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Is Racism Manifesting Through Microaggression In Academic Spaces?

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There isn’t much public space, not much conducive space that I can share my experiences as a tribal from the Northeast. In fact, these conversations mostly happen in really intimate settings and writing happens to be one of those spaces.

I sit comfortably, at the age of 20, typing on a MacBook Air trying to comprehend what it means to be a tribal from Northeast in today’s time. To belong to a group that is racially in contrast from the majority’s idea of who “looks” and “what is Indian”, has always felt like a lump in my throat. Looking at the world as a child, I was oblivious to the depth of things socially and politically and I couldn’t relate the quotes to my real life.

Most of the youth from well educated/well-earning section of the tribal community actually believe that celebrating the same things together with other communities, getting enrolled in good schools and being friends with the larger collective means that we are not excluded and we are all equal. I accept the fact that I have lived a comfortable life and I went to a good school, and this privilege is not accessible to many from my community. I thought I never faced discrimination until I realised how my perception was wrong. No doubt students are getting physical access to schools, but I strongly feel that’s not enough.

Not all kinds of discrimination are loud. A larger part of it is extremely subtle. The subtlety increases as you go higher up the ladder, thereby making tribal Northeastern students feel more and more insecure. On a personal account in a diverse yet closed space like a college in Delhi University, discrimination and racism in a supposedly “radical” space are almost never loud but you face them more frequently than one would expect. Moreover, how can one approach someone who finds nothing wrong in their behavior?

When I say racism is subtle in such spaces, it includes racial and social stereotypes posed as a question or comments that stem out of utter ignorance or unwillingness to know minority culture, basically. The act itself takes many forms and is rarely overt, being mostly covert, is exactly why at first glance you really never see it, to be racist, while most of the time, you deny or dismiss the idea when someone was offensive and wrong.

In an academic and intellectual setting being politically wrong is deeply dreaded. I strongly feel no one wants to acknowledge or call themselves out when things are said and done. No one condones racist remarks and some openly deny its existence.    

When you hear the word ‘racism’ the subtle forms of bigotry known as racial microaggressions don’t even come to mind. People only invoke the word ‘racism’ when someone blatantly commits a racist act like using a slur. Although the notion that just talking about racism makes matters worse is widespread, there are studies that have debunked this notion. Trying to ignore these insidious incidents could become taxing and debilitating over time, chipping away at a person’s spirit,” said Professor Alvin Alvarez in a study conducted by the San Francisco State University’s (SFSU). 

To really understand the subtlety of racism in such spaces you need to understand how microaggression works.

According to Elizabeth hopper, “a microaggression is a subtle behavior – verbal or non-verbal, conscious or unconscious – directed at a member of a marginalised group that has a derogatory, harmful effect. Chester Pierce, a psychiatrist at Harvard University, first introduced the term microaggression in the 1970s.”

Hopper states some key takeaways from on what constitutes microaggressions:

-Microaggressions are everyday actions and behaviors that have harmful effects on marginalised groups.

-Unlike other forms of discrimination, the perpetrator of microaggressions may or may not be aware of the harmful effects of their behavior.

-Experiencing higher levels of microaggressions, Hopper states, is linked to lower mental health.

While microaggressions are sometimes conscious and intentional, on many occasions microaggressions may reflect the perpetrator’s implicit biases about marginalised group members. Whether intentional or not, however, researchers have found that even these subtle acts can have effects on their recipients,” According to Hopper .

Now that ‘microaggression’ as a word has been established, so what? A lot of it is hard facts. What face did you make when you heard a group of tribals from Northeast converse in their dialect and you could not understand a word? Does it bother you or the sound of it irks you?

I have noticed it several times, signs of discomfort through body language, facial expression, shared glimpses, and smirks that people often exchange go unnoticed.

You let it go by simply pretending you did not notice, least when you accept it and tell it for what it is – racist. You are often scared of making it a “big deal”, being called “over-sensitive”, and reading too much into things, making trouble where there is none. 

I strongly feel Northeast students often do not speak up or actively participate in collectives, college societies, classroom discussions, or even assimilate with other groups! Many instances when one has spoken out, head turns, expressions are made and few smirks are shared with a shred of what are racial microaggressions that send a message to the person and student that they are unworthy of the conversation or discourse. Before long, the student may develop a complex about their accent, even though they speak fluent English, and withdraw from conversations even before they’re rejected.

I am not particularly keen on people who assume a superiority complex simply because they are at a level of comfort or familiarity and find confidence in spaces when already in a majority and which contributes to their position of advantage. Since discussions cannot happen in isolation from what is known as social cues, the role of the shared and mutual understanding of culture and exposure between the teachers and students comes into play. I do not want to dive too much into classroom dynamics because there can also be multiple factors and complex reasoning to an individuals’ lack of participation and vice versa.

Derald Wing Sue, et al, have written about how “People are often reluctant to admit that their actions may be microaggressions: because we like to think of ourselves as good people who treat others fairly, realising that we have said or done something insensitive can be threatening to our sense of self.”

It is important to be aware of racism through microaggressions and address it when you witness it and when it is committed by people you least expect. Many of my friends and acquaintances have kept quiet on several occasions when someone they knew said something racist to me, and I was unable to confront. Your silence only means you are no better than any other accomplice. Your political “wokeness” has no credibility and is of no use to anyone but yourself if you cannot speak up in your immediate capacity and space and when it matters.

The author is a 3rd-year student at Delhi University

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