Designing Experiences for Learning: Racial Microaggressions

Participants wrote post-its to analyze a fictional example of a racist microaggression

This entry is Part 2 of my process journal for Designing Learner Experiences. I have narrowed my focus to look at designing a teaching/learning experience around microaggressions on college campuses. This work combines two current projects for me:

My Transition Design Ph.D. Inquiry

Overall my dissertation work is focused on shifting how white people understand racism. At this point, in my first year, I am still shifting what the focus may be. This project will help me explore ways of engaging people in learning experiences around racism. Microaggression is one aspects of racism that white people tend to be ignorant to.

Key elements of understanding the present day impact of racism:

Approaching the problem

Professors, and others who are in positions of power with students, may unknowingly commit racial microaggressions that do harm to people of color: alienating them within their learning environment.

Professor Derald Wing Sue has literally written the book on Microaggressions (Microaggressions in Everyday Life : Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation, 2010), and countless other textbooks and papers. I am relying heavily on his paper, Racial Microaggressions and Difficult Dialogues on Race in the Classroom (2009) for reference.

The facets of this learning experience I am most interested in are:

10 hypotheses about a learning experience

Teaching University Professors about Microaggressions


“Brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group” (Sue, Capodilupo, et al., 2007, p. 273).


“These interactions have often polarized students and teachers rather than clarified and increased mutual respect and understanding about race and race relations.”(Sue et al. 2009, p. 184)

“From the perspective of people of color, microaggressions are tinged with explicit and implicit racial snubs, put-downs, or a pattern of disrespect.” (Sue et al. 2009, p. 183)

“People of color report that their lives are filled with incidents of racial microaggressions and that their well-intentioned White brothers and sisters are generally unaware that they have committed an offensive racial act” (Sue et al. 2009, p. 183)

“The invisible nature of racial microaggressions to Whites, for example, lowers empathic ability, dims perceptual awareness, maintains false illusions, and lessens compassion for others (Spanierman, Armstrong, Poteat, & Beer, 2006).” (Sue et al. 2009, p. 183)


“Although any group can potentially be guilty of delivering racial microaggressions, the most painful and harmful ones are likely to occur between those who hold power and those who are most disempowered.” (Sue, Capodilupo, Nadal, & Torino, 2008)


“Educators and social scientists believe that successful racial dialogues are necessary to reduce prejudice, increase compassion, dispel stereotypes, and promote mutual understanding and goodwill (Willow, 2008; Young, 2003)” (Sue et al. 2009, p. 184)

Week 9: Framing Learner Engagement

Restating the challenge:
Racial microaggressions harm people of color — especially in environments with a power imbalance — and where relationships across authority are being built: like a college classroom.

1.Motivating learners to engage



2. Holding their attention

Illustration by Stacie Rohrbach

3. Aiding memory of the knowledge and skills they acquire

Illustration by Stacie Rohrbach

Week 10: Form-giving

Brainstorming — Formats for the learner experience

Stacie and Ema help me brainstorm (back in February when we were allowed to work in classrooms)

How to engage TAs in an understanding of racial microaggressions?

Week 12 | Form-giving: Sketches and classmate feedback

I sketched out some of the detail of how a game about racial microaggressions might work. Then I shared three different concepts with my classmates.

Option 1: What if it were a social card game like Cards Against Humanity?

A sketch of a very awkward card game about microaggressions

I didn’t really expect this idea to be taken seriously, I just wanted to push my thinking outside of the choose-your-own-adventure game I kept thinking about. Surprisingly, it did bring up some points to think about in the feedback sessions. Classmates suggested that it’s a good way to have a discussion about a difficult topic. Or that it could be a powerful way for people of color to talk with their white friends about racism.

Option 2: A serious first-person narrative game

I am inspired by the simple but powerful game SPENT. So this style of a first-person, choose-your-own-adventure game is very appealing. Sketching out the screens gave me a lot to think about: who do you role play, the recipient of the microaggression, a professor, or a bystander? how to introduce the context? how complicated to make the options? how to provide feedback when someone makes the “wrong” choice?

A sketch of scene where a bystander-classmate witnesses a microaggression

This choice seemed to work well. Classmates took the choices seriously. Questions came up around how to keep people engaged and building empathy, not just learning what the expected answer is? how to grow in challenge and experience over time? How can it help anyone (bystander, recipient, or perpetrator) help spot microaggressions but also learn to deal with them as well?

Option 3: Build your skills to become a racial justice super hero!

This option was a build on the one before. I was hesitant at first to be playful with this subject, but after testing I became more confident that this makes the serious subject more engaging, and no less serious.

Sketch of an introductory screen inviting players into the game
Sketch of the feedback module guiding players toward an understanding of microaggressions

At this point we start to get into more detailed feedback. A cohesive story where we get to know the characters and follow them through the full game will be more compelling. Visuals and emotions can help the game to feel more immersive, and therefore people will likely take it more seriously. Questions arise about what the point systems will do, and can players share their scores? Do they HAVE to share their scores, if this is part of a training program?

Week 12 | Next steps: Exploring multiple paths

At this point in my PhD research journey, I am more interested in exploring the value of how different interventions might shape the way people think about racism. So at this point in my process, I am not going to narrow down to one idea and develop that in-depth. I am going to keep playing with different options and learn from the process of comparing different ideas against each other.

For microaggressions in the classroom, here I am examining different learner needs and how that could inform different types of learning experiences

Week 13: Transformative Games Framework

In a rich conversation with professor Jessica Hammer from ETC & HCI, she recommended looking at the Transformational Games Framework authored by Sabrina Culyba in the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon. The framework is a structured set of interconnected questions that outline the objectives for a game that seeks to transform the players beyond the context of the game.

From Culyba’s book:

“Each piece of the Framework connects back to the common challenges experienced when developing Transformational games (2018, p. 44).”

Design → AntiRacism → Design | pursuing a PhD in #TransitionDesign @CarnegieMellonDesign