HARRINGTON: Not enough context clues

The #WeAreAllUVa photos need to be contextualized in order to be effective

While the Facebook- and Tumblr-based campaign #WeAreAllUVa features many images of members of the University community holding white signs which proclaim a love of diversity or reveal blatant discrimination they have faced, the most powerful parts of the campaign are the signs saying, “Your dad’s an immigrant? I can see that,” or “Being from a small town and having a country accent isn’t ‘cute,’” or a black student’s “Contrary to popular belief, I am not an athlete.”

These statements portray common microaggressions experienced by members of the University community. Microaggressions are commonplace questions and compliments that unintentionally insult someone due to assumptions about them based on their culture, sexual orientation, socio-economic status or another attributes. According to Professor Beverly Adams, who has twice taught the “Microaggressions” College Advising Seminar, many University students do not readily accept that microaggressions are hurtful; rather, they think “some people [are] being too sensitive.” The concept of microaggressions can also be deemed ridiculous, demonstrated by the arch headline for a National Review article: “You Could be Racist and Not Even Know it.” Moreover, the concept is still being defined and researched; Adams’ work seeks to define the line between what is perceived as a general statement and perceived as a microaggression, a distinction which is often based on a person’s past experiences. Adams said, “everybody has their own level of how sensitive they might be.”

#WeAreAllUVa has the potential to convince University students from sheltered backgrounds that microaggressions are hurtful and that the effort required to be conscious in one’s conversations is worthwhile, but its effectiveness is hindered because it does not provide enough context to persuade a skeptical viewer that the experiences portrayed on the placards are sufficiently hurtful.

Unfortunately, this handicap of the movement is a consequence of the noble desire to include more than race in the discussion of diversity at the University. “I, too, am Harvard,” the photo project which inspired #WeAreAllUVa, specifically portrayed the microaggressions black Harvard students encounter. The immersion for a viewer of seeing all sides of the experience of black studenthood at Harvard gives each statement additional clout. Furthermore, Adams believes people are generally more aware of racially biased statements than otherwise discriminatory statements. However, expanding portrayals of microaggressions to include those based on any race and on, according to creator-photographer and third-year College student Ashley Blackwell, “the differences we can’t see,” #WeAreAllUVa loses the context for each submission.

The results are isolated examples in which the student’s frustration and anger seem not only unwarranted but also disdainful of students uninformed about the individual’s background. Some examples: “It is pronounced APP-uh-LA-CHUN not APP-uh-LAY-SHUN,” “Costa Rica ≠ Puerto Rico” and “I’m from Colombia, not Columbia.” One Singaporean student recounts a conversation when asked “Oh cool! Which state is that in?” While the issues raised by these statements here do not constitute the students’ being marginalized, they are understandably frustrating.

It is plausible that this frustration is rooted in the students’ past experiences with microaggressions about these topics. The Appalachian student may be exhausted from repeated accusations that she pronounces the word incorrectly because she is uneducated. The Costa Rican student may feel belittled by others who do not bother learning which nation she is from because they consider Latin American nations unworthy of differentiation. However, without this context these statements seem to be a mockery of how uninformed the supposedly typical University student can be, which seems to demean ignorance rather than generate inclusivity.

If #WeAreAllUVa wishes to prove the hurtfulness of the wide variety of comments and questions that members of the community consider microaggressions towards them, it needs to abandon the cutesy white placards, or at least supplement each photo with a caption by the individual explaining why the experience portrayed caused him to feel marginalized. Otherwise, the campaign risks failing to convince University students of the psychological impact of microaggressions on their peers. It also risks turning students away from all discussions of the concept henceforth, because they perceive any accusation of a microaggression as coming from a condescending individual angry at others’ lack of cultural knowledge.

Elaine Harrington is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at e.harrington@cavalierdaily.com.

Published April 9, 2014 in Opinion

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