Prioritizing Equity in the American Education System: A Service Project Working Against the School-to-Prison Pipeline (504 Final Project)

PREZI: 504 Service Project Presentation

WHO: This project is aimed at examining  and directly working against the current student-to-pipeline in Southeast Michigan.

WHAT: For my final project in SW504, I chose to engage in a volunteer service project with two different student advocacy organizations.   I worked with: (1) the Student Rights Project (SRP) and (2) The Neutral Zone (NZ).  With the SRP, I served as a member advocate in Wayne and Washtenaw Counties and represented/supported students and families caught in the cross hairs of questionable zero-tolerance disciplinary practices.  With the Neutral Zone, I was a trained adult volunteer that supported the after-school program and food services for the teens in attendance.  Ultimately, I volunteered for 15 hours with the SRP and 8 hours with the NZ.   The goals I set for this project are: (1) To learn about the proactive strategies already in play at the Neutral Zone and understand how safe spaces support youth development and academic achievement, (2) Observe the connection between thoughtful programming for youth and its relationship to reducing the student-to-prison pipeline, (3) Engage in cases with youth put up for suspension/expulsion to learn about Michigan-specific school disciplinary practices and dependence on zero-tolerance, & (4) Advocate for youth in exclusionary cases and learn how schools could incorporate restorative strategies to support student development and positive learning environments.

WHERE: I worked with students in both Washtenaw and Wayne Counties.  The concentration of my work was based in both Ann Arbor and Detroit.

WHEN: October- December 2017 (23 service hours total)

WHY + HOW: In the 1990s, a national rise in gun violence and public shootings urged for preventative legislation in school safety.  Parents, school administrators, and community members advocated for uncompromising learning environments and sought for swift, definitive punishment around weapons found in schools. In a response aligned with the neoliberal-leaning tendency of American education, the federal government passed into law The Gun-Free Schools Act (GFSA) in 1994 with a strict zero-tolerance policy initiative (Gordon-Ellis, 2016, p. 11).  As its namesake indicates, zero-tolerance allows for punitive legislation to enter into schools, banning “exception, compromise, or discretion” for students that threaten safety (Rice, 2009, p. 556).   In an effort to ensure implementation nationwide, public-school funding hinged on state adoption of this bill—naturally, Michigan followed suit and zero-tolerance was mandated on the state-level.  The statute specifically gave leading educational authorities (principals and superintendents) the discretion to suspend and make recommendations for expulsion if a student seriously compromises the safe learning space. This led to opening up the student-to-prison pipeline.

Despite Michigan consensus on the necessity for safer schools at the inception of zero-tolerance policy, the law quickly fell under scrutiny.  Michigan school districts began tackling offenses with questionable justification as options for suspension and/or expulsion referral.  Issues around “truancy, willful defiance, disruptive behavior, and dress code violation” were among the rising punishable trends under this policy, leading to an overwhelming volume of students removed from the classroom (Gordon-Ellis, 2016, p. 2).  Not only was the volume of students facing exclusionary practices at an all time high, but the percentage of punishment according to race and ethnicity were entirely disproportionate to students of color.

This social justice issue ultimately comes down to policy and consequential ethics in school discipline.  Should schools value safety over anything else?  Or should schools consider equity as the foundation for keeping schools safe in the long-term? In current American reality, schools have been placing safety above all other factors in schools, which have led to a rise in discriminatory, subjective practices that exacerbate the school-to-prison pipeline.

With this project, I am interested in: (1) understanding what current factors are in play in public schools that perpetuate zero-tolerance policy, (2) directly advocating in case-specific issues with students and families being impacted by potential student-to-prison pipeline implications, (3) observing programs that support and promote safe spaces for healthy youth development, and (4) developing personal action items for social worker students like myself.

Identified Service Problem + Relevance to SW: The consequences of Michigan zero-tolerance policy are disproportionately affecting minority youth, increasing ease of punitive punishments, encouraging recidivism, and promoting ease of access to the student-to-prison pipeline.  Studies have shown that ZTP causes accelerated delinquency, harsher punishments for relatively minor infractions, and the criminalization of students in their learning environment.  This matters to social workers because the policy disproportionately affects students of color, who are more likely to enter the criminal justice system as a result. This is a social justice issue on the basis of education equity, criminalizing youth, and discrimination.



