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Spotlight on Diversity at OHIO: National expert speaks on microaggressions during Virtual Diversity Leadership Institute

Ohio University’s Division of Diversity and Inclusion hosted the 2020 Virtual Diversity Leadership Institute on April 16 with the keynote topic of how microaggressions can impact the daily lives of marginalized people. 

Extended learning sessions also offered training opportunities on cultural competency; power, privilege and oppression; and nurturing diverse faculty and staff.

The keynote speaker was Dr. Derald Wing Sue, a professor of psychology at Columbia University’s Teachers College, who is a renowned expert on microaggressions.  

Dr. Sue was introduced by OHIO President M. Duane Nellis, who greeted the more than 200 participants by reminding them that Ohio University strives to be a leader in diversity and inclusion.

“The skills you learn today about microaggressions will help you in your daily work and benefit our students, faculty and staff that you interact with,” Dr. Nellis said. “Ohio University’s strength lies in its people, and we need all of our students, faculty and staff to feel welcomed and empowered.”

Dr. Gigi Secuban, vice president for diversity and inclusion, added, "To build a campus culture in which our diverse student body and staff can thrive, we, as a campus, have to do the collective work of learning, sharing, engaging in introspection, and building empathy across our differences. Today’s topic is especially timely given the rising prejudice against people of Asian descent during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Dr. Sue defined microaggressions as the slights, indignities, put downs, insults and invalidations that marginalized people in our society experience in their day-to-day interactions with well-intentioned individuals who are unaware of their demeaning and offensive behavior.

Dr. Sue said in reality, microaggressions:
•    are constant and continual with no end date
•    are cumulative (could be the feather that breaks the camel’s back)
•    must be deciphered because they have double messages 
•    are constant reminders of their second-class status in society 
•    symbolize past historic injustices such as slavery and unjust incarceration 

“Microaggressions are reflections of our world views of normality, abnormality, superiority, inferiority and inclusion and exclusion,” Dr. Sue said. “They are forms of implicit bi¬¬as and outside the level of conscious awareness of the people who engage in them.”

He said many people tell him that microaggressions are harmless, trivial, and insignificant, but he disagrees. He said he agrees with poet Maya Angelou who called them “death by a thousand cuts” because marginalized people experience them constantly.

Dr. Sue shared that despite the fact that he is an Asian-American who was born and raised in the United States, he is often told that he speaks excellent English. 

“I usually respond, ‘thank you, I hope so, I was born here,’” he said. 

Dr. Sue said he also is often asked where he was born and after answering Portland, Oregon, the person repeatedly asks him again – convinced that he wasn’t born in the United States.

“These are true forms of microaggressions that contain a common theme,” Dr. Sue said. “They have a hidden message that is saying that true Americans look a certain way. The hidden message to me is that I am a perpetual alien in my own country.”

Dr. Sue said incidents like that are disappointing because the person asking the question is trying to connect with him. 

He described three forms of microaggression:

1.    Verbal – When words bring forward stereotypes. Dr. Sue gave the example that African Americans at his Columbia say they are often told that they are well-spoken and intelligent by their peers or professors, which implies that most African Americans aren’t well-spoken or intelligent and they are the exception. 

2.    Non-verbal – When people’s actions are offensive to the victim. An example of this is when an African American male enters a room and white women immediately clutch their purse because they feel threatened by his presence. 
3.    Environmental – When an environment makes a person from a marginalized group feel unwelcome. Dr. Sue gave the example of a woman who enters a room full of the executive leadership at a University and they are all white males. It could unintentionally make her feel uncomfortable and doubtful that she could be promoted to their level.

Dr. Sue said we all must realize that we harbor biases, prejudices and racist actions and beliefs, and that our resistance to exploring that is what makes us defensive.

“Each and every one of us will commit racial, gender and sexual orientation blunders,” Dr. Sue said. “None of us are free from the biases. It is very important that we don’t cover them up. It’s how you recover that is important.”

To watch Dr. Sue’s presentation, click

The three concurrent extended learning sessions were held after Dr. Sue’s presentation. 

The “Power, Privilege and Oppression” session provided an enhanced awareness of those terms and how they impact marginalized groups on various levels. It also explored ways to interrupt “isms,” and how allyship is a strong catalyst for social change. 

Presenter Dr. Tanisha King, Heritage College chief inclusion officer, said, “We all have the power to influence change. We just have to step out of our comfort zone and not be defensive.”

The "Nurturing Diverse Faculty and Staff" session had three presenters:

•    Dr. Duane Bruce, interim assistant director of the Multicultural Center
•    Dr. Jan Huebenthal, assistant director of the LGBT Center and coordinator of the Diverse Junior Faculty Mentoring Program 
•    Dr. Muriel Gallego, associate professor of applied linguistics-Spanish 

This session highlighted the factors, structures, and strategies affecting the job satisfaction, retention, and success of faculty and staff with diverse identities. After outlining the relevant research into job satisfaction factors, the presenters highlighted specific programs at OHIO designed to engage and empower diverse faculty and staff. 

“As a University that prioritizes diversity and inclusion, we have to have ongoing conversations about how to strategically empower our faculty and staff who bring marginalized identities and experiences to the academy,” Dr. Huebenthal said.

The "Cultural Competence" session featured an abbreviated version of the 90-minute Cultural Competence training offered by University Human Resources. It provided interactive opportunities to increase self-awareness, learn key terms and concepts associated with intercultural competence, and consider inclusive communication strategies to enhance and strengthen relationship-building skills.

"One of my favorite parts of this workshop is that it explores not only published definitions of key terms like “diversity,” “equity,” and “inclusion,” but also explores specifics about what such concepts mean in the context of our Ohio University pathway to nationally recognized inclusive excellence,” said presenter Micah McCarey, director of OHIO’s LGBT Center. 

Following the extended learning sessions, Dr. Secuban invited participants to a virtual lunch break and shared a recipe for Laotian egg rolls, which was a gift from a former student. 

“Food is such a powerful tool for building cross-cultural understanding and learning about other cultures,” Dr. Secuban said. “Here at OHIO, we have a proud tradition of celebrating food as cultural heritage – as seen during the Southeast Asian Night, to name one example – and I hope that today will inspire participants to explore new cuisines!”

Dr. Sue concluded the DLI by hosting a special microaggression session for University leadership. 

For more information about the DLI and to view recordings of the sessions, visit the Division of Diversity and Inclusion website at:

April 23, 2020
George E. Mauzy Jr.