“Your smile is ‘Africa face.’” College sophomore Oyinkan Muraina heard this from a friend who was comparing her facial expression to a picture of an African tribal drummer he had seen in a magazine.
She just laughed and let it go.
This kind of comment — the kind that may seem harmless on the surface but is actually prejudiced and hurtful to those who hear it — is called a microaggression. While the term is generally used to refer to instances of racial intolerance, it can also apply to prejudice against any social group.
According to Kimberly Ashby, one of the editors of the website The Microaggressions Project, “Microaggressions are the daily forms of discrimination that people experience … in which the person who is perpetrating the microaggression is often not doing it intentionally … but the impact is that they’re somehow subtly putting you down or demonstrating a form of subtle oppression.”
The problem of microaggressions has become a topic of conversation on college campuses. Oberlin College students recently created a Tumblr to document the influx of microaggresions on their campus. The college canceled classes on March 4 for a “Day of Solidarity” after someone was allegedly seen on campus wearing Ku Klux Klan regalia.
Camille Charles, chair of the Africana Studies department and professor of sociology, said that even though most people don’t commit microaggressions on purpose, “the intent almost doesn’t matter.”
“I think it becomes an issue at Penn because there’s this tendency to think that somehow we’re above all that,” Charles said. But students’ and faculty’s experiences prove otherwise.
Engineering sophomore Giovanni Saldutti said he has experienced microaggressions from his friends, remembering one specific instance when a friend commented, “I didn’t know you were that gay!”
Muraina remembers one instance when a hallmate told her, “You’re so white,” because she spoke what he considered “proper” English. “I would guess that at least 80 percent of black people on campus have heard that,” she said.
College sophomore and chairman of the Asian Pacific Student Coalition Curtis Lee referenced a February post on Penn Secrets as another example of microaggressions.
“130. I hate 99% of the people here who come straight from China. If you are gonna watch Chinese TV, eat Chinese food, make Chinese friends and only speak Chinese why the hell are you coming to America? And stop smoking so much, YA NASTY,” the post reads.
Charles said it is more likely for people to face microaggressions from a friend because there is more regular interaction there.
“If a stranger said it, I guess I’d feel more indifferent than if a friend said it, because I could never look at them the same way again,” Akpan said.
Charles said that she has also experienced microaggressions coming from her colleagues, who compliment her on how articulate she is or are surprised that she is working on another book.
“I do have a Ph.D, so why wouldn’t I be articulate?” she said.
She said she has also faced a number of microaggressions from her undergraduate students. While she has heard from other colleagues that students exclusively refer to them by title, she said it is common for students, particularly white males, to call her by her first name without being invited to do so.
“The truth is in a lot of ways I don’t really care on the face of it. It’s not that I have this need to be referred to that way, but it suggests that I’m perceived as being less legitimate or less good at what I do,” she said.
Charles said that the emotional stress and anxiety that comes from experiencing and processing microaggressions can impact physical health. “It’s kind of like the stress that you can accumulate if you don’t get enough sleep or if you don’t eat right. Over time it wears you down,” she said.
Addressing the issue
Ashby said there is no one strategy that is best for combatting microaggresions.
However, groups at Penn have recognized the negative effects of microaggressions and have hosted public events where people can discuss these instances.
College senior Lisa Doi, a facilitator for Fellows Building Intercultural Community, said that FBIC hosted an event for their members in February that addressed this very topic. She said the discussion about microaggressions should focus on why the underlying assumptions were made and how it affected the recipient.
Mental Wellness Week, the United Minorities Council, Penn Graduate School of Education International Student Affairs and FBIC have all hosted events related to microaggressions at Penn.
Still, Lee believes that the vast majority of Penn’s microaggressions go unreported. “This probably has to do with the stigma that comes with seeking out administrative help or making personal incidences public knowledge. Either students feel that microaggressions aren’t a big deal, or they don’t know what resources are available to them,” he said.
But Ashby believes that once people become more aware of the prevalence of microaggressions, they will not be able to ignore them anymore. “Once you start seeing them, you’ll start seeing them everywhere,” she said.
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