“You speak really well for a black person.”
That’s what they call a “microaggression.” It’s a comment that may not seem overtly derogatory or offensive, but serves to make people of color uncomfortable and degraded in a workplace or school environment with its implications.
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville students and faculty recently addressed this topic at “Black Lives Matter Reloaded,” a recurring discussion on campus about issues of diversity and inclusion.
The conference series was launched as a response to the civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and SIUE has kept the conversation going with roundtable discussions and guest speakers focused on improving equal opportunities and an inclusive atmosphere on campus.
Art major Kamran Mehmandoost is literally the product of diversity on campus: his father, a first-generation engineering student from Iran, and his mother, who is white, met on the SIUE campus as students. Now Mehmandoost is studying ancient Persian art at the same college.
But his self-described “ambiguous ethnicity” means that Mehmandoost often faces a variety of microaggressions. “I’ve been told I’m South American, Mediterranean, Alaska, Hawaii,” he said. “It usually goes to the Middle East with slurs attached to it.”
He especially has problems with his last name — it often becomes “Mohammed-doost.”
“Every single time,” he said. “Even when I pronounce it to them, they’ll continually mispronounce it.”
Sometimes it’s a little more blunt. He said he is often called “A-rab,” Osama bin Laden, “terrorist,” or “Muslim.”
“People think Muslim is an ethnicity,” he said. “It’s a religious orientation. ... It’s a common misconception that everyone of color is a Muslim.”
You can’t be from that neighborhood, you speak so well! You write so well!
Associate chancellor Venessa Brown, offering an example of microaggression
As an artist, he said, his interest in the art of his ancestors’ homeland is sometimes questioned. “(They ask) ‘Why all this Persian stuff?’” he said. “I can only do Greek, apparently. … My art is a reflection of my experience.”
Saba Fatima, assistant professor of philosophy, said that most people who commit a microaggression are unaware that their action might communicate hostile or negative slights to marginalized groups. They’re common verbal, behavioral or environmental indignities, she said, and whether intentional or unintentional, it’s sometimes difficult to help people understand that their actions cause harm.
“They are slights or insults that are aimed at a person that can be attributed to their ethnic group,” Fatima said.
Mehmandoost said when he corrects pronunciations like “A-rab” or “Eye-ran,” he is often greeted with hostility instead of open-minded learning.
“I make them feel guilty,” he said. “I’m inconveniencing them by correcting them with knowledge.”
More examples of microaggressions include asking a person of color, “Your English is so good! Where are you really from?” or asking a black person whether you can touch their hair. Sometimes it’s presuming that a person of a minority ethnicity doesn’t speak English.
“‘You can’t be from that neighborhood, you speak so well!’” quoted Venessa Brown, associate chancellor and one of the coordinators of the Black Lives Matter Reloaded conference. “These students are talking about their experiences of microaggressions in a grocery store, at home, in a classroom. … Their experience is what they experience every day.”
The term “microaggression” refers to “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.
For communications major LaShaunda Jordan, it’s about her hair and her manner of speaking. People constantly ask to touch her hair or query her on how she washes it. Then they ask her, “Why do you speak so well?” or ask her who taught her to speak.
“I just like to talk!” Jordan said. “I speak because I like to articulate and I like for my thoughts to sound well, not because I’m a black person and I took lessons on how to speak well.”
Students shared some of their experiences with the group, then separated into tables for a more in-depth discussion. At each table sat a faculty or staff member, to listen and talk about how they can eliminate microagressions from the university environment, Brown said.
It isn’t just a college-environment issue, according to those in attendance; it’s something they face every day, on and off campus. “I think universities are microcosms of society,” said program co-coordinator Bryan Jack.
Co-coordinator Jessica Harris agreed. “It shows we have to have more conversations like this,” she said. “What’s happening in society also happens here.”
Brown said that as a whole, SIUE is committed to diversity through their mission values of citizenship, inclusion and wisdom.
“Being an educational institution, our job is to ensure that our students have the opportunity to dialogue about these situations and come together to figure out ways of changing these things, and that’s one of the points of why we are doing this conference: to create opportunities for students to talk about the issues they’re facing,” Brown said.
The first Black Lives Matter Reloaded conference took place in January, which focused on “Voices of the Unheard.” The title was a reference to a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said that riots in the 1960s were the voices of the unheard.
The Rev. Traci Blackmon called on all to hear more from Dr. King than just his “I Have a Dream” speech. Blackmon said it is too easy to hear the comforting words without a call to action. She listed issues such as immigration reform, the war on drugs, the Black Lives Matter movement, the water crisis in Flint, Mich., prison reform and the budget crisis in Illinois among the issues that have racial and socioeconomic repercussions, and said that people of conscience cannot just sit by the sidelines.
When hate and intolerance seem to be in the news daily, it’s important that SIUE serves as a model of inclusion, openness and acceptance.
Stephen Hansen, SIUE interim chancellor
“We have become a nation adept at distancing our celebrations from our sins,” Blackmon said. “It is easier to embrace the King who invites us to dream than it is the one who challenges us to deconstruct our oppressive ideologies.”
Brown said they hope to hold more of these conferences on a quarterly basis, addressing issues of racial injustice.
“It is another illustration of the good work occurring at SIUE, and the students’ narratives are indicative of our continued opportunities to improve the campus climate,” said interim provost Denise Cobb. “We have demonstrated a willingness to listen, learn and improve.”
SIUE’s interim chancellor Stephen Hansen agreed.
“I continue to be impressed by SIUE’s institutional leadership to address sensitive issues such as microaggression,” Hansen said. “When hate and intolerance seem to be in the news daily, it’s important that SIUE serves as a model of inclusion, openness and acceptance for this region.”
Microaggressions in practice
Here are some common microaggressions, as identified by people of various races and ethnic backgrounds:
- “No, where are you from, really?”
- “So, what are you?”
- “So, what do you guys speak in Japan — Asian?”
- “You don’t act like a normal black person, you know?”
- “I never see you as a black person.”
- “You mean you don’t speak Spanish?”
- “No, you can’t be, you’re white!”
- “Just because I’m from Mexico doesn’t make me the automatic first choice to play a Latino in a high school skit.”
- “People think it’s weird that I listen to Carrie Underwood.” (From a young black woman.)
- “You look just like a China doll.”
- “The limited representation of my race in your classroom does not make me the voice of all black people.”
- “So, you’re Chinese, right?” (Spoken to someone from Vietnam or Korea.)
- “Why is your daughter white?” (Spoken to a bi-racial couple.)
- “You’re really pretty, for a dark-skinned girl.”
- “Can you read this?” (When shown Japanese or Chinese characters on their phone.)
- “Why do you sound white?”