Ameur, M. (2016). Restorative practices: righting the wrongs of exclusionary school discipline. School Inequality: Challenges and Solutions, 50, 1-28. Retrieved from WestLaw Online Library

Bogos, P. M. (1996). Expelled-No Excuses-No Exceptions-Michigan’s Zero-Tolerance Policy in Response to School Violence: MCLA Section 380.1311. U. Det. Mercy L. Rev.74, 357. Retrieved from

Capatosto, K. (2015). School discipline policy: updates, insights, and future directions. Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, 3-4. Retrieved from

Curran, F.C. (2016) Estimating the effect of state zero tolerance laws on exclusionary discipline, racial discipline gaps, and student behavior. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 38 (4), 647-668. doi: 10.3101/0162373716652728

Daly, B. P., Hildenbrand, A. K., Haney-Caron, E., Goldstein, N. E. S., Galloway, M., & DeMatteo, D. (2016). Disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline: Strategies to reduce the risk of school-based zero tolerance policies resulting in juvenile justice involvement. In K. Heilbrun, D. DeMatteo, & N. E. S. Goldstein (Eds.), APA handbooks in psychology series. APA handbook of psychology and juvenile justice (pp. 257-275).

DPS (2013). Students’ Rights, Responsibilities & Code of Conduct. Detroit Public Schools. July, 2013. Retrieved from

DPS (2015). Student Assistance and Intervention Programs: Student Code of Conduct, Frequently Asked Questions for Parents. Detroit Public Schools. Retrieved from

Dunbar, C. (2015). For Naught: How Zero Tolerance Policy and School Police Practices Imperil Our Students’ Future. ACLU & Michigan State University. Retrieved from

Gordon-Ellis, J.N. (2016). Suspensiosn by race and reason in California’s urban school districts: A comparative study on suspensions of African American and Latino students before and after the passage of assembly bill (AB) 420 (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from Claremont Graduate University via ProQuest (10247492)

Jones, K. (2013). #zerotolerance #keepingupwiththetimes: How federal zero tolerance policies failed to promote educational success, deter juvenile consequences, and confront new social media concerns in public schools. Journal of Law and Education: Chalk Talks, 42 (4), 739-749. doi: 10.1177/0888406411412396

Jones, T. & Shen, X. (2003). An analysis of California’s zero tolerance policy. Retrieved from

Kang-Brown, J., Trone, J., Fratello, J. & Daftary-Kapur, T. (2013) A generation later: what we’ve learned about zero tolerance in schools. VERA Institute of Justice, 1-10. Retrieved from

Lewis, C. W., Butler, B. R., Bonner, I., Fred, A., & Joubert, M. (2010). African American male discipline patterns and school district responses resulting impact on academic achievement: Implications for urban educators and policy makers. Journal of African American Males in Education, 1(1), 7-25. Retrieved from

MASSP and MASB (2003). A Guide to Suspensions and Expulsions in the Michigan Public Schools [Booklet]. Michigan: Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals and Michigan Association of School Boards. Retrieved from

Monroe, C. R. (2006). African American boys and the discipline gap: Balancing educators’ uneven hand. Educational Horizons, 102-111. Retrieved from

NASW Code of Ethics. (2017). NASW code of ethics (Revised by NASW del assembly). National Association of Social Workers. Retrieved from

McNeal, L. & Dunbar Jr., C. (2010). In the eyes of the beholder: urban student perceptions of zero tolerance policy.  Urban Education, 45 (3), 293-311. doi: 10.1177/0042085910364475

McNeal, L.R. (2016). Managing our blind spot: the role of bias in the school to prison pipeline. Arizona State Law Journal, 48, 1-21. Retrieved from WestLaw Online Data Base

Rice, S. (2009). Education for toleration in an era of zero tolerance school policies: a deweyan analysis. Education Studies, 45, 556-571. doi:10.1080/00131940903338308

Robbins, C. G. (2005).  Zero tolerance and the politics of racial injustice. The Journal of Negro Education, 74, 2-17. Retrieved from

Skiba, R.J. (2014). The failure of zero tolerance. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 22(4), 27-33. Retrieved  from

Stone-Palmquist, P. (2004). Michigan’s Brand of Zero Tolerance: Is there another way? The Michigan Journal of Public Affairs, 1, 1-20. Retrieved from

Triplett, N.P., Allen, A. & Lewis, C.W. (2014). Zero tolerance, school shootings, and the post-brown quest for equity in discipline policy: an examination of how urban minorities are punished for white suburban violence. The Journal of Negro Education, 83 (3), 352-370. Retrieved at




In Conclusion: Maintain the rage (but use it wisely)

Having just completed the last two chapters of Mullaly’s text, I am left reflecting deeply about the relationship between privilege and oppression.  As Mullaly writes in Chapter 10: “And if we want to understand oppression, we must understand privilege.  Oppression and privilege go hand in hand (289).”  If we take a moment to truly contextualize what he is saying, it then becomes more than evident that our current structural organizations aren’t doing enough to maintain anti-oppressive infrastructures.


