here (Harvard, EDIB).


The above memos were written by Nicholas Fairbairn.