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microaggressions-01
Credit: Alana Kelly

As a child, I went to work with my dad often. He was a racehorse trainer, and we spent countless hours together inside the stables. I would gather carrots by the bunches to feed to my horse pals, while my dad catered to each of the animals’ daily needs in anticipation of their next race. At the end of the day, as we were leaving, I would waive goodbye to all his co-workers and friends as we drove away. My father never waved goodbye to anyone, he only ever held his closed fist firmly in the air. 

As a biracial person, my world is uniquely shaped by my dual perception of race. I was by my Black father’s side when the other parents stared at him as we walked to my school bus stop in our predominantly white neighborhood. I was in the passenger seat as the red and blue lights began to flash and my white mother was being pulled over for speeding down a North Carolina highway. A brief conversation and a few smiles later, we drove away, ticket free. 

These opposite interactions, both of which were common occurrences for both of my parents, provide distinct portraits of the varied experiences a person's race can offer. “What are you?” is a question I’m well accustomed to. The question is always influenced by curiosity. Personally, this curiosity does not offend me, but it makes the difference of existing in both Black and white spaces all the more apparent. My experience moving to Philadelphia after living in a predominantly white suburb, helped my awareness of what it means to be white or not. The flexibility that comes along with these two very different experiences helps me understand the unsteady elements of race that undeniably exist in the U.S. and how I ultimately fit in as an individual.

Two years ago, I walked my twin sons home from the park in their double stroller when I received my Penn admissions decision email. For days, I checked my inbox obsessively, waiting for the message to arrive. When it was finally here, I cautiously opened it. My jumping up and down at the sight of the word “Congratulations!” was met by two tiny pairs of eyes, clueless about all of the commotion. My hard work paid off. My decision to enroll in classes the month after my babies were born paid off. I was accepted into my dream school. 

Now, as my senior year approaches, I am reflecting on the different elements of my Penn experience. The experience is more rewarding than I could justify adequately with a few words. The inspiring classmates, some of which are now my closest friends, are sources of fundamental growth for me. The professors I absorb knowledge and insight from have completely changed my approach to thinking. 

However, with the Black Lives Matter movement progressing and protests continuing to make daily, shocking headlines, a good portion of my mental space is now consumed with many exhaustive thoughts about the layered complexities of racism in the U.S. It’s easy to label an obvious injustice as being racially influenced, but it’s harder to point out racism and biases in the less obvious social and academic spaces. 

Last year, I decided to apply to an honors thesis program. After looking into the requirements, I began trying to narrow down an important topic that I was passionate about. Once I had my general focus specified, I reached out to one of my professors with expertise in the area. “Are you sure this won't be the straw that breaks the camel’s back?” they questioned as I sat in their office pleading my case for their guidance. 

This professor made assumptions about my academic capacity. Looking back, I was crossing my fingers to be accepted to the prestigious program. I was not expecting to be grilled on my potential to participate by someone not involved in the review of my application. When a student shows up dedicated to learn, they deserve support or insight into the academic aspects of their goals, not an interrogation about their aptitude. I believe this lack of support was influenced by my Blackness. Racial microaggressions are often heavily veiled and unintentional. They are carried by social and cultural norms. 

While it is easy to get absorbed in blatant forms of racism, like a student being caught on video allegedly saying a racial slur, or Penn Law professor Amy Wax's public praise for Trump’s immigration policies, there’s much more to recognize. Everyday interactions like the aforementioned pack the most punch. They are discrete, but ultimately, they are unwelcoming experiences that weigh on marginalized groups. Microaggressions have influenced my undergraduate experience. The impact of this bad interaction did not stop as soon as I walked out of this professor's office. It stayed with me and led me to question why it occurred.

My conclusion is that similar conversations happen very often for non-white students. As all human behavior is driven by unconscious attitudes and stereotypes, it is important for everyone in the Penn community to check how they may be contributing to implicit bias and behaving in ways that are influenced by microaggressions. These experiences are uncomfortable, harmful, and demeaning for students because they ultimately influence a student’s perception of their ability to excel, feel comfortable, and be accepted within the Penn community. 

Interactions influenced by implicit bias are keen examples of the ways in which our society treats minorities every day. These interactions occur in every space. These actions are difficult and often unconscious expressions of racism that ultimately display negativity and hostility. Racism doesn’t simply live in a nutshell, it festers in meritocracy, academic views, white culture supremacy, and every other part of our society. It is imperative for everyone, including professors in the Penn community, to engage and reflect on the ways in which they impact students, especially students of color. I may never know what my father felt as the only Black man being watched at the kindergarten bus stop, but I do know what it feels like to be unjustifiably ostracized.

JESSICA GOODING is a rising College senior from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania studying History and English. Her email address is jgooding@sas.upenn.edu.

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