In social work, there is an intentional focus on oppression.  Of course, this is a necessary area of study if we aim to support those affected by the larger systemic issues in our country.  However, Mullaly makes an interesting point that social workers invest most of their intentions in anti-oppressive work, without spending enough time identifying and considering the privileges (creating invisible privilege) that perpetuate oppression.  Mullaly brings up a handful of studies that suggest privilege as a reason why society (and some social workers) might not take action when it comes to confronting oppression.

Privilege is deeply rooted when it comes to major structural level organizations in our country.  Johnson writes that many of these systems are structured in three main ways: (1) domination by groups of privilege, (2) missions and vision align with norms of privileged group, and (3) attention is centered around privilege group mentality (294). What keeps these structural level groups from taking action can be found in three major behaviors outlined by Johnson.  He says that some members of the privilege-focused organization (1) take the path of “least resistance,” (2) remain silent, and (3) work with oppressed groups but create an “other” factor.  These three factors certainly make it hard, when rooted deeply, to overcome structural oppression.

Beyond the basic infrastructure of structural level organizations being grounded in privilege/dominant group mentality, there is another way that privilege takes a toll 0n anti-oppressive work.  Mullaly notes that many privileged groups are not engaged with the issues of oppression, and even when they are, it is often for a short amount of time with little effect (296).  Mullaly turns to the work of Johnson once again to explain how this is so.  Johnson explains that avoiding responsibility by not seeing privilege as a problem is a serious threat to anti-oppressive work.  He claims the following stances lend to this concern:

  1. Deny and minimize the fact that oppression exists to get off the hook
  2. Acknowledge the oppression but blame the victim and hold them responsible for the conditions they are in
  3. Call the oppression something else to disregard the serious nature of the oppression.
  4. Prefer the status quo and admit that life is better with the luxurious of personal privilege.
  5. Engage in micro-aggression rhetoric and claim that it was not meant to be a privileged slur aimed at another group.
  6. Make the case that even though privilege is evident, that not engaging in the act of hate makes the person innocent of oppression.
  7. Get upset when privilege and oppression are brought up because it upset the luxury of being oblivious.

When it comes to the profession of social work, Mulally notes that oppressive practices can actually be reinforced when the clinician has not quite come to understand his/her own privileges in the correct manner.  Peggy McIntosh refers to the misinterpretation and/or inability to fully comprehend one’s privilege as the “invisible knapsack” (299).  This would likely be yet another cause of what lends to inaction in anti-oppressive work.

Mullaly suggests that because everyone is confronted with both elements of privilege and oppression (the scales are tipped unevenly depending on the dominant culture for each individual), it is essential for social workers to personally and professionally explore this (309).   I was not surprised to see the thwo ways that Donna Baines found social workers responded to their concerns of personal privilege.  She says that social workers with a lot of privilege justify not fully understanding their story of self by the following ways:

  1. Fear about talking about privilege for the chance that they become subordinated, which has the effect of shutting down all discussion and confronting privilege.
  2. The tendency not to talk about one’s own power, but rather the attempt to belong to an oppressed group, or the flight to innocence.

I definitely think this could be an area of concern for a social worker wanting to work in anti-oppressive ways.  I think that disregarding truth of self only lends to greater structural problems in the workplace and in leadership.

Dealing with oppression often leads to anger among both oppressed and dominant groups.  Mullaly is careful to explain that not dealing with privilege while also considering the impacts and outcomes of oppression can perpetuate these frustrations among groups.  I am going to suggest ways that Mullaly (infused with my own thoughts) believes that we can deal with our own emotions as individuals constructively in order to address this anger as social workers:

Critical Self-Reflection:

  • Understand Dominelli’s three stages of privilege and openly work toward the egalitarian option: The egalitarian option in social work seeks “transformation of a society characterized by inequality and oppression to one that is egalitarian and inclusive of difference on equal terms” (309).
  • Explore the dynamic of privilege in our lives fully in order to unpack our invisible knapsacks of privilege (self-reflection)
  • Focus on privilege as much as we focus on oppression to ensure that structured invisibility of privilege is not reinforced in our work (288). We need to develop an awareness of the dominant culture in order to understand how it places strains on personal freedoms (277).

Maintain the rage (but do it wisely):

  • “Anger is what will enable those of us who are committed to anti-oppressive social work to translate our social justice ideals into practice and to continue the struggle for liberation” (284).
  • Overcome passive mentalities and apathy for social change by understanding and analyzing the community.  Make sure it is in the benefit of what is most needed/wanted.
  • Channel the anger/passion into short and long term strategies that actually seek to cause change.


