Halloween is a time for creepily creative costumes, but no one at the College of Charleston was prepared for the backlash a particularly disturbing costume would receive in 2017. When the boy who donned an orange jumpsuit wrote the name “Freddie Gray” on the back, he thought he was just being funny. However, other people saw it as a sheer lack of respect or knowledge for the black community and those whose lives have been forever altered by their interactions with the police who were meant to protect them.
Universities, specifically ones like the College of Charleston that offer a liberal arts education, can be responsible for teaching students academics as well as societal standards. While the halloween costumes became a scandal that caught the attention of major news networks, it is not the only blatant offense recently pushed onto minorities. In fact, there is an even more dangerous form of ignorance harming minority groups called microaggressions. Microaggressions are unintentional and often unconscious comments or actions that rely on prejudices or assumptions toward a particular group.
Kurumi Hayashi, a student at the College of Charleston, has experienced this on multiple occasions: “I tell people that I am from Japan and they smile and proudly say ‘Ni-hao’ which means ‘Hello’ in Chinese. Excuse me? I do not speak Chinese.” People aren’t necessarily trying to be insensitive, but they’re grouping together all Asians as Chinese. Hayashi stated, “People do not know the difference, and I am pretty sure people think its ‘tomayto tomahto’ …What if people say ‘how is Canada different from the U.S.?’ What if people call you Canadian everywhere you go? How do you feel? I am Japanese, and me and my Asian friends are not related.” However, she doesn’t fight against these comments anymore because they’re so common. “They say rude stuff and we are too tired to even point that out and say something,” she continued. Just because an offensive comment isn’t called out, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t offensive.
Microaggressions’ subtlety and ease of denial cause them to be more dangerous than outward aggressions such as the offensive costume. Some people even use microaggressions as forms of flattery. Hayashi talks about being approached by a homeless man who said she was as pretty as a Chinese doll: “I am pretty sure he said that as a compliment to ask me for change.” Hayashi comments about the incident by stating, “At this point, I am so used to people say[ing] such a thing to me and my Asian friends so I did not feel too offended.” While microaggressions are not always intentional insults, they can still cause harm to marginalized groups by perpetuating stereotypes that simply aren’t true.
Dr. Rachel McKinnon, a philosophy professor at the College of Charleston who teaches a variety of classes including Transgender Studies and Women and Gender Studies classes, describes why people are so quick to ascribe certain traits to people different from them.
“[It’s] called the ‘fundamental attribution error,’” McKinnon explains, “That’s when someone views a behavior of someone not like them and they attribute the behavior to some sort of personal character trait, often maybe a stereotype, rather than just circumstance producing that; whereas when they see the very same behavior in someone like them, they attribute it to just circumstances.” People are quick to perceive behaviors of others as inherent of the thing that separates them from a majority because that is the first thing that society has taught their brain to register.
McKinnon offers an example of transgender athletes. “They will see them [transgender cyclists] do a move in a pack that they did because of safety reasons to avoid a crash, but the people witnessing it won’t notice that they’re avoiding a crash,” Dr. McKinnon explains, “they’ll think ‘oh, they’re just being aggressive, they’re dangerous, they shouldn’t be riding with us.’”
In times like these, people must not rely solely on first impressions because those are often altered by societal preconceptions. Alekcis Ewane, a student at the College who immigrated from Cameroon, often has people automatically assume things about her based on her accent. She states, “People assume that because I’m not from here that means I don’t understand the culture or I’m very different from them, but it’s the same world and we’re just the same people; keep in mind that we all come from different walks of life and it’s okay to be different.” In order to not allow differences to have dividing power, people should keep an open mind when interacting with new people who may not speak the same way they do.
“Give somebody a chance,” Ewane urges, “especially when it comes to the way somebody looks or the way they sound, their accent or maybe even the way they dress, you know, don’t jump to those conclusions.” The first thought in a person’s head is what society has taught them to think and can’t be helped. However, what their second thought is and what they actually say defines who they are. Dr. McKinnon states, “I don’t feel they do it on purpose, but the effect is still one of a microaggression, it’s still one of a harassment.”
Even when something is not intended to be harmful, it is important to be mindful because microaggressions and the perpetuation of stereotypes have damaging effects on marginalized groups they are unintentionally directed towards. There are two distinctive ways in which stereotypes negatively impact people’s lives: stereotype threat and situational avoidance stereotype threat. Dr. McKinnon describes stereotype threat as, “a concern that your behavior will be judged in light of a identity-based stereotype about you and it’s not that you think the stereotype is true. You can know that it’s false, but your concern is that other people will see your behavior in light of this social stereotype and then judge you in relation to it.” This causes people to actively try and counteract the stereotype placed on them because they are worried about fitting into that category. Dr. McKinnon used the example of women in upper level math classes. Women fear being seen as bad at math by men because that is the stereotype placed against them. This leads to anxiety and actually harms a woman’s ability to do well. “That concern [of failure],” McKinnon clarifies, “even if subconscious, uses working memory and causes you to perform worse. So it’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Stereotypes are actually capable of making people act differently than they normally would, often in a negative fashion, because of their fear of conforming to the stereotype placed against them.
Situational avoidance stereotype threat is similar to a typical stereotype threat because it causes the marginalized person to act different than they normally would by avoiding situations that could lead to being judged based on a stereotype. A prominent example is transwomen in bathrooms and their eagerness to leave the bathrooms as soon as they’re finished. “They’re worried someone is going to view them as trans and be like ‘oh, she’s in here gawking at women’ when she’s not,” Dr. McKinnon explains, “So she’ll just leave the situation early to avoid the stereotype threat.” Despite knowing that their purpose is not to gawk at women, they are aware that people make that assumption solely based on the fact that they are transgender. Instead of staying in the bathroom to wait for their friends, like many women do, they act against their instincts because they fear the sideways glances aimed their way or the incident of a confrontation.
Microaggressions are hard to stop because they are either ignored by those that they are aimed at or denied by those that say them. However, there is a way in which these dangerous offenses can be stopped. The solution is basic, one most people learn in primary school: get to know a person before making judgements. “Microaggressions tend to happen from someone with more social power or privilege to someone with less,” Dr. McKinnon explains, “Often what that means is they don’t have many friends in that lower privileged group and one way that stigma and stereotype is maintained and produced is by not knowing those people very well. So, go a few extra miles, not just an extra mile, to get to know people before judging them.” By actually engaging with a person instead of simply making a judgement on outward factors, a full understanding of who they are can be developed – past the stereotypes that are forced on them. The differences between people don’t need to become boundaries, but rather alternate sides of a infinitely-sided coin that grows richer with each new perspective that is added.