Designing Experiences for Learning: Racial Microaggressions

Hillary Carey
11 min readFeb 20, 2020
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:

  1. As part of a research project in the Human Computer Interaction Institute, I have been facilitating Participatory Design workshops dealing with microaggressions.
  2. I am a student in Stacie Rohrbach’s course on learning + design. She is guiding us through learning theories and design approaches with the goal of constructing an engaging learning experience in May.

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:

  • Connecting people to research findings in a more tangible, interactive format
  • Experimenting with how to talk with white people about race
  • Demonstrating how people can learn about race in an accessible and engaging way that is immediately useful (hopefully!).

10 hypotheses about a learning experience

  1. Hearing about microaggressions from the perspective of students could help professors understand the harm experienced, better than when addressed in academic articles or training workshops.
  2. Finding a creative way for professors to interact with stories from research sessions will engage them in the findings in a different, more emotional way than merely reading the findings.
  3. If professors are more aware of racial microaggressions, they will build stronger relationships with students of different racial identities.
  4. When professors do not understand that a microaggression has occurred, dismissal of the incident can amplify the offense of it.
  5. College campuses today include very diverse student bodies, including white, non-white, American, and non-American students. This diversity increases the chances of microaggressions happening in classrooms.
  6. Learning that racial microaggressions extend beyond African Americans to other racial identities will help comprehension.
  7. When students experience microaggressions from professors or TAs, they are unlikely to speak out about it because of the power difference. Instead, the student will feel distanced from the professor, experience ongoing harm from the offense, and the professor will remain unaware.
  8. Students of color will most often have predominantly white professors who do not understand the “othering” they face daily. “Because 86% of teachers are White (U.S. Department of Education, 2007), they often do not understand the worldview of racial and ethnic minorities and may be unaware of how racial microaggressions may trigger difficult dialogues in the classroom.” (Sue et al. 2009, p. 184)
  9. Many professors are not prepared for conversations about race. “Unfortunately, teachers and human relations specialists seem ill prepared to deal with the potential, explosive nature of racial interactions; they do not recognize racial microaggressions when they occur, feel uncomfortable with race-related topics, and lack the skills needed to facilitate difficult dialogues on race (Young, 2003).” (Sue et al. 2009, p. 183)
  10. Microaggressions are another piece of the larger white supremacy problem. “Lack of awareness allows many Whites to live in a world of false deception about the nature and operation of racism.” (Sue et al. 2009, p. 183)

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


  • The terms, “racism” and “microaggressions” are challenging terms for professors, they may not want to engage that way.
  • Microaggressions are something many Professors and Teaching Assistants do not know is a problem. So they lack motivation to fix it until they understand it.
  • Experienced professors are likely to be more focused on the content that they teach, rather than learning new ways to behave in the classroom.
  • If professors see themselves as mainly responsible for academic content, rather than social context, they may not see themselves as the people to intervene or disrupt low-level racial interactions.


  • T.A.’s and Grad-student-teachers may be more open to learning “soft skills” than experienced professors.
  • Understanding microaggressions is a way to be great in the classroom. This is a way to build relationships with diverse students.
  • They are often invisible to white people, so it’s a sort of superpower to be able to see them.
  • Position this as a way to protect students from harm (from others)

2. Holding their attention

  • The Magic Circle concept: A safe, anonymous space to make mistakes
  • Like the first-person, immersive narrative game SPENT
Illustration by Stacie Rohrbach

3. Aiding memory of the knowledge and skills they acquire

  • Hear personal stories from diverse students on campus
  • Try it out and get feedback
  • Brainstorm ways to intervene for students
  • Harmful/not harmful. Quiz-format to assess which statements are hurtful and why.
  • Try to intervene. Role-playing through the game, what is the best way to intervene? What might happen?
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?

  • First-person interactive game (like SPENT= Image + text + choice)
  • Game embedded in a larger online learning module
  • Game embedded in an in-person learning experience to reflect as a group
  • First-person as the Student of Color in classroom
  • From POV of Student of color, experiencing multiple microaggressions over time
  • The game could play-up the uncertainty for the Student of Color — to build empathy for how difficult that aspect is. Was that really racist? Is that person ignorant or intentionally hurtful?
  • First-person as the professor, how do you navigate the conversations and connect with students without offending
  • First-person as a bystander to the microaggression, should you/would you speak up? What are the options? How will the professor respond?
  • The game can embed fanciful tools to intervene in the racist incident
  • The game can allow you to play out different ways of intervening to see what might happen. You can adjust how defensive the perpetrator is going to be, or maybe it should be unpredictable.
  • Role-playing game for groups to enact scenarios
  • A card game like Pokemon where you have racial interactions, interventions, and reactions — try to play the right combination to not make the situation worse for the person of color.
  • Level-up your character, getting through easy tasks first and then the hardest task of navigating a very complex discussion. Become the ultimate inclusive TA!
  • Room-based adventure — each room has a different challenge or puzzle about microaggressions
  • Point-and-click adventure games, and interactive drawing where you click on the students to see how each is responding to what was said.
  • Point-and-click game to build a contraption that comforts a student who experienced a microaggression.
  • Work with Duolingo to imagine racial fluency as a language — how would you build up competency?
  • Cards Against Humanity-style group card game. A racial situation is chosen and then players compete for the best, funniest, and worst response to the situation.
  • Gallery exhibit of fanciful interventions from Alexandra To’s research, illustrated as real tools for classrooms. Could be displayed at the Eberly Center’s TA orientation.
  • Install provocative artifacts in classrooms: A racism-listener on the wall of every classroom will alert if racist phrases are used or a microaggression button under every desk — students can press it without being seen to alter the professor… or the Center for Diversity and Inclusion response team, that something offensive has occurred
  • A (fictional) catalog of teaching tools for inclusive classrooms, featuring illustrations of the concepts from the PD sessions on microaggressions, featuring interviews with the “inventors” sharing their personal stories with being othered.
  • Coloring book/activity book to meditate and reflect on racial identities in the classroom
  • RCA-style Video lesson (marker sketches)
  • Participatory Design sessions with TAs — engage them in imagining solutions to the problem
  • Participatory Making sessions with students of color and professors — how to create more inclusive classrooms
  • Ask questions at the beginning and end of the game to collect data/feedback.

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).”

  1. High-Level Purpose: Increase awareness of microaggressions and reduce instances of these racial slights, to reduce the level of persistent harm experienced everyday.
  2. Audience & Context: New Teaching Assistants who are learning to manage diverse classrooms and will be in positions of authority with students. These will be primarily graduate students at universities in the United States, but not all of them will have an understanding of racism in an American context. They will primarily range in age from 22–30 years old. They will work in many different disciplines, and will facilitate a range of different classroom structures.
  3. Player Transformations: My hope is for players to move from a lack of awareness of what microaggressions are, to an understanding of what they look like and why they do harm, which will ultimately translate into fewer microaggressive actions in their real world. At an advanced level, players can practice intervening to interrupt microaggressions when they see them. Even people who are very informed about microaggressions have uncertainty and concerns about how best to intervene. Giving space to practice ways of distracting, disrupting, and calling-out racism in the moment could be a valuable way to increase comfort in real world situations and reduce the pain of uncertainty that lingers after an incident.



Hillary Carey

Design + AntiRacism + Long-term Visions | PhD in #TransitionDesign @CarnegieMellonDesign | Coaching & Workshops @JustVisions.Co