  • Acknowledge that stress is a part of this profession and there are definite disappointments ahead.  It is important to understand that setbacks occur, being unaware of this can lead to burn-out.
  • Deal constructively with the long-term effects of stress. Not doing so, will lead to feelings of anger and resentment at the efforts for anti-oppressive structural level organizations

Keep Up-to-Date with Current Ideas, Literature, Practices and Developments:

  • In order to maintain professionalism, social workers must be curious in a life-long education.  Keeping up-to-speed on the best evidence-based practices and interventions is a key aspect of reducing the anger/burn-out factor in social work

Although Mulally closes out the book by addressing the concerns for anti-oppressive practices at the structural level by harnessing the “invisible knapsack,” he also sees the massive opportunities in our daily and professional lives to participate in a constructive, productive manner.  He closes out his book by suggesting conscious ways that social workers can unpack their invisible knapsacks and actively engage in the “What’s next?” mentality.  He says (and I concur wholeheartedly):

  1. Reclaim the words: “If we are going to be part of the solution with respect to elimination oppression and all the harm it causes, then we must drop our defensive sensitivity to that difficult discourse and the reality to which it points: (312).
  2. Acknowledge that oppression and privilege exist: “Maintaining a cultural awareness of privilege takes commitment and work, and to hang onto this awareness we must make it part of our everyday lives” (313).
  3. Pay attention: “Developing an understanding of what privilege and oppression are and how they operate and how we participate in them is the first step in working for change… If privileged groups are to take their share of responsibility for dealing with issues of privilege, then we must listen, observe, ask, read, and listen again” (313).
  4. Learn to Listen: “Listen to what is being said. Do it seriously. Assume for the time being that it’s true, because given the power of least resistance, it probably is.” (315).
  5. Little risks-Do Something: “The more we pay attention to privilege and oppression, the more we will see opportunities to do something about them…we can help to make a difference include the following:
    1. make noise and be seen
    2. find little ways of getting off the paths of least resistance
    3. dare to make people feel uncomfortable, starting with yourself
    4. openly choose and model alternative paths
    5. openly promote change in how systems are organized about privilege” (316-7).

Alas, I conclude my post by saying: maintain the rage (but do it wisely).  I just watched Selma today and I am definitely left sad thinking about the efforts and devotions of the thousands of lives during the Civil Rights in juxtaposition to our current times… I definitely think I am going to use this mantra to remind myself to constructively use anger to fuel my work (while following the tips I wrote about in this post) and pursue social justice.


Thoughts on “Rabbit Proof Fence” & Other Historical Examples of Structural Oppression

I wanted to touch on the deep impacts of watching the movie “Rabbit Proof Fence.”   I knew a little about this shameful history from some prior research and movies I have seen.  “Australia,” although a fiction film, is roughly based what happened to the “stolen generations.”  I think it is appalling that every indigenous population I have studied has been conquered by settlers and decimated in a cultural, social, and/or physical sense.   The abhorrent acts of the oppressor make me ashamed.


thVPG2XLNI.jpg” Rabbit Proof Fence”

I am in awe of Molly’s bravery and stamina in “Rabbit Proof Fence.”  Her story is a testament to the struggle and resilience of her oppressed people.  It was shocking in the end to read about how she kept getting sent away and her children suffered at the hands of the Australian government, even after she escaped and nearly died the first time.  The fact that she lived a long life and was able to share her story with the world is truly incredible.

One particular horror from the movie was the “disillusionment” of the Australian government.  How did they really think that what they were doing was 1) morally acceptable and 2) not a permanent stain on the Australian history?  Because this was so recent in history, I think we often see these acts of blatant separatism and assimilation as even more alarming.  The truth, however, is that regardless of the time that these heinous acts are committed, it will never cease to disrupt society for the generations to come.  Whether it is Nazi Germany liquidating the Jews, Americans massacring and displacing Native Americans and enslaving Africans, Dutch South Africans creating an apartheid, etc. it seems the oppressor knows no bounds.

One important thing to note is the role of structural oppression in the examples shared above.  Oppression at the structural level saturates all parts of society and invades the personal mentalities and attitudes of individuals.  Oppressive power from a governmental level has the ability to tear apart families, wipe out culture and take lives for the sake of an irrational cause.  Structural oppression infiltrates the laws and policies of a society and creates a national effort to eradicate all “otherness” from the dominant group.  As we saw in this movie and throughout history, structural oppression is an epidemic.

I wanted to find a TED Talk to share with readers addressing systematic racism and structural oppression.  Interestingly enough, I found a video of Australian Kyol Blankeny talking about the institutionalized racism of aboriginal human rights.   I learned about how this problem is still impacting Australia today.

