Multicultural Affairs Office addresses micro-aggressions

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By Tia Sprengel, Managing Editor

On Wednesday Feb. 15, the Office of Multicultural Affairs offered a teach-in targeted to address subtly racist comments, a campus concern which came to light through a recently instituted program called the “Senior Sound Off.”

This “Senior Sound Off” program occurs at the end of each semester and allows departing seniors to discuss their experience at Illinois Wesleyan with both administrators and professors.

Many of the seniors spoke highly of the university in the last “Sound Off” session but, despite Illinois Wesleyan University’s desire to create an inclusive campus environment, some minority students did not feel comfortable on campus due to their ethnicity.

Director of Multicultural Affairs Roshaunda Ross recalls hearing accounts of Latin American students who were asked questions such as “Where are you from?” or “Are your parents immigrants?”, African American students felt isolated in a classroom setting and other related incidents from the “Sound Off” speakers.

Ross recognized these occurrences were examples of racial micro-aggressions, which are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, communicating hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to the target group or person.

And after receiving so much anecdotal information from students, she could no longer let the problem go unaddressed.

“I felt like it was meant for me to do something on campus,” Ross said. “Issues with racial micro-aggressions keep coming up in my work in various contexts.”

In order to combat the issue, Ross brought professional speaker and University of Illinois associate professor of African American studies Christopher Benson to campus to facilitate a faculty/staff teach-in on racial micro-aggression held this past Wednesday, Feb. 15.

Three sessions were held with a basic lecture at 11:00 a.m., a small group discussion at 12:00 p.m., and an advanced lecture at 1:00 p.m.

Ross provided a quick introduction, explaining her experiences with the “Senior Sound Off” and the objective of the teach-in. “Our goal here today is to build awareness of this issue and to improve our campus for our students as well as ourselves,” Ross said.

Following her speech, Ross invited Benson to the podium and he started the teach-in by requesting the gathering of faculty and staff to remain open-minded. “Even those who think they understand everything have room for growth and self-reflection,” Benson said.

Benson first explained how to recognize racial micro-aggressions. Some, such as someone painting a swastika on the wall, are openly antagonistic, but others are not obviously offensive.

Someone who says, “I’d love to adopt a black baby. They’re so cute” may not realize their insensitivity.

“We need to be mindful of our impact,” Benson said. “Many people don’t realize how hurtful comments like this can be, but they make members of the group the comment is addressing feel different and uncomfortable.”

Benson also emphasized people should be aware of the origins of racial micro-aggressions.

He gave examples from how children are raised, such as when they are taught to define their identities in oppositional
terms, and the media that contribute to the widespread occurrence of micro-aggressions.

He urged the audience to recognize these instances and make an effort to bring awareness to the issue.

“We sometimes don’t realize it exists because it’s so commonplace,” Benson said. “But it’s important that the issue is addressed.”

Benson ended the conference with suggestions for how to deal with situations in which micro-aggressions come into play.

Instead of confronting comments directly, he suggested a calm, constructive approach, which keeps communication open and educates those involved.

“When you confront someone, you shut down communication. You force the person to defend in illogical ways and no one ends up learning,” Benson said.

But Benson said the main point to take away from the teach-in was, regardless of whether or not the micro-aggressions were intentional, the community should take responsibility for the words and actions and address cases of discrimination in day to day life.

“Ultimately we have to have a commitment to good citizenship and transformation by moving away from practices that reinforce hurtful social constructs and learning to value difference,” Benson said.

Ross supports this same idea. “It’s important for people to realize that micro-aggressions are small, but still have a large impact. They affect our students’ comfort and safety on campus, so it’s important to be aware of our actions and words,” she said.