Abstract: Microaggressions in Social Work Education: Students' Responses to Vignettes (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Microaggressions in Social Work Education: Students' Responses to Vignettes

Thursday, January 16, 2020
Treasury, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Rebecca Mirick, PhD, LICSW, Assistant Professor, Salem State College, MA
Ashley Davis, PhD, LICSW, Clinical Associate Professor, Boston University, Boston, MA
Background & Purpose

Microaggressions are commonly experienced by social work students with marginalized social identities (Austin et al., 2016; Charles et al., 2017; Hollingsworth et al., 2018). Sue et al. (2007) defined microaggressions as “verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults”. This concept has been expanded to other aspects of social identity, such as: “age, class, color, culture, disability and ability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity and expression, immigration status, marital status, political ideology, race, religion/spirituality, sex, sexual orientation, and tribal sovereign status” (CSWE, 2015, p. 14). Through their social work education, students need to develop the ability to recognize and address microaggressions, both as a witness and a perpetrator (Thurber & DiAngelo, 2018). Little research has explored students’ understanding of microaggressions. This study addressed this gap in the research by exploring BSW students’ perceptions of microaggressions, their ability to recognize and address them, and their expectations for faculty’s response to microaggressions.


At the end of a nationwide study of microaggressions in undergraduate social work education (N=907), BSW student participants were asked to share their email address if they wanted to participate in interviews about microaggressions. These students (N=251) were emailed an invitation to participate in this study and 20 semi-structured interviews were conducted via telephone. In the interview, students responded to five vignettes of microaggressions in social work education, drawn from common examples from the larger study. Participants identified whether these examples were microaggressions and why, and what they believed the student, the classmates, and the instructor should have done, if anything, to respond. Audiotapes of the interviews were transcribed. Transcriptions were analyzed using thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006).                                                                     


Participants (N=20) identified as primarily female (65%), with 25% identifying as male and 10% non-binary/gender queer. Participants were from 16 U.S. states. Sixty percent were White, with 10% Black, 10% Latinx, 5% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 5% multiracial. There was a lack of agreement on whether the vignettes were microaggressions. For the first example, 70% said yes. The following were 55% yes, 65% yes, 80% yes and 80% yes. On a scale of 1-10, participants felt well-prepared to recognize microaggressions (M=7.4) and address them (M=7.7). Primary themes about identifying and recognizing microaggressions were: intention, marginalization, stereotyping, and visibility of social identities. Primary themes about faculty responses to microaggressions were: taking responsibility, relationship repair, and prevention.

Conclusions & Implications

While BSW students and recent graduates feel that they are fairly well prepared to identify and address microaggressions, there does not seem to be a lot of agreement about what constitutes a microaggression within a social work classroom. As many of the examples could easily occur in professional agencies and organizations in which BSW social workers are employed, these findings suggest that BSW programs should reflect on the explicit ways in which this content is covered in the curriculum, as well as the implicit ways it may be learned both within and outside the classroom.