by Holly Fetter, ’13
Stanford is a pretty liberal place. It’s a sunny university near San Francisco, so everyone assumes it’s a happy place to be different. And it is! There are incredible resources for students of every background, and diversity isn’t just another buzzword on campus – it’s an integral part of the school’s identity. Stanford (unlike some of its peer institutions) has always been co-ed, racially integrated, and was even tuition-free for the first 30 years of its existence. It is, and always has been, an inclusive place.
But such a comfortable environment can make instances of prejudice even more pernicious. They’re much harder to identify, and if they are identified, the victim is often met with raised eyebrows or counterarguments. Many of us with privilege only see the dangerous “-isms “ (racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia, etc.) manifested in blatant, infrequent, dramatic events, without noticing the subtle ways in which we all accidentally communicate prejudice, even if our intentions are good.
These less obvious occurrences are called “microaggressions.” All those syllables refer to “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults toward a particular identity group.” There’s a blog called The Microaggressions Project that chronicles these instances of ignorance with the hope of increasing awareness about the little ways in which we make a big difference in our friends’ lives. In the words of the site’s creators:
This project is a response to “it’s not a big deal” – “it” is a big deal. ”It” is in the everyday. ”It” is shoved in your face when you are least expecting it. ”It” happens when you expect it the most. ”It” is a reminder of your difference. ”It” enforces difference. ”It” can be painful. ”It” can be laughed off. ”It” can slide unnoticed by either the speaker, listener or both. ”It” can silence people. ”It” reminds us of the ways in which we and people like us continue to be excluded and oppressed. ”It” matters because these relate to a bigger “it”: a society where social difference has systematic consequences for the “others.” But “it” can create or force moments of dialogue.
Over the summer, the STATIC staff asked Stanford students to reflect on the ways we’ve encountered microaggressions at Stanford. By collecting and sharing your anonymous experience(s), we hope to educate our community about this concept through a blog post so that we can all take steps to stop hurting one another.
- I’m one of the few women in my techie major. When I’m near a lot of guys in lab, they’ll all immediately group together when we’re asked to find partners, and even though I’m sitting near them, they won’t invite me to join. I’ve noticed that this happens to other women in my class, too, so it’s not just my personality that keeps them away.
- I felt frustrated when I was a freshman and everyone always planned events that involved a considerable amount of money. All the birthday trips to eat dinner in Palo Alto, for example, were really expensive for me, but my dormmates often didn’t think twice about planning them. By the end of the year, I just started making excuses for why I couldn’t go with them.
- A new acquaintance and I were eating dinner at the CoHo when we stumbled onto the topic of our high schools. I didn’t over-dramatize any situation, but I did admit that we had had open race riots and a strong police presence at my school in L.A. Hearing this, he told me that that’s “probably why I seemed so different and cool.” Confused, I asked him to explain. He told me that the riots made me seem “street” and very “L.A.” I understand that he wasn’t being malicious, but his comments nonetheless made me feel a bit uncomfortable, since nothing is “cool” about being “street.” A boy being shot down the street from my school doesn’t make me feel “cool.” It makes me feel unsafe. He also immediately assumed that my school’s demographics were more minority-dominant when the truth was that my school was predominantly white with Hispanic being a close second (hence the racial tension). I didn’t go to a “downtown school” as he assumed. I lived in the ‘burbs and went to a high school made of brick named after an old Western cowboy film actor. Later on, he told me that I also seemed “exotic in a street” way, which created even more discomfort due to his being white and my being Asian. Needless to say, the conversation only went downhill from there. At least the food was delicious.
- I am so done with guys assuming that I’m a straight woman. I’m a lesbian and have been out for a long time, and yet I still find myself coming out constantly because people (not just men) are always thinking I’m straight. I get especially annoyed when guys ask me if I’m sure I’m gay – especially since I’m in a committed relationship with a woman.
- Why does everyone at Stanford (professors and administrators included) assume that every student has an iPhone or a smartphone? Some of us can’t afford those kind of devices.
- People are always surprised that I’m a person of color and a legacy.
- People never believe in the ‘authenticity’ of my queer asexuality. Many people, including my closest friends, have told me that they think I “just don’t have sufficient experience.” I get really frustrated because even these radical people choose not to honor my own self-identification.
- This didn’t happen to me, it’s something I did to my friend. I knew that she had a weave in, and I asked her about her hair when we were in a larger group. I hadn’t realized that none of them were familiar with Black hair, and they immediately started asking her all sorts of “Shit White Girls Say” questions. I felt terrible that I had facilitated this uncomfortable conversation that made the one Black girl in our group feel even more isolated.
- I hate hearing “That’s so gay” and “No homo.” Even if you don’t mean it to be offensive, it is. As a member of the community of individuals with disabilities and as an ally of the queer community, I find it rather upsetting to hear these expressions on a daily basis.
- In my engineering class, my friend was being extremely condescending to me. I was the only girl in the group and he’d talk to me with this disgusting baby voice that made my skin prickle. I stopped being his friend after that. I told him he was being rude and stopped our friendship, although I did remain civil.
- Whenever I’m in a social situation with my male friend, he introduces me by name and then follows that with, “she’s a feminist.” It always throws the person I’ve just met off guard, as if I’m a militant radical just waiting to go on a rant about gender bias or something. It belittles both the term (by making it something strange, “othering” it – yes, I am a feminist! and so what? so are a lot of people, and you should be too!) and me. Yes, I’m a feminist, along with a thousand other possible descriptors. By taking away my power to define myself pluralistically and positively – not that feminism isn’t positive, but it becomes hostile and degrading in his usage – he reduces me in the interaction through an apparently benign joke.