He finds a few problems with how Australians have internalized the aboriginal, thereby reinforcing the oppressions they have faced and still face:

  1. Branding – criminals, violent, aggressive, pedophiles (“They are the problem”)
  2. Breaking down morale – impact of media depicting negative stereotypes creating embarrassment of self and culture
  3. Unanimity- the aboriginal must come together and decide as a community how to confront internal affairs to lift themselves up – he speculates this will never happen
  4. The myth that this is person-based and they can pick themselves up on their own
  5. Stepping up to the law- creating a stand to reform must happen but has not yet changed
  6. Encourage the law to step in- this is pointless because justice is not balanced

Interesting, sounds like a history similar to ours. This video is STRICKINGLY similar to the data we see in our minority youth and adults in the United States.   Enjoy-it is very powerful.

Furthermore, I wanted to provide my classmates with more information on the “Stolen generations.”  The plight of these people parallel the sufferings of the indigenous peoples of our nation.  Using information from, I was able to gain some more insight on how the Australian government portrays the long-term impacts of removal seen in the “Stolen generations.” (See the website for more information)


Impact of forcible removal on Indigenous children:

  • Many of the Stolen Generations were psychologically, physically, and sexually abused while living in state care or with their adoptive families
  • Efforts to make these children reject their culture often caused them to feel ashamed of their Indigenous heritage
  • Many children were wrongly told that their parents had died or abandoned them, and many never knew where they had been taken from or who their biological families were
  • Living conditions in the institutions were highly controlled, and children were frequently punished harshly, were cold and hungry and received minimal if any affection
  • The children generally received a very low level of education, as they were expected to work as manual labourers and domestic servants (see Unfinished Business)
  • Medical experts have noted a high incidence of depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress and suicide among the Stolen Generation

Impact on Indigenous families:

  • The loss of having their children taken away was devastating to many parents, who never recovered from their grief
  • Some parents could not go on living without their children, while others turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism
  • The removal of several generations of children severely disrupted Indigenous oral culture, and consequently much cultural knowledge was lost
  • Many of the Stolen Generations never experienced living in a healthy family situation, and never learned parenting skills. In some instances, this has resulted in generations of children raised in state care



Final Project Proposal: Battling the Injustices of the School-to-Prison Pipeline through Service

“Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world…would do this, it would change the earth.”   ―William Faulkne

As discussed in class, the goal of the final project is to explore the content learned in SW504 through the exploration of a personal social justice passion.   I have been, and always will be, an advocate for the rights of transitional-aged youth. More particularly, I believe that a pivotal way to seek change in this demographic is to advocate for education rights and reform.  My final project is going to examine course material through the lens of the school-to-prison pipeline.  Knowing how I learn/engage best, I will complete a service learning project.

Before I talk about the project itself, I wanted to address why diversity and social justice is integral to this issue, why it matters to me, and potential ways in which social work (as a whole) can be more effective in addressing this social issue.  After I lay the groundwork for why this topic is relevant and necessary to explore through a social justice lens, I will detail how the service project will be executed.

In all that I learn in my graduate classes, I keep tying it back to my concerns around zero-tolerance in education policy.  Having taught in middle and high school inner-city settings serving minority teens, student misbehavior is often met by administration and local police with a punitive mindset.  When the zero-tolerance policy was written into law in the 1990s, the hope was to make schools a “safer place.”  Despite the fact that it only addresses serious threats (weapons/safety/drugs), there has been a growing loose interpretation of the policy, or “gray area,” around what is deemed a “safety threat.”

This has major implications for why diversity and social justice are integral to the issue.  Those in opposition to the zero-tolerance policy find that in many urban districts, there has been an increase in harsh punishment and a rise in juvenile criminalization.  There is a plethora of statistical evidence to back up this claim.  Furthermore, there is a clear uneven distribution of suspensions and expulsions, correlated to race.  This creates a certainty around how harsh punishment on misbehavior has tinted the lens of education inequality.

Zero-tolerance has called into question if schools are actually made safer, as it is not creating a lasting solution, but short-term, divisive answers.  The fact that children can be criminalized for things like “willful defiance” and “disrupting school activities” is appalling.  It is further upsetting because students who need more support and alternative ways to learn and grow are shut down by this system.  These harsh practices force students to resent authority and distrust the education system, thereby increasing rates for drop-outs, unemployment and crime.  This cycle perpetuates racism, economic inequality, health disparities, etc.

Teaching over 450 students in three years, I am fortunate to have crossed paths with so many remarkable, resilient individuals.  I have witnessed, however, the deeply rooted effects caused from the injustices they face due to norms on culture and race.  These injustices naturally follow students into their learning spaces and create an even bigger challenge and sense of unsafety in overcoming societal obstacles.

Advocating for this concern is so important to me because I want to invest my time and energy in creating platforms for local school boards and administrations to brainstorm and instill more restorative practices to keep schools safer and reduce punitive practices for minority communities.  By now, one would envision that society has caught onto the facts presented by scientists (brain development is not complete until the age of 25) and community information (growing rates of teen incarcerations and an increase in the education gap).  Alas, no.  This is where social workers as a whole can step in.  Groups that advocate for students, like the Student Rights Project (under the umbrella of Student Advisory Council) call on social workers to join their cause and be a resource to families and communities.

