Student advocacy organizations hosted “Your Problematic Fav 2.0," a workshop to practice effective skills to respond to microaggressions prompted by racism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism, on Monday night.
FACES, Boston College’s largest anti-racism organization, collaborated with the LGBTQ+ Leadership Council (GLC) and the Council for Students with Disabilities (CSD), to continue the conversation started at the original “Your Problematic Fav” event in 2017. This week’s event was similarly well-attended, with approximately 40 students crowding into the Stokes classroom where the event was held.
To begin the event, FACES Council members Anita and Ben presented the disclaimer “we are not experts and we are always learning,” emphasizing that fighting against racism and other forms of institutionalized discrimination does not require a person to know everything. While some students choose not address racism or other forms of discrimination because they feel that they are not qualified or knowledgeable enough to educate others, FACES is working to help people learn more about these issues and to gain confidence in having these conversations.
At the same time, the council members noted that “activism does not end at language” and argued that taking action to confront institutionalized racism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism should stem from conversations. The necessity of moving from conversations to activism has been a major focus of the FACES in the past year.
Students then defined microaggressions by playing a video which compared the impact of microaggressions to mosquito bites.
Although a microaggressions might be considered as harmless as a single mosquito bite in isolation, the video highlighted the fact that certain individuals experience microaggressions related to their identity on a regular basis, sometimes even multiple times a day. Ultimately, the video challenged viewers to reflect on the damage caused by the cumulative effect of microaggressions, regardless of the intentions of the people making the comments.
When deciding how to respond to a microaggression, the FACES Council recommended that students take a moment to reflect on the intentions behind the comment, as well to consider the setting and audience.
“We are judging the comment, not the person,” said one of the council members, noting that sometimes people unintentionally make problematic comments.
At the same time, she acknowledged that in certain situations, people intentionally make problematic statements and reassured attendants that “if [responding] is going to be taxing and emotionally draining, it’s okay to take a step back.”
FACES presented several general strategies for addressing a microaggression, including directly responding to the comment, asking a question that prompts them to reflect on why their comment might be problematic, and starting a casual conversation about the impact of microaggressions. They also suggested it might be helpful to “admit your own shortcomings” by acknowledging past misconceptions and personal growth over time.
Additionally, FACES noted there are certain situations, such as when a teacher makes a comment in class or when someone says something at a party, that it might be more productive to wait to have a conversation until office hours or the next day.
Ultimately, FACES reminded students it is important to prioritize self-care and respect when working to address racism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism. They noted that certain individuals are consistently “looked at to have these conversations,” which becomes emotionally draining.
FACES then presented a series of scenarios involving microaggressions and prompted the audience to discuss in small groups how they would respond.
The first scenario was a situation in which a friend comments, “she must be half, she’s so pretty” when looking at a picture of a person of color. In the discussion that followed, students talked about the importance of having a conversation with a friend who made this comment to prompt them to think about the implication behind their words, which suggests that someone must be part white if they are beautiful. A council member also talked about how “fetishes” about people of mixed race are damaging.
In the second scenario, the audience was asked to imagine a situation in which a white classmate said, “I’m not privileged, I’m poor.” Attendants noted that since the classmate is not likely to have any malicious intention, it is important to directly respond to the situation with casual conversation that explains that an individual might be privileged in one area of their identity at the same time that they are marginalized in another.
Although the student making this comment is not privileged with regards to socioeconomic status, they still have privileges they might not even be aware of simply because of the color of their skin, which impacts how they are viewed and treated by society. As a FACES Council member pointed out, a Black person is four times more likely to be arrested for smoking weed than a white person who smokes the same amount.
In the third scenario, the audience was asked to think about how they would respond to someone who does not understand why Ariana Grande’s use of tanning, which makes her features appear more Black, has led to criticism of cultural appropriation. In the discussion, students explained Grande has adopted elements of Black style in her dress, particularly at concerts or in Instagram videos. However, one student pointed out that Grande’s image looked more white on the cover of Vogue, reflecting how “she can escape [the oppression experienced by Black people] with her white privilege when she wants to.”
A fourth situation presented the students with the scenario of being at a party when someone asks to touch their Black friend’s hair. During the discussion, a few Black female students spoke up about how this happens frequently to them and described how the situation leaves them feeling as if they are “in a zoo,” especially when people try to touch the hair even after they said “no.”
Next, GLC representative Hugh presented scenarios including situations when a professor says “love the person, not the sin” and a roommate remarks, “I don’t understand all of this pronoun stuff. If you’re not multiple people, I’m not going to call you ‘them.’”
With the first scenario, the audience discussed how the use of the word “sin” is alienating because the implication is that LGBTQ+ people are making a bad choice, even though their sexual orientation and gender identity are deeply personal and do not change simply because social pressures say they are sinful. Since comments like this can be overwhelming and draining to students, Hugh urged bystanders to say something that lets queer people in the room know someone has their back, even if they do not have the perfect theological argument ready on the spot.
With regards to the comment related to pronouns, attendants said while language is continuously evolving, the most important factor when interacting with gender non-conforming individuals is to treat them with respect by allowing them to define their own identities.
Lastly, CSD member Nick discussed a couple of microaggressions that are frequently experienced by people with disabilities.
The first scenario presented a situation in which someone comes up to a blind person and asks, “Where are you trying to go? Do you need help? Are you sure?” The problematic underlying assumption behind this comment, as identified by attendants of the workshop, is that the disabled person is not capable of handling the task independently.
Nick, who is blind and has a guide dog, advised students to intervene if the situation was becoming dangerous; however, he cautioned them against getting directly involved otherwise. He noted that in many situations, having to rely on someone else to address the situation makes the situation more uncomfortable than it already was.
The final scenario of the evening presented the situation of watching a person in a wheelchair perform on America’s Got Talent when someone says “I don’t know how they do it! I couldn’t do it if it were me.” In response, audience members critiqued the underlying assumption that an individual cannot have a quality life because they are using a wheelchair. A student commented that highlighting a person’s disability as their defining identity “dehumanizes them by putting them on a pedestal.”
At the end of the workshop, FACES provided attendants with a resource guide that presents additional microaggressions and strategies to address the problem.
FACES is currently accepting applications for freshmen students interested in joining its First Year Program, a weekly discussion group that “promotes conversation about race/racism, identity, and social justice both at BC and globally.” Applications are due on Monday.