We all put up with minor slights — from the waiter who assumes we qualify for the senior discount to the coworker who points out our mistakes in front of the boss. So what’s all this talk about microaggressions in higher education? Are college students really so sensitive they can’t shrug off the occasional slight?
Maybe the problem isn’t overly sensitive college students, says Renee Wells. Maybe I should really be asking myself why talking about microaggressions annoys me so much.
“There’s a really big cognitive perception gap between people who experience microaggressions and people who commit them,” says Wells, director of the university’s GLBT Center. “It’s important to understand that most microaggressions are not intentional. People just don’t see that what they’re saying is exclusionary or discriminatory or problematic in some way.”
While I may commit the occasional microaggression and shrug it off as something of no consequence, others may feel the offense very deeply.
“People who experience microaggressions experience them all the time,” Wells says. “It’s sometimes called ‘death by a thousand paper cuts.’ There’s this cumulative emotional effect that leaves people feeling marginalized and invalidated.”
Wells will facilitate a workshop titled “Recognizing and Responding to Microaggessions” from 9 a.m. to noon Monday, Oct. 31, in the Talley Student Union. The workshop is open to NC State undergraduates, graduate students, staff, faculty and alumni as well as interested members of the community. Registration is available online through the GLBT Advocate Program.
No Laughing Matter
Most people recognize common microaggressions for what they are: insensitive remarks, backhanded compliments or even outright insults that mask an underlying bias or stereotype. We joke about Asian students throwing off the grading curve, recount a run-in with a “woman driver,” or ask an African American student if they came to school on an athletic scholarship.
But there are other types of microaggressions, Wells explains, including environmental microaggressions.
“For example, a student walking across campus might see a confederate flag in the window of a residence hall or a racist slur spray painted in the Free Expression Tunnel,” she says. “These are things that you see that aren’t necessarily targeted at you, but are part of the environment you are navigating.”
Or — as happened recently on campus — you could find racist messages and offensive stereotypes posted in a chat forum.
“Microaggressions include things you might consider macroaggressions, things that are intentional and overt — people using racist slurs — which are microassaults,” Wells says.
Sadly, most people don’t call out microaggressions when they occur. That may reinforce the notion that no harm has been done.
“People who experience microaggressions don’t usually address it. But when they do address it, people get really defensive and try to rationalize what they said and what they meant,” Wells explains. “When confronted, they tend to see it as an isolated incident. They say they didn’t mean anything by it and come up with lots of reasons to explain how they didn’t mean to hurt anyone.”
Ironically, people sometimes respond with yet another microaggression.
“For example, they may accuse the other person of ‘playing the race card.’ What that’s saying is that your perspective is only based on your status as person of color and that it’s not a valid perspective,” Wells says.
Be Part of the Solution
And don’t think you’re free of irrational bias just because you’re a person with a disability, black, gay or female. Members of one marginalized group sometimes experience “horizontal oppression” at the hands of members of other marginalized groups.
“You may be culturally competent as it relates to your own identity and community,” Wells says. “But that doesn’t mean that you’re culturally competent about communities you’re not a part of.”
The key to reducing insensitive language and actions at NC State — and in the community — is for each of us to stop shrugging off microaggressions and to confront them when they occur, intentionally or unintentionally.
“The ultimate form of privilege is having the option of not challenging oppressive behavior, to say it’s not my problem,” Wells says.
We also have to be willing to take a long, honest look at ourselves, to see our own biases and blind spots.
“Nobody wants to hurt other people,” Wells says. “It feels bad to be made aware you hurt other people. It makes you feel really uncomfortable. But the truth is, if we’re not willing to be vulnerable and learn from it, we won’t ever become better as people.”