Students speak up about experiences with microaggressions in their community.
By Ayah Elsheikh, ’20 with graphics by Sophia Shen ’21 and photos by Grace Call ’20
Sitting in the car with a friend, senior Mia Pryce found herself nearing the point of rage when she was unexpectedly called the N-word.
“I asked [my friend], ‘Do you know what that word means?’ and she had no idea,” Pryce said.
Pryce was forced to reflect on her identity as a woman of color, although such an internal struggle is not always visible to those around her.
“You just don’t know how to respond to it,” Pryce said.
Pryce’s experiences may have implications beyond the present time, because incidents like these fall under the category of microaggressions.
Photo by Grace Call ’20 and graphic by Sophia Shen ’21.
What are they?
The term “microaggression” was coined in 1970 but has only become common in the past few years, likely due to the current global conversation about identity in the United States. Merriam Webster defines a microaggression as “a comment or action that subtly and often
unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group.”
Furthermore, two types of microaggressions exist. There are microassaults, which are intentionally hurtful words or actions. Oppositely, there are microinsults or microinvalidations. These are usually comments or actions that are unintentionally harmful and simply a result of underlying bias created by surrounding opinions and environments.
Due to the complexity of issues concerning identity, critical race theory studies tend to occur on a smaller scale, as they are difficult to quantitatively assess. Nonetheless, insight has been gained as to how microaggressions affect people.
A study of 500 participants by researchers at Columbia University and City University in New York found that an increase in microaggressions correlates to poorer mental health. Additionally, those who experience microaggressions show symptoms such as “depression, anxiety, negative affect (or negative view of the world), and lack of behavioral control.” All of these issues contribute to a generally unhealthy state of mind.
Preshuslee Thompson, a training and development specialist at the Kirwan Institute, affirms that microaggressions can harm all identity groups. “I think a lot of times people think that because it’s micro, that it means that it has a small impact, but micro is just to say that it’s subtle. It has a huge impact on people, especially when you’re constantly dealing with them on a day to day basis,” Thompson said.
2019 UAHS alum Camryn Morin sometimes encountered microaggressions in her history classes. Being of Chinese descent, whenever a conversation arose regarding China, she found
herself discomforted by comments made by both teachers and students.
Pryce feels similarly when targeted by a microaggression.
“[Microaggressions] sure don’t make me feel good, personally,” Pryce said. “They make
people feel really uncomfortable and very awkward.”
Such feelings create tension, which is evident in many situations regarding microaggressions, such as an incident described by junior Nora Mohammed.
In what was originally a harmless conversation about fashion, Mohammed was confronted with a comment on her headscarf.
“She said, ‘If I were to dress you up, the first thing that I would do is take off your hijab,’” Mohammed said.
The junior first began wearing the hijab two years ago and saw how other students’ behavior around her changed, as she received many hostile gazes.
Thompson sees how this estrangement can have consequences.
“It plays a big role in our sense of self worth and our sense of belonging in some
spaces,” she said.
According to Thompson, these spaces can include school environments. When microaggressions continue to play a part in students’ lives, it can have effects on their academic activity.
“Students may not want to participate in group work,” Thompson said. “You might see the quality of their work decrease.”
These implications may reach as far as one’s attitudes toward school as a whole.
“If you’re a student and you don’t really feel like you’re valued at school … from constantly being bombarded with microaggressions and them not being addressed, you might not feel safe going to school,” Thompson said.
Photo by Grace Call ’20 and graphic by Sophia Shen ’21.
Sophomore Carter Anderson believes that microaggressions are not an evident problem until one notices others deeming them controversial.
Although not an extensive problem in his eyes, Anderson still believes inclusivity is essential.
“I do think that it’s important to have a welcoming environment,” Anderson said.
Regarding his own experiences, Anderson said,“I don’t really feel micro-aggressed; I don’t know what to feel micro-aggressed about.”
Other students who have directly experienced microaggressions echo the sentiments of Anderson, in that their ability to deal with microaggressions was a result of their ability to ignore them.
Junior Luca Nogueira, who has experienced the effects of intolerance in his own life, believes thinking about microaggressions but not acting upon them is not harmful.
“The less you think about microaggressions I think the less they’re going to happen to you,” said Nogueira.
“Until something dangerous happens, until it becomes violent, until it becomes harmful to you—whether that’s mentally or physically—I think it’s okay to internalize them,” said Nogueira.
Opposingly, senior Jessie Goldberg thinks internalizing can hurt more than help. After learning what microaggressions were, Goldberg said her life was made more difficult, as there was now a name and classification for an issue she didn’t want to think about before.
It can be observed that microaggressions have different psychological effects depending on the person who is targeted.
Although senior Catalina Fernandez does not face microaggressions frequently, she has witnessed firsthand the effects they have on her younger brother and sister. Fernandez’s younger brother has dealt with judgement from his peers for being Cuban-American. As a result, he has distanced himself from his family and his heritage.
“He ignores it, but I can tell when he tells me about it, it kind of hurts him,” said Fernandez.
Fernandez’s sister has also experienced microaggressions based on their family’s heritage. In her Spanish class, another student began to call her “taco.”
“There’s another Latina girl in her class,” said Fernandez, “They both experience it, and it’s frustrating for them.”
Nonetheless, Fernandez has seen her sister bring the issue to light and embody her identity. She hopes to see the same development in her brother.
Combatting the Issue
With the issues that potentially arise as a result of microaggressions comes the question of how one should deal with them.
Thompson emphasizes the importance of becoming comfortable in one’s own identity.
“I think it’s about knowing what your own worth is and making sure that others around you know that as well,” Thompson said.
“I think what would really help is cultural awareness and people intervening,” said Morin.
German teacher and cultural competency advisor Tricia Fellinger calls attention to the fact that it may be difficult to stand up for oneself or others.
“I really think it depends on the comfort level of the student and the situation,” Fellinger said.
At times when students may not feel safe addressing issues that arise, Thompson believes working together is the greatest support.
“It [is about] helping create a culture where bias, like microaggressions and things like that, are not acceptable,” Thompson said.
“As an accomplice, you can intervene and step in and be able to use whatever it is: your privilege in that space, your power, even just your sheer confidence to help act as a barrier and
mediate [the negative effects].”
Pryce sees learning more about microaggressions as an opportunity to bring the issues she faces every day into light.
“I think that, at least personally for me, if somebody says something, I’m going to try to make it very clear [that they should not] say it again,” she said.
Pryce also wants to see the conversation expand, starting with her own interactions.
“I would like to think that if they don’t know, I’ll inform them. Because they should know,” Pryce said.
Efforts to inform students and staff are beginning to take place within the high school. The administration is attempting to make UAHS more inclusive through cultural competency training for all staff.
Fellinger has been at the front of the inclusivity movement at the high school, sees this training as an opportunity to move forward.
Morin summarizes this idea with a metaphor. “Conversations are just a stepping stone towards making a difference,” she said.