Courageous Ignorance

Responding To Microaggressions

In his work at Teachers College at ColumbiaUniversity, Derald Wing Sue and his colleagues have outlined a range of racial microaggressions that invalidate or insult others. Based on Sue’s research and the concept that small remarks—many unintentionally racist—can have lasting effects on self-esteem, my colleague Kevin Gordon advocates a five-point response plan for youth leaders. This approach teaches rather than punishes:

  1. Notice your reaction. What personal meaning does your observation have? If you are having a strong reaction to something you witnessed or were even the target, reflect on what fueled that response. Specifically, can you identify which of your own biases are at work?
  2. Identify your role and goals. What do you hope to accomplish by responding? In your role as a youth leader, you have teaching goals, community-building goals, and an overarching goal to boost children’s multicultural IQ.
  3. Consider the context. What is really going on? What are others’ perspectives? Did anger or curiosity spark the behavior, or was someone provoked? Does someone feel as if he or she is in the non-dominant social group, and if so, why?
  4. Listen without judging. Ask, “Can you help me understand what you meant?” This is the central question in the spirit of courageous ignorance. You will learn a lot about others’ biases, viewpoints, and intentions by listening carefully at this stage.
  5. State your concern respectfully. As I’ve written many times, it’s better to state the positive alternate behavior than to proffer a negative platitude, such as, “I don’t want to hear any more racist comments.” Saying what not to do is less powerful than stating your concern and the desired behavior.

The only mistake to be made is not speaking up when you hear prejudicial remarks or witness racial microaggressions. (By the way, I’m thrilled to tell you that Kevin’s educational videos on multiculturalism are now available on

In a happy irony, Noah ended up explaining to Scott the origin of Easter. I then added the part about Easter being called Pascha (or something related) in languages besides English, and pointing out that Passover and Pascha are both derived from the Hebrew word Pesach. That was way too pedantic, and it brought the conversation to a temporary halt. But what revived it—and what continued the cabin bonding—was another courageously ignorant question, tossed out by one of the boys who hadn’t spoken yet: “What’s for dinner?” Ah, camp.

And so it goes in our work with young people. The unpredictability keeps us on our toes. You’ve heard the quip about why we shouldn’t “assume.” It’s not always true. What is certain is that asking cures ignorance and understanding cures prejudice. Now the question is: Do you have what it takes to ask about what you don’t know?

Dr. Christopher Thurber is the school psychologist at PhillipsExeterAcademy, the waterfront director at CampBelknap, and the co-founder of the leading web-based educational resource for youth leaders,

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