Students Seek to Combat Microaggressions

An upcoming workshop hosted by White Students Confronting Racism (WSCR) will address issues of racial microaggressions and connect individual occurrences of racism to structures of institutionalized racism, as well as to white supremacy.

According to Maddie Reichman ‘13, a member of WSCR, the main goal of the workshop is to educate people about microaggressions, which Reichman defined as seemingly everyday, subtle comments or non-verbal actions that convey racism and an imbalanced racial power dynamic. These microaggressions serve to oppress marginalized identities, Reichman explained.

The workshop will analyze microaggressions in a political fashion, conveying to attendees the larger, institutional significance of these instances of racism.

“We’re trying to situate racial microaggressions in the context of racial hierarchies, and to elevate the perception of these as beyond individual acts,” said Mike Lumetta ‘15, another member of WSCR.

Because instances of racial microaggressions are extremely subtle, they tend to be ignored by or are imperceptible to the perpetrator, something which the workshop will address.

For this reason, Reichman explained, WSCR members hope that many white students will attend the workshop. “White people tend not to have to recognize racial microaggresions a lot, and part of our workshop will be trying to raise consciousness of that,” Reichman said.

Because of the pervasive nature of microaggresions, the workshop will also be open to faculty, staff, and administrators on campus. “These things happen in the classroom and in every area of Swarthmore life, so we think it’s important to engage the adults on this campus too, and not just keep it to a student conversation,” Reichman said.

WSCR as an organization is dedicated to the idea of white students teaching others about racism, so that the burden of education does not fall solely upon people of color.

Reichman said that the group, which consists of a core of about four members, joined by 10 to 15 other students during each discussion, focuses on consciousness-raising and upon unpacking privilege. Students in the group also examine how their lives are structured by white supremacy, and attempt to intervene and fight this, challenging their own racism and that which they see around them at Swarthmore.

Reichman became involved with the group after a workshop on white privilege during her freshman year. “I hadn’t interrogated myself and my own white privilege up until that point, and so the group seemed challenging to me,” Reichman said. By sophomore year, her involvement with the group crystallized as she became more aware of the way racism and white supremacy functioned, both in her life and at Swarthmore.

Lumetta, meanwhile, attended several meetings during his freshman year, and was attracted by what he saw as important work analyzing the structural bases of racism.

The idea for the workshop grew out of a student-run reading group for the Introduction to Ethnic Studies course last semester, which addressed topics that included microaggressions, Reichman said. She added that the recent discussions on social culture and Greek life on campus had highlighted the importance of discussing microaggressions, though the idea for a workshop specifically addressing these everyday, subtle instances of racism had been discussed before the social culture and Greek life discussions began. WSCR also worked informally with Achieving Black and Latino Leadership in Excellence (ABLLE) and other students to plan and execute the workshop.

Though WSCR is not connected to the recent Swat (Micro)Aggressions blog in any way, Reichman and Lumetta see the site as a positive addition to campus discussion and as helpful for the workshop.

According to the About section of the site, which is maintained by an anonymous group of students, “the purpose of this blog is to gather and publicize the numerous instances of discrimination and oppression against marginalized groups that take place on the supposedly utopian campus of Swarthmore College.”

The blog’s creators said via email that the idea to create Swat (Micro)aggressions came from a similar site started by Oberlin College students. Oberlin has appeared in the pages of national news lately, after a series of hateful events culminating in someone reportedly dressed in Ku Klux Klan attire standing by the African Heritage House. Oberlin students have used their own microaggressions blog to document events on campus.

“They, like Swarthmore, are notoriously liberal and ‘utopian’ in existence, so these hateful acts are often brushed under the rug,” said Swat (Micro)aggressions creators in an e-mail.

The blog seeks to subvert the notion that Swarthmore is an isolated, largely flawless environment. “It’s clear that hateful acts occur on the Swarthmore campus and that we aren’t as utopian as we seem,” the creators said. “We had a string of hate speech incidents last year that ended up with violent threats. In the past month or so, there have been three separate incidents of students urinating on the Intercultural Center. Additionally, there are the day to day microaggressions that marginalized students experience every day on this campus.”

Anyone can submit a post to the blog or ask the site’s creators a question, and the content includes accounts of verbal and physical micro- and macroaggression, as well as screenshots of social media posts from sites such as Twitter and Facebook. The blog’s moderators also respond to criticism submitted by viewers of the site. So far, the creators said they have received about 50 submissions, and have rejected 5 or 6 (the site does not accept posts which are off-topic or deemed especially hateful, the creators said).

“I think it’s a positive thing,” Reichman said of the site. “If you just hear a microaggressive comment in passing, sometimes you feel helpless, because you can’t really engage. It helps to be able to record that on the blog, and in the workshop it’ll be helpful in thinking about what actually gets said here at Swarthmore.” Reichman hopes that the workshop will discuss microaggressions not in a general way, as comments which might be made, but in a concrete fashion by discussing what has been overheard at Swarthmore.

Lumetta echoed this idea of having a record of comments. “As white people, it’s easy to lose track of the fact that these things actually happen,” Lumetta said. He added that he appreciate the blog’s recent addition of parentheses around “micro” in the title “microaggressions.” “I think it’s important to distinguish between microaggressions and straight up aggressions,” Lumetta said.

Critics of the site have accusaed the site taking comments out of context, failing to facilitate productive discussion and propagating “abusive call-out culture.”

“I understand where those responses are coming from and it is possible that some comments are taken out of context— we don’t hear the context,” the blog’s moderators said. However, they explained, there are episodes which are clearly not out of context–”for instance, the very clear aggressions like the abuse of a black male on campus by a white male, and the repeated urination on the Intercultural Center.” So, the creators explained, while there may be some decontextualized posts, these still contribute to productive discussion.

The blog’s creators see themselves as attempting to educate and create constructive discussions, and they said they were open to suggestions.

“We try very hard to be respectful of people’s understanding of racism and work to educate. We don’t shut down conversation… we rationally and reasonably explain why we disagree. We welcome follow-up questions and are happy to engage in discussion, and are willing to make concessions when we’ve made a mistake,” the creators explained. They cited the many changes to the blog, per reader request, and the thoughtful answers to numerous questions, as evidence of this.

Some students have mocked the site, especially after the blog posted about a student quoting lyrics from an A$AP Rocky song.

While the creators said that they had received much support for the blog via Tumblr and Facebook, they were aware that some students did not take the site seriously. “There is definitely a perception that the blog is a big joke on campus,” the creators said. “We’re okay with that though. The fact that there is this perception about students trying to confront prejudice and oppression only illuminates the fact that cultural and structural changes are necessary.” Additionally, the creators see this response as indicative of the fact that many students read the website.

Ultimately, the blog and the WSCR workshop have similar goals of educating students about various forms of discrimination, raising consciousness, and creating awareness.

“Hopefully, people will begin to understand that Swarthmore is not perfect and that it takes work to create an intentionally inclusive community,” said the (Micro)Aggressions creators. Ideally, they concluded, this realization will lead to serious structural and cultural reforms on campus.

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