You wouldn’t expect to hear this in a community of educated people, but that’s exactly where this micro-aggression was uttered.
Micro-aggressions are subtle biases that perpetuate stereotypes; in this case, the hidden message was that black history is not part of American History. Micro-aggressions happen everywhere — not just in homogeneous northwest Iowa. They are commonplace even in our nation’s most prestigious universities.
Last month, black students from Harvard University came out with a campaign called “I, too, am Harvard” in response to the affirmative-action article, a type of racial quota that made many students of color feel the need to justify their admittance and presence in Harvard. The campaign consisted of photographs of students holding a white board inscribed with micro-aggressions they have heard or experienced on campus. Above each photograph, the hashtag #itooamharvard can be read.
Before the campaign, a group of black Harvard students had been attempting to talk to their peers and Harvard administrators about their concerns.
“Minority students would correct their peers, and other students would repeatedly brush them off,” said Amar Singh, third-year student at Harvard.
The national media attention, followed by the growing number of universities across the country joining in on the national movement, pushed Harvard administrators to finally listen to the students’ concerns.
Professors were among the first who began addressing racial inclusion.
“Educators put things into context for the students,” Singh said. “Once their educators or superiors talked about the idea in class, it shifted the dynamic in their minds, both social and moral.”
According to Singh, this was significant to Harvard students because they know their professors are leading educators in the world — educators who are being invested in by both the students and their parents.
“Now everyone is claiming to understand how our nation is not post-racial, whether they do or not is a separate matter,” Singh said.
Like the minority students at Harvard, NW minorities have attempted to spark conversation on campus about race and diversity. La Mosaic holds monthly “Let’s Be Real” conversations. Topics have included identity and perceptions, NW’s dating rules, fitting in and the latest discussion on SSPs. The SSP discussion dealt with how to be Christ-like in serving people without judging or ranking their lives as good or bad.
NW’s diversity specialist, Rahn Franklin, said there have been circumstances in which some students have had a difficult time acknowledging that they might have offended others.
“Some time ago, a white male student went around a male dormitory yelling the N-word repeatedly,” Franklin said. “There was argument about who should or shouldn’t say it, rather than thinking about the effect use of such a word would have on the community — understanding the current and historical context of the word and its divisive nature is critical for our understanding even today.”
Stegenga Hall Resident Director Hannah McBride said she has heard micro-aggressive statements on campus. The statements draw a line between minority students and the rest of campus and create an idea of separation.
“I think the comment that I have heard and has stuck out the most, and one that has gone out with students of multiple ethnicities, is that ‘those students stick together, and they’re not really interested in making other friends,’” McBride said.
Many minorities don’t seek friendships based on race.
“There have been instances where some girls come into our room to invite my roommate to dinner — right in front of me,” sophomore Nancy Becerra said. “But they don’t care to be like, ‘Hey, do you want to go too?’ I don’t feel at home.”
Becerra said she feels more comfortable with International Club because its members share similar stories of feeling foreign.
Freshman Henry Richardson said he often felt like he was living in his roommate’s room. He also described uncomfortability in the classroom.
“If I raise my hand and ask a question, professors will talk to me as if I’m slow or not understanding what they’re saying,” Richardson said. “They will use more common words or slow down their speech, as if I were a child.”
Unlike Harvard, NW is a Christian College that some might argue has more of a responsibility to address micro-aggressions that take place on campus.
“Regardless of if you’re a Christian College or not, it’s morality,” Richardson said. “You should do what is morally right.”
For McBride, however, being Christian means not being lazy about God’s justice. McBride said if a similar campaign would happen at NW, many students would remain neutral because they wouldn’t see how it affects them.
“Other students would probably say, ‘That’s awesome; I believe in that; I think we should be diverse and push against stereotypes’,” McBride said. “But they’re not going to do anything about it.”
Franklin said he believes that if, like Harvard, NW professors would amplify academic discussion about race and culture, attitudinal and behavioral change toward unity and shalom would occur.
“We are an academic institution, and professors influence culture almost more than anybody else, even more than students at times,” Franklin said. “Students graduate every four years, and professors remain. They’re trend-setters, culturally, morally, spiritually and academically. We all have a role to play in the process of growth and reformation.”
McBride echoed that sentiment.
“If professors were to position themselves as vulnerable and humble and say, ‘I don’t know how to talk about this; part of this is uncomfortable to me; I feel privileged or unsure,’ then students would be able to say the same things,” McBride said.
For Richardson, his fear would be that a similar campaign wouldn’t make a difference.
“At the same time, you can’t just let the people that aren’t going to change dictate your actions and what you want to do,” Richardson said. “So it is definitely something I think we should do.”
Multi-cultural student interns have already begun capturing all types of diversity by highlighting faces and voices of students at NW. View them on Twitter (@itooamnwc), Instagram
(@itooamnorthwestern) and Tumblr (itooamnorthwestern). They can also be contacted at email@example.com
In an effort to continue the campus conversation on how to improve race relations and diversity, La Mosaic will hold a Let’s Be Real: I, too, am Northwestern event on April 14, 2014.