These days, our society seems to be facing a unique type of heightened racism and discrimination. With anti-Asian violence increasing since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-Black sentiment linked to police brutality and Islamophobic policies on the rise in Europe, I worry about what the future holds for marginalized groups and people of color in terms of safety and discrimination. While it seems overwhelming to try to unpack the underlying motives for such attacks, sentiments and policies, one avenue worth examining is the role of microaggressions and their prevalence.
Kevin Nadal, a professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, defines microaggressions as “the everyday, subtle, intentional — and oftentimes unintentional — interactions or behaviors that communicate some sort of bias toward historically marginalized groups.” Aside from these actions being subtle, what makes microaggressions different is that the people who commit them may not even be aware they are doing so. This unintentional nature of many microaggressions seems to be telling of a more pronounced and deeply rooted issue at hand. While one offhand comment may not seem like it makes a difference in the grand scheme of things, a pattern of such unrecognized prejudice and discrimination has the potential to build an atmosphere that supports more offensive remarks and prejudices, ultimately contributing to more overt forms of discrimination.
So what are examples of microaggressions? They can be common phrases, such as, “You speak good English” or, “Where are you really from?” which communicate the message that one is being viewed as different, and oftentimes, inferior. While it may seem like a compliment or a genuine question from one end, a subtle “us versus them” dynamic is established, with the marginalized party being the out-group. While such subtle microaggressions can be noticed in many situations, the scope can be narrowed further to focus on microaggressions in the academic setting.
The most common microaggression that comes to mind is the failure to pronounce a student’s name correctly, despite being corrected multiple times. It is 100 percent valid for a professor to be unfamiliar with a name or have trouble pronouncing it, yet if the name is continuously purposely mispronounced or if a student is asked to go by a nickname for the convenience of not having to learn a “difficult” name, this becomes a microaggression. A name is something so basic, yet so integral to who we are as individuals. As a piece of our identity, it becomes offensive if someone purposely ignores or disrespects an important piece of who we are. What makes this situation even more frustrating is that in academia, we are faced with “difficult” names all the time, so it makes one wonder why learning how to say the name of an ancient Greek philosopher is more important than knowing how to pronounce the name of your very own student.
Another microaggression is the predetermined expectation for students of a particular background, neighborhood, gender or race. Correlating someone’s ethnicity with their intelligence level or their gender with academic interests are just some of the many microaggressions that are prevalent within this setting. It seems absurd to even think that these stereotypes still exist, but we all have an implicit bias that is due to how we have grown up in the world we live in. Everybody is guilty of bias, implicit or not — it’s just that in an academic setting, such biases have ripple effects. If a student feels like they need to conform to a certain expectation, then chances are they aren’t going to thrive in the academic setting. Being faced with microaggressions not only makes a student less comfortable in their academic space, but it also raises the issue of self-confidence. It can lead to one questioning their place in a certain academic discipline, which has the potential to deter certain groups of students from entering certain fields and can have long-lasting effects.
What makes microaggressions in the academic setting particularly challenging to deal with is that when they come from teachers, professors, supervisors, etc., they’re coming from a place of authority. Addressing the issue may not seem like a viable option for students due to the worry of being deemed disrespectful or suffering the consequences of being treated or graded unfairly in the future. Among peers, microaggressions can have even more severe consequences because such peers are often the people that can help or inhibit one from succeeding. Peers play a huge role in creating an atmosphere of acceptance and support, often determining our path in a single class or the general field overall, yet isolation can inhibit such success. Because the academic setting can reinforce and strengthen biases and prejudices that are already present through microaggressions, the same biases and prejudices remain among our peers — the next generation. If not addressed early on, it becomes more difficult to reverse such notions as time passes. Additionally, these microaggressions in academia don’t stop after graduation — they persist in other settings like the workplace and ultimately contribute to the larger issues of bias and discrimination such as those pertaining to race or gender.
The question then becomes, what can be done to combat the prevalence of microaggressions in the academic setting? While there probably isn’t one single correct answer, one thing that can be done is to be more aware. Just briefly considering how the person belonging to a marginalized group might perceive your comment might cause you to not make that one offhand remark you thought was harmless. More importantly, understanding why a comment is considered a microaggression is an essential step in order to avoid repeating it in the future. While no one person can be an expert on what and what not to say in every circumstance, just taking into consideration the broad history or expectations of certain marginalized groups can help one better understand why a comment can be perceived as uncomplimentary. Everyone has different life experiences and perspectives, so when brought to our attention, it is important that we really listen and try to understand the implications of what we say. We all, at some point, have likely said something that unintentionally was a microaggression, but how we react to that realization is what matters. Not defensiveness, but recognition and awareness of why a comment or question communicates bias is the only way that the cycle of bias and discrimination can be broken. This awareness should not stop at our own speech though — when witnessing microaggressions, it’s just as important to speak up and not continue this cycle by staying silent. While individually these circumstances may seem minute in the grand scheme of things, it is the culmination of these effects that offer hope for a better tomorrow.
Sana Malik is a junior double-majoring in biology and philosophy, politics and law.