- On multiple occasions, I have witnessed prejudice against mental illness on Stanford campus. The prejudice I have heard trivializes mental illness and creates sick jokes that are spread by people who clearly do not understand trials of mental illness. As a person who suffers from a mental illness, it is shocking that some of the brightest minds in the world make light of hardships that those of us struggle with everyday.
- It’s pretty common to hear phrases like “That test raped me” and “That class is so hard it feels like you’re being raped.” As a woman who has been sexually assaulted, I find it very troubling that such a serious incident can be trivialized and used casually in common vernacular.
- Some Law School students organized a ski trip for about 50% of the first year class, and not a single LGBT person was invited.
- People call other people fat, not realizing that people around them might have insecurities. This is usually spoken in a grossed out or otherwise hurtful manner.
- I was talking with a roommate of mine who is in the same engineering major about possibly starting an LGBT engineering group since there wasn’t really a community built around this and LGBT identity is usually ignored in the workplace. His response was something along the lines of, “I really don’t see the point in starting yet another minority group. Science is about who is the best at what they are doing and discovering new things.” More was said but the delivery of annoyance was very striking. It was then and there that I knew our friendship wouldn’t last beyond us being roommates that year. Issue: Heterosexual privileged and lack of tact.
- I had a gynecologist ask me if I was sexually active, and I responded saying “yes”. When she found out that my partners were female like me, she said without thinking, “Oh, so you’re not sexually active.”
- I had a guy who looked like a white cis athlete say once, “I think people just LIKE to be offended.” I was prepared though – stared incredulously and said something like, “You think YOU get to decide what should make other people offended?” It actually worked.
- Many people are incredulous when they find out that I study math, because I’m a woman. It happens at Stanford and everywhere else. That’s how I know the discrimination is still there.
We also received some instances of more than a microaggression – blatant displays of prejudice that should never be accepted. Here are some of those stories:
- I was told that I was “too Christian” for my workplace by my supervisor and was threatened that I would no longer receive work unless I removed any signs of my faith from my workplace, which essentially was a picture of me with my grandfather who was a minister and had passed away that summer and two crosses that I had received from the students I had helped from an overseas missions trip to Asia. It was very hurtful, but the threat was real.
- My roommate and his friends were wondering what the point of having engineering minority societies was and then went as far as to say that they are fundamentally unfair since they give students unfair advantages over others. At that point I was a leader in the society so it was a direct jab at me. For the sake of context, they are both white males with college educated parents. One of them has a parent who is an executive at a multinational conglomerate and the other has a parent who is a professor at a respected SoCal university. My parents didn’t even graduate from elementary school and I come from the lower income bracket.
- Trans*people can have crushes/fall in love/make-out/have sex (omg!) just like everyone else. We experience the same range of capacities to love/have sexual and romantic relationships that cis-gender (or, not trans*) people do. If you find out a trans*person made out with someone, don’t tell them that that freaked you out and the rest of your hallway. A. It shouldn’t freak you out. Unless I made out with you, me making out with someone is completely irrelevant to you. B. Even if it does bother you, don’t be so unkind as to tell me about that. Also, when you discover for the first time that trans*people can have the capacity for crushes/love/relationships/hook-ups, you are not entitled to ask me any question you’d like to. Questions that I’ve been asked when I have not explicitly given my permission to ask any question: do you still get boners (would you ask any cis-gender male-bodied friends that question?); is the guy you hooked-up with gay (Shame on you for having such a narrow view of gender and sexuality!); how do you get off (how do YOU get off?!).
- I have (or I used to have…) a very close friend named Justin at Stanford. We always ate out together in the dining hall, hung out together on the campus, played board games together…. As a gay male, I have never really had a close straight male friend. In fact, Stanford was my first place to ever have friends who I was out to. During my Junior year, he started to become very aggressive to me. He started to act very aggressively to me saying that my presence annoyed him. He became especially more aggressive to me whenever he thought I did not act “masculine enough.” Our broken friendship made me feel very uncomfortable… I could not understand what was breaking our friendship apart. One day, I was in Justin’s room talking with his roommates. Justin was not into our conversation. Justin asked me to get out of his room because he did not want my “presence” in the room. I got very annoyed by the fact that he kept being passive aggressive to me. Out of my anger, I refused to go out of his room. He then suddenly said to me, “get out of my room, fag.” Right at the moment I heard that, I felt scared. I felt threatened… I thought he could physically harm me at any point after I heard him say that to me. I went out of the room and ran out of his room. I feel betrayed by my friend. I still haven’t heard an apology from him. Maybe I should have a one on one conversation with him….. But, I still don’t have the courage to do that. I feel too scared to talk with him now. A few months has passed after that event occurred. However, every once in a while, that moment when Justin used the word fag comes up on my head at random times… I will never forget that I was called a “fag” from my close friend.
- The other day I was walking back with my boyfriend from the Palo Alto train station to his place. He lives in Palo Alto a few blocks from the station. It was late on Friday night, and as we walked down, holding each other’s hands, a few men in their 20s sped down the street, leaned out the window, and heckled us, yelled, and mockingly cat called. We couldn’t understand what they were saying, but it was obvious they were heckling us for being gay.
Aside from receiving responses documenting people’s experiences with microaggressions on campus, we also received some anonymous critiques of the entire premise of our proposed post. Here is an example, which you should feel free to respond to in the comments section.
- Microaggressions can be a healthy form of expression. I disagree that this is a problem because I think the real issue (and you’re dancing dangerously close to this) is “over-nice-ifying” our feelings. You ever notice how what often makes a person feel better or mentally relived is an emotional outburst in which they express how they really feel? In my life, I find that venting, sometimes in the form of what you call “microaggression” is useful and even beneficial.
What do you think? Do any of these messages resonate with you?
Holly is a Senior majoring in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. Thanks to everyone who contributed their experiences, and to everyone who helped solicit submissions.