It’s Not That Deep: Microaggressions in the classroom


microaggressions; identity; Asian-American; biracial; implicit bias; classroom dynamics


As the United States grapples with addressing systemic injustices, implicit bias and microaggressions are at the forefront of recent anti-racism conversations. Implicit bias refers to the assumptions, stereotypes, or attitudes that unconsciously influence our actions, thoughts, and understandings. Microaggressions are the commonplace behaviors or statements that communicate, whether intentional or unintentional, hostile or negative attitudes toward marginalized groups. Eliminating implicit bias and calling out microaggressions in the classroom are being prioritized now more than ever. An increasing number of students experience the effects of everyday racism as the population of non-White Americans grows.

This case highlights how ingrained racial biases can be in educational settings and addresses the obstacles people with multiple cultural identities can face. It outlines a scenario of differing perspectives as a result of various cultural backgrounds and upbringings.


Olivia was raised by her Filipina immigrant mother and White Midwestern father in the predominantly Asian community of Daly City, California, just south of San Francisco. Her parents disagreed about where to settle down and start a family. Her mom wanted to move back to the Philippines to immerse her children in Filipino culture, but her dad wanted to keep his job in the United States. The two ultimately settled on Daly City, which has an Asian population of 56%, and more specifically, a Filipino population of 33%.

Olivia and her siblings attended predominantly Asian public schools until 12th grade. She never had trouble finding people who shared and understood her Filipino identity, but she struggled with her biracial background, sometimes feeling too White for the Filipino kids but too Asian for the White kids. She was able to connect with people of other Asian backgrounds and came to appreciate the differences between each country’s customs. Olivia learned to celebrate her Filipino identity within a larger Asian one by experiencing the food, language, media, and celebrations of different Asian countries while comparing and contrasting them to Filipino culture.

Olivia envisioned a life outside of Daly City and sought the stereotypical American college experience, like the one she saw in the movies.  She opted for a large state university in the Midwest close to where her dad grew up. In one of her first classes, the professor had an introductory PowerPoint slide projected on the board. The icebreaker for the day read: “If you could travel back in time, what decade would you visit?” The students, the majority of whom were White, shared their answers in small groups. In Olivia’s group, Layla shared first. She chose the roaring 20s because of the parties and the “flapper aesthetic.” Shea chimed in next, sharing that she would love to go back to the 1960s “just for the gogo boots.” Olivia was about to agree—she too loves flapper dresses and gogo boots—but being biracial during those periods sounded dangerous. Interracial marriage was not legal until the late 1960s, and anti-Asian racism was still rather prominent. Instead, Olivia played it safe and chose the early 2000s, which Layla and Shea immediately called boring. They pushed Olivia to choose something “less basic.” Olivia, becoming very conscious that all of the other members of her group were White, wanted to explain that most minorities probably wouldn’t want to go back to any period of American history. To Olivia, American history and injustice for minority groups are intrinsically linked, and she was surprised that Layla and Shea did not seem to make that connection. The professor called the class back to a group discussion before Olivia could say anything. She wondered for the rest of the class how the other few non-White students answered the icebreaker question.

The following week the class discussed a new icebreaker with a new group. This time the board read: “Who would play you in a movie about your life and why?” Olivia racked her brain for an answer. There aren’t many half-White, half-Filipino celebrities that her peers would know. Despite looking nothing like her, Olivia settled on Vanessa Hudgens. Maxwell, a White student in her group, seemed to disagree. “No, you should choose Sandra Oh. I love her.” Olivia laughed it off and responded that she also loves Sandra Oh, but added that Oh is Korean whereas she is Filipino. “Tomayto, tomahto,” Maxwell replied, already focusing his attention on the next person in the group. Olivia reminded Maxwell that the two countries are very different and that choosing a Filipina actress is important to her because it is a salient part of her identity. Trying to move on, another White student in the group jumped in. “It’s not that deep.” The third student, also White, added, “Yeah, aren’t you just half Asian anyways? You could pick a white actress too.”

Olivia could feel the heat emanating from her red-hot face and her heartbeat racing. Olivia was used to educating people about their insensitive statements, whether they came from her non-Asian peers or even her White father. She wanted to argue with her classmates, but she had learned that you cannot change the minds of people who do not want to listen. She was tired of having to teach people about cultural awareness in the first place, and was frustrated that an important part of her identity was being overlooked for a second week in a row. She was also confused. Did her White peers not see her as Asian? Why did they not see the issues with their comments? She sat through the rest of class without saying a word, even when she knew the answer to the professor’s questions. She considered bringing up the discussions to her professor, but the icebreaker questions, which she believed to have inherent racial bias, also frustrated her.

Discussion Questions

As you consider this case, discuss:

  • What assumptions did the professor make when writing these icebreaker questions? What is a similar exercise that the professor could consider to make an icebreaker more inclusive in the future?
  • How did the structure of Olivia’s class perpetuate implicit bias?
  • How might Olivia’s upbringing in an Asian community have influenced her reaction to this classroom situation? If she had been raised in a predominantly White community, how might her reaction have differed?
  • How did Western conventions and stereotypes of Asia influence the comments made by Olivia’s White peers? How did the upbringings of her peers influence their comments?
  • When Maxwell said “Tomayto, Tomahto” when comparing Koreans and Filipinos, did his intent matter? When considering the potential hurt caused by microaggressions, should impact or intent be prioritized?
  • Who has the responsibility to teach culturally less-experienced individuals about micro-aggressions?
  • If you were Olivia, what actions, if any, would you take after the class?
  • How does your own cultural identity affect your implicit biases?

Additional Resources

Additional recommended resources to explore the central themes in this case are available.

Corresponding Author
Iiams, Isabela. American University, School of International Service, DC., United States. Email: