Students reflect on passive comments that instill discomfort
By Jenny Jiao, ’16 and Kelly Chian, ’16
Junior Olivia McNeil is one of the few African-American students at UAHS. In classes, she is often asked if it is OK to say something by her Caucasian counterparts, especially when the curriculum includes topics on race such as slavery. In addition, she is often ‘complimented’ by her classmates, with phrases such as “You speak well for a black girl.” Other times, her peers joke with her about common stereotypes, such as asking her if she likes to eat watermelon and fried chicken.
It may seem like McNeil’s classroom environment is relatively normal, if not encouraging to her learning. She receives compliments and listens to jokes. Her classmates are accommodating and ask her what race she would prefer to be recognized as, black or African American, and even show deference when speaking about racially sensitive issues. She regularly receives comments that seem like innocent inquiries into another race.
However, beneath the compliments, questions, jokes and outward attempts to be sensitive, there is an underlying tension. Instead of seeing the words as respectful, McNeil finds herself feeling offended.
“Being put in a stereotype hurts a lot sometimes because I live in Upper Arlington, which is a far cry from the ghetto… but I just can’t seem to ever get away from that stereotype,” McNeil said. “So, when people laugh about it or say they’re just joking, it’s almost like a harsh reminder that most people probably still see me as an incapable minority no matter how hard I try to push against it.”
What McNeil faces are microaggressions, which Columbia University Professor Derald Sue defines as “brief and commonplace daily…indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” However, microaggressions can also be directed towards different sexes, religions, sexual orientations and social classes.
The term is popularized recently by the “I, too, am Harvard” project, which is a campaign of Harvard African American students holding signs of commonly used microaggressions.
The phrase that has been the centerpiece of many colleges’ microaggression awareness campaigns comes from a Langston Hughes poem called “I, Too.” The poem concerns the discrimination of African-Americans and ends with the line, “I, too, am America.”
I, Too, Deserve Respect
Most would agree that the use of the n-word is a clear sign of racism. Derogatory words such as this promote an environment that creates a tension and divide among people.
However, many don’t recognize that the jokes told between classes and “compliments” shared in class can also have the same effect.
Microaggressions come in various forms, such as jokes, compliments or questions motivated by either curiosity or ignorance. They are not the same thing as racism and bigotry. But their subtlety and pervasiveness contribute to a racial tension unknown to society at large.
“Microaggressions hold their power because they are invisible, and therefore they don’t allow us to see that our actions and attitudes may be discriminatory,” Sue said.
English teacher Abby Pavell agrees that microaggressions have existed but their effect is hard to see.
“I believe that microaggressions have always been around. Just look at texts; both fiction and nonfiction texts give insight into our culture’s use of language towards one another,” Pavell said. “Some sayings are so firmly fixed in our speech that we fail to see how they marginalize others.”
Various universities and researchers have begun to study microaggressions and their effects in recent years.
Catherine Wells, a professor at Boston College Law School, published an article, “2013 Microaggressions in the Context of Academic Communities,” to discuss research on the effects and how to prevent microaggressions.
“A remark can hurt when it is said only once; but when it is endlessly repeated by many different people, its truth becomes hard to resist,” Wells said. “In and of itself a microaggression may seem harmless, but the cumulative burden of a lifetime of microaggressions can theoretically contribute to diminished mortality, augmented morbidity, and flattened confidence.”
The repetition of microaggressions leads to larger effects as they make victims more aware and create a larger divide.
“[The microaggressions] resonate with deeply held understandings about our imperfections and limitations,” Wells said. “Many of these understandings are linked to negative stereotypes and painful aspects of gender or racial experience.”
I, Too, Am A Student
McNeil isn’t the only one who faces a climate of unintentional jabs and misguided speech. Junior Anisah Awad hears microaggressions targeted toward both her ethnicity and religion. Although some of the comments are not inherently offensive, she is offended that people are basing opinions from stereotypes.
“[The microaggressions I encounter] can range from anything like ‘Anisah, can I touch your hair?’ to ‘Your dad looks like a terrorist,’” Awad said. “[It is also] other [religion-based] questions like ‘Do you pray five times a day?’ and ‘Why don’t you wear a hijab?’”
Awad finds it offensive that students ask her various questions about their differences. She believes they stem from ignorance.