In order to make these changes and advocate for these policies in my career, I aim to engage in a service project with the Student Rights Project.  I will be working closely with the on-campus organization this semester as a trained advocate for families and students seeking support with school disciplinary concerns.  By working with students from schools of social work, law, and education, the goal is to provide counseling, legal advice, and classroom lenses to each individual case.  My role as a volunteer will be to counsel students and families that are facing the backlash of a harsh, punitive education system.  My job will range from being a mouthpiece for clients, providing resources, seeking out avenues to problem-solve, assist in legal and education aspects, and to help build skills in the student to create self-sustainable advocacy.

The goal of my service project is to get direct access to members of the community that have been punished by zero-tolerance and are at-risk for entering the school-to-prison pipeline. By working to empower children and teens enrolled in public/charter schools throughout Southeast Michigan, my intention is to “secure their right to an education by helping parents and students advocate for themselves before, during, and after school disciplinary hearings” (SRP Home Page). I would also like to learn about how to bring awareness to the cause so that I can have more than just a learned experience in this process.

I intend to keep a detailed journal, take pictures (those that are allowed, of course), get interviews, etc. as part of my evidence for my work.  I will use the sources and theoretical frameworks presented in class to inform my knowledge base.  I will present a written report and thorough analysis in the final report to provide a clear picture of how this social justice concern is of the utmost importance to myself and all social workers.

I am very excited about this project!  I cannot wait to get started and dive deep into this work.  Stay tuned for updates on how it is going…. 🙂

Week 5 (10/3): Micro Aggressions

Of all of the ways that oppression can be expressed and felt, I feel that micro aggressions have the deepest roots in today’s modern society. In order to justify why I feel this way, I am going to break my blog post down into sequential ideas.  It is my hope that these ideas will build on one another to support my belief that micro aggressions run deep into the life fabric of our society today.  First, I will address what oppression stems from based on the readings we have done in class and outside research.  Second, I will compare overt racism and other blatant acts that act to openly reinforce oppression with micro aggressions.  Lastly, I will explore how micro aggressions have invaded our daily routines and existence.  I aim to create a conversation around how harmful micro aggressions, however unintentional and subliminal,  are in justifying and instilling oppression. In my thoughts, I also hope to answer the suggested questions to consider, posted by Professor Spencer.

Oppression is a result of the stereotypes we create based on race, gender, ethnicity, culture, religion, etc.  What is so concerning about oppression is that it is often an arbitrary abuse of power.  It is arbitrary because the dominant culture “calls the shots” and decides what is to be labeled and who is to be rewarded with/without power.  A group that is pushed down and interpreted as “other,” becomes automatically oppressed by the dominant culture.   We have learned and discussed in class that, as humans, we tend to interpret the world by creating labels (for lack of a better word: stereotypes) because society deems it fit that we find meaning in our existences.  Oppression is something that from birth is an unfair and unjust practice that acts to steal all means of privilege from the minority groups in society.

Growing up with a Pakistani-Muslim, immigrant father, I was sensitive to the comments that my classmates would make around terrorism.  When I was born, I was unaware that there was blatant oppression placed on immigrants.  Perhaps there were micro aggressions experienced in the looks people gave my dad, the jobs he was able to initially get, and the friends he did/did not have.  As I got older, I was more aware of the blatant oppressive labels on immigrants.  I heard terms such as “un-American” and “speak English.”  This oppression goes a long way to creating a class of society that feels subjected to certain jobs, communities and neighborhoods based on the reinforcement they receive from society.

When 9/11 happened, I was in the fifth grade. Suddenly, the oppression was blatant and the fear people around me felt turned into racism.  A classmate on the playground once chased me with an imaginary bazooka, spit frothing out of the sides of his mouth, while he pretended to aim open fire.  He yelled after me, “I’m going to kill you and your dad because you’re terrorists.”  Around the same time, a student on the school bus told me that he “hated” my dad (despite never having met him) because his Indian uncle was killed by people like my father.  I was experiencing a clear message from the kids around me that I was not as good as them and that my family and I were outsiders.  This kept me from sharing so freely who I was while growing up.  As I look back now, I wish I would have created allies and spoke in a constructive manner to change the ideas of my classmates.  Instead, I closed-up and started to assimilate into the American ideals more and more….Oppression 1, Noreen 0.

