An NASSP Student Leadership Initiative

“That’s Not What I Meant”: Fighting microaggressions to embrace diversity and promote inclusivity

A microaggression is “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group” (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary). These go beyond race and can include gender, disabilities, the car you drive, sexual orientation, and even the clothes you wear. Microaggressions occur often out of misinformation and a lack of knowledge, and they can leave a lasting impact.

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“That’s Not What I Meant”: Fighting microaggressions to embrace diversity and promote inclusivity

By Kimberly Marfo

Despite tensions in the current climate, society continually strives to embrace diversity. Smoky Hill High School in Aurora, CO, prides itself on celebrating diversity, and in doing so, students and staff are able to form close bonds and become a family. Subsequently, our diversity can also be a breeding ground for microaggression—something we are working to fight against every day.

A microaggression is “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group” (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary). These go beyond race and can include gender, disabilities, the car you drive, sexual orientation, and even the clothes you wear. Microaggressions occur often out of misinformation and a lack of knowledge, and they can leave a lasting impact.

People tend to hesitate when talking about microaggressions because they fall on the same spectrum as prejudices and discrimination, but in fact we can help prevent prejudice and discrimination by addressing microaggressions head on. No one wants to feel like they are discriminatory, and through education and awareness about microaggressions, people will feel more comfortable having discussions because they will understand that there is a difference between a microaggression and discrimination.

Another distinction that needs to be made is between diversity and inclusion. Diversity is having all of the different pieces—in this case, individual students with distinct personalities, backgrounds, and interests—next to each other. Inclusion is when we’re able to put those pieces together to create something new and greater. When people are more inclusive, it is easier for people to go to one another and identify a problem and a solution. Starting the conversation about microaggressions is the first step toward an inclusive community.

The “That’s Not What I Meant” campaign is working to stop the use of microaggressions within the walls of Smoky Hill and beyond. This began with two girls who noticed all of the little hurtful comments that are said between classes, during lunch, even between friends. We wanted to bring these comments out in the open as a way to address, stop, and prevent microaggressions from spreading. We have been able to partner with our school’s Diversity Leadership Team to hold teacher training and presentations and spread more awareness. With help from AT&T, a Fortune 500 company that focuses on creating a loving environment within its diverse workplace and in its local communities, this campaign can grow exponentially and become one of great change. We were able meet with employees and talk about what they experience in the real world and the workforce. We also had the opportunity to meet with the vice president of AT&T, and it was amazing to see how someone so high in power was able to relate to us—it solidified that there really was a problem outside of high school. We sent a survey to both school and business sectors, and the results revealed that once people are given a definition about microaggressions, they were able to identify times when they either expressed one or experienced one. As people come to understand the meaning of a microaggression, it opens up doors for greater discussion.

As of right now, we have an Instagram account (@thatsnotwhat_i_meant) that sends posts that talk about microaggressions. We’ve recently started adding people’s stories about a time where they felt like people were making the wrong assumptions about them and the impact that we had on them. We also took this campaign to the DECA State competition this past February and have written an 18-page informational manual. At the DECA State competition, we were able to qualify for finals, but unfortunately did not make it to nationals. Despite this setback, we were able to see the impact that our project had on not only our judges, but on those that heard about our message. We need further support from the community to take this campaign as far as it will go, hopefully nationwide or even globally. This campaign wants to make an impact, no matter how small, by taking an already loving community and make it one of greater understanding. People can help by just talking about microaggressions in their schools, workplaces, communities, and more. Our main goal with this campaign is to spread the word about microaggressions, and we believe that once there is enough knowledge about this issue, we can embody a truly inclusive and kind environment.

What is your chapter/council doing to eliminate microaggressions and build inclusion?


Kimberly Marfo is an 11th-grade student at Smoky Hill High School in Aurora, CO.