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Equity Inaction

Menchavez: Microaggressions are still aggressions

Students speak out about the not-so-subtle comments on campus

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equity inaction

Editor's Note: Living in today’s world as a queer person of color has made it clear that spaces are dominated by and fundamentally for white folks. In an effort to reclaim power and uplift marginalized communities, this column acts as a step to holding institutions of power like the UW accountable. 

In my three years at the UW, I’ve had a range of interactions that have included microaggressions. I’ve been told I “don’t look like an international student,” have been instructed by a white peer in a quiz section to look at police brutality as “not a race issue,” and faced the gatekeeping of my own cultural practices by someone not of my culture at an ASUW event.

Microaggressions are the “subtle but offensive comment[s] or action[s] directed at a minority or other nondominant group that [are] often unintentional,'' according to Dictionary.com. They are more than a common occurrence at the UW. 

Last year, I took a Filipinx history class focused on analyzing early indigenous Filipinx practices that included foods eaten both at that time and today. Although it was empowering for myself to connect my history to modern-day traditions, the knowledge was diluted by my white peers in my classroom who would audibly groan in disgust at my cultural food practices. I’d hear “I can’t believe they’d do that” by my peers, as if their own white history didn’t include the murder and dominance of thousands of innocent indigenous peoples. 

In one of my law, societies, and justice courses, a men’s correctional facility officer was invited to speak about what the incarceration system looks like. Radiating “Blue Lives Matter” energy, the female officer made a plethora of problematic comments including continuously misgendering transgender women in her facility and boasting about how lucky she is to work in a men’s facility because “you all know how women can be.”

Although my peers and this guest speaker may have perceived their actions as harmless, when  unpacked, it reveals the many layers of oppression one can perpetuate and face through microaggressions.

Shilpa Salgar, a senior studying psychology, spoke to me about her experience with a guest speaker in her class and how students can successfully fight off microaggressions we face.

 “Last quarter, in my PSYCH 497 class, we had a financial planning workshop,” Salgar said. “During the whole presentation, our presenter, Vicki Hansen, a psych advisor, was talking about her and her husband’s experiences with money. Although it was intended to be helpful, she repeatedly kept stating how debt was a choice. This implied that people who are of lower socioeconomic status are lazy, not recognizing the disparities that exist in the economy.”

Salgar took action and contacted the psychology department to ensure this wouldn’t happen again.

“I feel the university has a responsibility to be mindful of how this information is presented to an audience and the impacts it may have,” Salgar said in a letter to another psych advisor. “These messages that have been spread have had lasting effects on our society and we must be mindful in order to prevent further harm.”

This email resulted in course content change, according to Salgar. However, change doesn’t always occur on campus when microaggressions are called out.

“During my political science lecture, my professor used the n-word while reading a text written by a Black author,” Sara Mustre-del Rio, a sophomore studying law, societies, and justice said. “A Black student in the crowd then directly asked her not to say the n-word. Unsurprisingly, Ms. Christensen did not apologize and only made a comment about herself using that word for ‘historical context.’”

Salgar and Mustre-del Rio’s situations display the spectrum of experiences when students speak out. More so, it proves why minority communities speaking up should not be the primal solution to resolving microaggressions. Rather, the UW should hold itself and its faculty and staff accountable to prevent microaggressions from happening in the first place.

Having microaggressions occur and placing the responsibility on students to demand action puts a lot of pressure on these communities, whose existence on campus itself is already burdened by many factors. 

Mustre-del Rio spoke to me about her experience in a quiz section with a TA that allowed microaggressions in honor of a “respectful environment for everyone’s opinions.” 

“One of the cisgender, straight, white, male students in my class made an invalid argument about ‘illegal aliens’ not being entitled to protest about an oppressive government if they ‘do not pay taxes,’” Mustre-del Rio said. “As a Latina international student, I felt very vulnerable at that moment, especially because the TA didn’t call him out on his racist comment. I hold her accountable for her lack of action because it is the TA’s duty to ensure her classroom is a safe space for minority students. Free speech does not mean freedom to use your comments to belittle marginalized communities or threaten their rights.”

The lack of allyship from instructors, as seen through Mustre-del Rio and my own experiences, is important to address. Microaggressions that occur in spaces on campus and that go unnoticed by those who facilitate these spaces create an environment that can hinder the ability of minority students to thrive. 

The UW needs to recognize the prevalence of microaggressions on campus to both prevent and treat these situations because failure to do so is a microaggression itself.

Reach columnist Andre Lawes Menchavez at opinion@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @itsjustdrey

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