I just explored and shared personal memories around the blatant oppression that can be expressed and felt in society.  I think blatant oppression tends to rise in times of fear and confusion.  I think it also elevates when the dominant group feels attacked or weakened by the minority.   On the other hand, micro aggressions are less likely to be recognized, or even initially felt when they are expressed.  I was interested in learning more about the research around this idea, so I went online to UMich Library.  I looked up “micro aggressions” and found an interesting peer-review journal looking at the juxtaposition of blatant vs. subtle racism.  Fleras (2016) says that there are two main camps of racism, which he labels as Racism 1.0 and 2.0.  Racism 1.0 is “blunt, direct, and deliberate.”  Racism 2.0, on the other hand, is expressed “subliminally through the rationalized expression of dormant prejudices.”  Racism 2.0 is what I would consider micro aggressions.

As I look over the assigned readings and commit to my own research, it becomes clear that micro aggressions are: “Neutral ways through ‘inaction, silence, neglect and indifference’ through [which] an oppressor’s lens is established” (Fleras 2016). Furthermore, micro aggressions are often delineated via code that people use to deflect from their oppressive ideologies, or polite racism. What I also find is that micro aggressions can act as a personal shield to prevent the feeling of guilt or discomfort when engaging in a more blatant form of racism, etc.  It can act, in a way, to “disguise it from themselves (subliminal racism), especially in those ambiguous contexts where racism-speak remains largely inaudible to those ‘outside the loop’ but resonates with meaning for those ‘in the know’ (‘dog-whistle racism’)” (Fleras 2016).

It is important to note that micro aggressions are often deflections from committing to the more uncomfortable, blatant forms of racism.  They act to reinforce the current oppressions in more subtle, deeply rooted ways that prevent the minority from rising up.  In our daily lives, micro aggressions are ever-present.   Especially in this current political climate, as minority groups are speaking out more blatantly to address the oppressions, micro aggressions are becoming more obvious.

One personal example I want to share about micro aggressions regards my profession of choice in contrast to my partner.  My partner is in law school and already has received a promising job offer upon graduation that will compensate him comfortably with six figures.  All of his friends like to joke that “I am lucky he has a good job” and that “He will be our bread-winner” when we both graduate.  Until recent weeks, I would laugh long these micro aggressions aimed at both my sex and my ability and brush them off as partially true and un-offensive.  Now, I recognize this as a micro aggression.  It is an attempt to deflect this discomfort others feel in directly commenting on my career choice as being more of a “helping profession” and less of a “ambitious career choice.”  It labels my decision as more feminine and dependent on him.  When I chose not to engage in this rhetoric in the past, I admit that I only reinforced these prejudices.

I have certainly worked with people in the past who engage in micro aggressive tactics in their daily lives.  As a teacher who worked in under-resourced communities in Miami and San Francisco, I would often come across tired, frustrated educators who, in time of duress, would speak about their minority students in ways that acted to reinforce the oppressions that society had placed on them.  I would often ignore them and disengage from the conversations these teachers would have.  In our meetings we would all claim to want to the students and eliminate their oppressions by educating and supporting them.  I think this made some of colleagues blind, neutral and/or impartial because when the hard times hit, some of them would regress into their micro aggressive mentality and create an “other” category that their students fell into.

I think it becomes easy to fall prey to being in conversations where micro aggressions have deep roots.  It becomes even harder, then, to address them in the moment.  By nature,  micro aggressions are deflections from expressing the deeper truths and oppressions they reinforce.  By addressing them head on and in the moment, takes away the power that the micro aggression has.  It is our duty, then, as social workers to educate others about the harmful effects of micro aggressions and to speak out against them.  The first practice, however, is to ensure that we are not abusing these same privileges.


Fleras, A. (2016). Theorizing micro-aggressions as racism 3.0: Shifting the discourse. Canadian Ethnic Studies, 48(2), 1-19. Retrieved from




Week 1: SW Theory and Decolonization

1. Why is theory important in a course on diversity and social justice and how might these be applied in your social work practice?

In Module 2 of the EdX course, theory is defined as “a set of assumptions meant to explain how or why something happens, or predict if/when something will happen” (Mitchell, 2017). Theories are important because they take a multi-dimensional approach to a hypothesis and help to describe through a series of applications the ways in which society functions. It further aims to explain these causes, hypothesize future outcomes for these behaviors, and aspires to study how this plays out on all level of human activity.

Studying theory will help my colleagues and me develop as stronger clinicians.  Being open to studying the various theories (which are naturally continually evolving through practice) in social work, will help us to better learn about the “social structures, institutions, policies, practices and process with respect to how they treat all groups in society” (Mullaly, 2010).  If we aim to work interpersonally or with the wider community, we must be aware of how social scientists before us have understood these trends.  

Furthermore, as we learn about theory we must also think critically.  No theory is the same or should be viewed as truth.  A theory, by nature of its name, is meant to be regarded but also questioned and tested.

