Microaggression: The Social Justice Word Du Jour On Campus

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A photo campaign called "I, Too, Am Harvard" highlights the faces and voices of black students at Harvard College. (Courtesy "I, Too, Am Harvard")
A photo campaign called "I, Too, Am Harvard" highlights the faces and voices of black students at Harvard College. (Courtesy "I, Too, Am Harvard")

There's a notion out there that millennials are living in a colorblind society. Interracial friendships and marriages are commonplace. And, of course, we have a black president. So, welcome to our post racial reality.

Or, maybe not. While expressions of overt racism are rarely tolerated, there's concern that a more subtle, less pronounced form of racism still persists. It takes the form of what are called "microaggressions" — those small, verbal stings are based on racial, ethnic and gender stereotypes.

They might be intentional. Or they might be relatively innocent, but they can still hurt. Here are some examples: A woman with Asian features is asked, "Where are you from?" She answers, "New York." The response? "No, where are you really from?"

Another example: an African-American college student is told, "You don't act like a normal black person."

Those examples come from a project at Fordham University where students were asked to report instances of racial microaggression. A similar project at Harvard called "I, Too Am Harvard" collected similar comments, including, "You only got in because you're black."

In fact, the term, microaggression, has gone viral on college campuses across the country — where students are talking about the issue in blogs, papers and performances.


On microaggressions among college students:
Tanzina Vega: "What stood out to me was seeing this term and hearing this term in interviews I had done in a previous article on whether or not young people, particularly college students, are "post racial." And, spoiler alert, they are not. At least, by and large, they reject the concept of being post racial and living in a post racial society. And during interviews for that article the word microaggressions just kept coming up as if it were just an everyday word that we used. And I recalled thinking back to my college days and saying, 'We never used that word." And I was a sociology major and, among friends of mine, we would just not use that term to describe these sorts of experiences. And so I sort of said, well, these young people are now really grasping onto this term and I wonder why that is, and when we started digging into it, we noticed that, first of all, the term has been around since the 1970s so it's not a new word, it's just a word that is now being used to clearly identify, for a lot of young people, the experiences that they have, not just with race, but also with gender and people with disabilities and any sort of marginalized or minority group is using this to speak about how they feel, and largely — our focus, obviously, was race — but, we just thought it was really interesting that it was something that was used in everyday conversations with young people and also we noticed the online presence had grown. So you had these blogs around the country by college students who were basically saying, 'These are microaggressions, these are examples of microaggressions.' And using that particular word to describe that, so it wasn't something that we could just ignore."

On the criticism that microaggressions are defined by hyper-sensitivity:
Tanzina Vega: "This is where it gets really complicated, I think for a lot of people, on either side of the conversation. You saw this if anyone looks at the comments we got for this piece, we got more 600 comments for the microaggression story, you see this in terms of the question of intent. There were different types of comments, I think they fell into three different buckets. You had people who said, 'You know what? Just get over it. You're being hyper-sensitive. This is ridiculous. There are bigger issues to deal with in the world, move on.' Then you had people who said, 'Now, I'm confused. Now I don't know how to engage largely with people of color. Should I be asking you where you're from even if that's an obvious and innocent question? Should I not? Should I refrain from that? How is this going to impact interracial relationships?' And others said, 'Look. This is real and this is what I experience every day and we should be talking about this.' So, I think what it comes down to is often a question of intent. I think there are opportunities for people to say, 'Where are you from?' I think when that question becomes, 'Where are you really from?' Is where people start to say, 'Well, I'm actually really from New York. I'm really from, you know, the lower east side.' And so I think, is it OK to ask someone what their background and racial or ethnic background is? That's what's up for grabs. And I think some of the folks in the piece that I wrote question that, is it fair to have, particularly whites, expect that they should treat people of color equally and then at the same time force them to acknowledge racial differences. So that's the tension here — it's a question of intent, it's a question of what can and can't be said, and so I think we're still working that out."

On Meghna's personal experience with microaggression:
Meghna Chakrabarti: "I've experienced this quite a lot in my life. Hearing this conversation, it reminds me that the times that I've had difficulty with these interactions really matter in terms of the context. I grew up in a place called Corvallis, Oregon, it was majority white and people oftentimes would ask me, 'Where are you from?' And when I would say, 'Right here in Corvallis,' some people would be fine with that, but it's when they're not happy with that answer and they persist that it gets a bit tiresome. Or if you're with a group of your friends and other folks, and this happened to me a lot in middle and high school, and of all the people I was with, most of whom were white, when I would be the only one to get the question of 'Where are you from?' Then you have to start wondering, well, why is there not equal interest in where other people are from? And then also gradations in terms of the type of question, the 'Where are you from?' one is very common but when you're having a conversation with someone and one of the first things they say is, 'You don't have an accent?' Well, why shouldn't I not have an accent? I was born in Boston and grew up in Oregon. I mean, just like millions and millions and millions of other Americans. That one, I think, is a little more severe. But I don't think any single person who ever told me these things meant to be offensive, ever."


Tanzina Vega, race and ethnicity reporter for The New York Times. Her most recent article in the Times is titled, "Students See Many Slights as Racial 'Microaggressions.'" She tweets at @tanzinavega.

Ryan Enos, assistant professor of government at Harvard and author of a recent study examining how diversity on public transportation influences social acceptance. He tweets at @RyanDEnos.


The New York Times: Students See Many Slights As Racial ‘Microaggressions’

  • "A tone-deaf inquiry into an Asian-American’s ethnic origin. Cringe-inducing praise for how articulate a black student is. An unwanted conversation about a Latino’s ability to speak English without an accent."

The Boston Globe: Does Riding The Commuter Rail Change Attitudes On Immigration?

  • "Forget, for a moment, all the usual benefits of public transportation, like cutting greenhouse gases and reducing traffic. There is a new reason to ride the commuter rails: They provide researchers an excellent laboratory for studying human behavior."

This segment aired on March 26, 2014.


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