Awad wants to educate her classmates, but does not feel that she should be viewed as the icon of her race or religion.
“I just try to answer their questions while also letting them know what they did was wrong,” Awad said.
When Awad is asked these types of questions or hears such comments, she also loses some self-confidence.
“It’s always a blow to the gut,” Awad said. “[I question if] people actually think these things about me and my color and my culture. [I] second guess myself a lot.”
Junior Torao Yasunaga, who is half-Thai and half-Japanese, has similar feelings.
“[Some minorities] might have confidence issues because if they say something, they know they will hear remarks about their race,” Yasunaga said. “They might speak less or they might get uncomfortable with their friends sometimes because of it too.”
Yasunaga speaks from experience. He recalls instances where people have proclaimed that he is not a “normal Asian.”
“They say that I don’t try super hard in school and always dress nicely, ‘not Asian-[like],’” Yasunaga said. He notes that these comments are never made out of malice, and are often intended as compliments.
However, Yasunaga tries not to take much offense from them, knowing their intent is not to hurt him, but often to joke around.
“[I] always give the fake laugh to be part of the joke, acknowledge what they said but not take it personally. However, those statements take away from who I am,” Yasunaga said.
Yasunaga believes microaggressions are an ingrained portion of our culture.
“They are a part of our culture right now. There is always a dominant and a less dominant group,” Yasunaga said. “It’s nothing that I [want] to fight others over.”
I, Too, Want Change
Pavell notices that microaggressions are not limited to the adolescent culture.
“I hear [both] students and teachers making assumptions about others, for example, basing someone’s worth or ability on his/her race,” Pavell said.
Sophomore Melinda Wang agrees with how prevalent microaggresions are.
“Microaggressions are not noticeable until you begin to look for it, then it’s everywhere: your friends and teachers, you notice that everyone does it,” Wang said.
Wang wants people to stop believing stereotypes as facts or norms.
“I think people need to learn to stop judging an entire ethnicity by the actions of a few and using anyone’s background as justification or basis for bias,” Wang said.
Junior Michael Yandam believes microaggressions are a problem and a form of racism, but are not as big as they are made out to be.
Yandam receives comments assuming that since he is Arab, he must be Muslim, but he is not insulted as he realizes they weren’t made from malice.
“People aren’t trying to insult me by calling me a Muslim,” Yandam said. “It’s an honest mistake, which is why I don’t get offended.”
Though Yandam is not offended by certain stereotypes, he believes that these somewhat racist generalizations should cease to exist completely.
“People need to become aware of other social/cultural groups and of their own unconscious bias. That’s why I’m not offended when people ask if I’m Muslim,” Yandam said. “I just simply inform them that not all Arabs are, in fact, Muslims so that next time they talk to another Middle Eastern person they don’t accidentally offend them.”
To prevent microaggressions, Wells advises people to imagine the same situation but also as someone vulnerable.
“It is not enough to ask whether you yourself would have been offended. The challenge is to recreate the situation as it might appear to the person who might have been harmed,” Wells said. “To do this, you have to imagine the real vulnerability, the enhanced visibility, and the history of exclusion that define token participation in traditionally white and male communities.”
When curious, people should be careful on how to phrase racial questions.
“I would say making it a general hypothetical situation not a personal question always helps,” McNeil said.
Although McNeil doesn’t want the questions directed at her, she wants people to be straightforward.
“I personally don’t appreciate it when someone isn’t able to be straightforward with me just because of the color of my skin,” McNeil said.
McNeil recommends considering the familiarity with the person before asking something dealing with race.
“I think familiarity with the person would prevent anything from being awkward or sounding racist,” McNeil said. “If you know the person well enough, you should be able to know how comfortable they are with you asking them racial questions.”
Another aspect Yandam believes is important to consider when reacting to microaggressions is intent.
“For those who do receive [microaggressions] need to be able to identify when the person is doing them intentionally and unintentionally,” Yandam said. “If you know when they are intentionally doing it to be funny, just tell them that it’s highly offensive. If they proceed with it, just ignore them.”
Image caption: A student draws in his notebook about the microaggressions he hears in classrooms and hallways. Microaggressions are comments that may seem like jokes or compliments but can have an effect much greater than they appear.
Photo by Sasha Dubson and illustration by Julia Pei