In this course on diversity and social justice, studying and making sense of the established theories in social work are imperative.  As Mullaly (2010) denotes in Chapter 1 of the text, organizations and agencies typically focus on how clinicians directly practice and impact their clients in the real world, but typically do not acknowledge that theory informs this work. I will be critically conscious of this fact as this I learn and engage throughout this course and move forward with my MSW.   

I also realize that not all theories will apply to every scenario and each theory might not entirely be applicable.  For example, as an educator, I learned a handful of important theories that were meant to support and guide me in my teaching pedagogy before I entered the classroom.  Although I never directly employed any particular theory as principle or fact to teach by, I am grateful for those that have inquired and theorized before me because it gave me a wealth of knowledge to pull and learn from in various, diverse scenarios. 

Without developing an underlying background in the various theories presented in social work, clinicians operate under the umbrella of their own experiences, views of the world, and biases. Learning about the theories in this course will be important.  If we do not examine and learn from concepts like “structural role theory” and “contact theory,” then we have a narrow perspective on humanity considering the fact that our own experiences are not all-encompassing.   


2. We have all been colonized through our education and the influence of our social environment.  Even our participation in this course and work with the university can be seen as participating in a colonial system – what are some things that stand out to you in your social environments, e.g. family, work, school, communities, institutions that are unsettling now that you think about them.   Tell us what it was and how it impacts/ed you.

As the readings for this week stipulate, we must be careful of creating a metaphor of decolonization.  The term “decolonize student thinking,” for example, changes how we view the real meaning of the word.  The term “decolonization” is intended to be the revival of a culturally indigenous identity through which a series of challenging, life-altering steps must be taken. Decolonization is an act of recapturing one’s stolen, eradicated culture due to the process of colonization.  I do not want to be naively guilty of saying that my education was colonized and thereby invalidate the historical colonization of indigenous peoples.

I agree, however, that the systems our country has established (education, community, healthcare, work, etc.) are a product of the social environments established by a dominant group. By nature, the dominant group have put systems in place that act to systemically dampen the cultural influences of minority groups.  With this in mind, there are certainly things in our current social environment that are unsettling and are in the way of decolonization. The attempt I make to answer this question will be based on an observation of our currently charged political society.  I do not claim to have the answers, rather this is a commentary on an experience that is linked to an example of a move to innocence from Tuck & Yang (2012).

One massive structural hindrance to decolonization relevant today is immigration policy. I have noticed that since the September 5 executive decision made by the President discontinuing DACA, some of my Facebook friends have been inserting their personal narratives into the situation, showing their “move to innocence” via settler nativism

For example, I have a friend that posted today that she went onto and noticed that her grandma came to America via Ellis Island.  With this connection to immigration through her grandmother, she says she stands by the “Dreamers.”  She makes an important point that many of our ancestors were immigrations at one point to this country.  And, of course, her intentions are pure.  I recognize that she wants to put her voice out there and make a stand for the upsetting decision made by the President.  Like the readings this week indicate, however, this comment (although entirely well-intentioned) is an act “to deflect a settler identity, while continuing to enjoy settler privilege…(11)” (Tuck & Yang, 2012) She is a second-generation American citizen and is not an undocumented student and she can make this statement without fear (theoretically).  She was privileged enough, like myself, to have the ability to have access to higher education. 

I, like my colleagues, want to fight for what is fair and just in order to decolonize. The challenge is that by unintentionally asserting settler nativism, it reinvests in the colonial structures of our society.

3. What was a major learning for you this week?

I am really interested in decolonization.  Although this week’s readings yielded a wealth of knowledge about the importance of theory, I think that I was most struck by all of the moves to innocence, or the ways in which decolonization could miss the mark.  As humans, we can be incredibly well-intentioned.  However, when we do not understand the many ways in which our own privileges automatically impact our existence, it prevents us from attaining incommensurability. 

Tuck & Yang (2012) say this is an “acknowledgement that decolonization will require a change in the order of the world” (31).  My big takeaway is that as social workers, we must prioritize deconstructing the outdated, dominant-culture worldviews in our work in order to open the door to justice for the colonized and disenfranchised groups in our society.






Hello SW504!

Hello Everyone! I am creating this blog with an open-minded readiness to learn, grow and be challenged.   As Professor Spencer has affirmed, a participant in SW504 plays the dual role of teacher and learner.  I firmly believe that we each come into this blogging process with a wealth of diversity, rich in social experience.   With this perspective, I am ready to explore and experience “Diversity and Social Justice” through the eyes of my colleagues.  I also hope to use it as a personal tool to contemplate ideas and concerns I have in social work and in the larger community throughout the semester.  I am passionate about studying human resilience, hence the themes my blog will convey.  Wishing you all a productive, transformative semester!  ~Noreen

To read my own Mo’olelo, you can click on the “My Story. My Charge.” tab or click on this link