Person of Color Column: Conversations can change culture

Last semester, I confronted a white friend about her unintentionally racist comments. In our conversation, I talked about one of the biggest problems with racism today—microaggressions.

“Some of the words and phrases you’ve said are racist,” I recall saying to her. “Calling my friends ‘those black girls,’ saying that your mom’s job is to help black people, and claiming that it smells like black people when the room smells like cocoa butter is racist.” 

Microaggressions are a form of conscious or unconscious discrimination often derived from stereotypes, according to USA Today. Initially coined by Harvard psychiatrist Chester Pierce in 1970, microaggressions—nonverbal, verbal, or environmental—are forms of prejudice and racism used against African Americans and other minority groups. 

Most of the time, individuals are unaware when they commit a microaggression. Whether the action is intended or not, everyone needs to be held accountable for their actions as it still damages the person on the receiving end.  

Since coming to Emerson in fall 2018, I have experienced microaggressions in classrooms, conversations, and day-to-day interactions with students and teachers. There were only four black students in my theater class last fall—all women with naturally curly hair. My professor showed our class a movie recreation of Hamlet set in modern-day Africa, and every character in the film was black with naturally curly hair. During the post-movie discussion, a student said Ophelia’s hair—one of the main female characters in the movie—was “nappy, unkempt, and needed to be confined in a ponytail.”

At first, I felt surprised. I expected my teacher to inform the student about her unintentionally racist comment, but my teacher agreed with her opinion instead. Their remarks about Ophelia’s natural hair—similar to mine—show how some comments and opinions are unintentionally subtle presentations of racism. 

Other common examples I’ve encountered at Emerson are people who aren’t African American saying the n-word, touching my hair, or asking me why I “talk white.” While these questions, comments, or actions may seem small and unimportant, they represent a broader scope of internalized racism and bias. 

Another example of a microaggression I experienced came from a confrontation with a former Beacon colleague about an insensitive comparison in a People of Color Column. The author’s comparison of their mental health struggles to the lack of mental health awareness in the black community, despite their non-black ethnicity, upset me. I didn’t like how another person of color used the struggles in my community to further their point in the column.

I proposed to talk to the author directly to explain why the comparison was insensitive and to prevent incidents like these occurring again. However, my colleague preferred to talk to the author in my place, despite my hesitance. While the comparison was removed from the article, I never received the opportunity to talk to the author. Without conversations, behaviors like this at Emerson will continue to exist. 

Aside from my own experiences, other Africa-American students I’ve talked to also said they’ve experienced microaggressions in classrooms at Emerson. One of my friends recalled their professor saying, “It’s a great day for a lynching.” My friend—the only black student in the class—felt shocked that a professor would say something so culturally and racially insensitive. 

Experiencing and confronting microaggressions can make students feel depressed, anxious, and unwelcomed, according to Psychology Today—and African Americans reported the highest number of microaggressions experienced than any other ethnic group in the United States. At Emerson, where black students make up 4 percent of the student population, experiencing microaggressions can make them feel isolated on campus. 

Often, when I hear or witness a microaggression, I ask myself, “Did this happen? Did I imagine this?” In classes with one, two, or sometimes zero black people, I feel like I have to be the spokesperson for my race when I confront a microaggression.

In my theater class, I tried to educate both the student who commented on the black actress’ hair and my professor about the different textures of hair. I explained how each hair type is beautiful in their own way. However, my teacher quickly moved on to another topic, unaware of how deeply their comments affected me. 

According to the USA Today article, when confronted with making racist comments or committing microaggressions, individuals need to take a step back, listen, and educate themselves.

Often times, though, people become defensive and refuse to accept their mistake—making it harder and more difficult to recognize and address their internalized biases.

I experienced this directly when I confronted my white friend about her racist comment and my former colleague about the insensitive comparison in their column. In both instances, I felt as if my feelings were taken with a grain of salt. Instead of self-analyzing and re-evaluating their actions, both individuals immediately became defensive and talked about their intent rather than impact. Only after an explanation did my feelings become a priority. 

Similarly with the conversation with my white friend, she apologized for her actions, but I had a hard time looking past the situation. 

I shouldn’t have to explain why these actions and comments are racists. It is everyone’s responsibility to educate themselves. 

Confronting these two individuals made me realize that diversity programs at Emerson need to improve. Microaggressions are a common occurrence on college campuses, according to Psychology Today. 

According to a New York Times article, colleges such as Clark University and Wesleyan University have created diversity programs that explain what microaggressions are, how to prevent committing them, and how to recognize and address internalized racism and biases. Conversations about microaggressions and unconscious biases are essential to making sure every student feels comfortable and welcomed on campus. 

At a school that emphasizes student comfortability, how to respond to microaggressions is a necessary discussion Emerson needs to have with every student.

When the conversation changes, so does the behavior. Let’s start now.

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