University life: Microaggressions
Omar Mughal

Overt racism has been once again making the headlines on UK campuses. It’s not long since Prof David Richardson, chair of Universities UK’s advisory group, labelled UK universities as institutionally racist, and the raft of students sharing their harrowing experiences on campus - such as ex-Lancaster student Sa’ad Mustafa on TikTok - continues to flood in.

It’s easy for most of us to understand that these blatant forms of prejudice are completely unacceptable, and we could never imagine it being something we would do.

But there’s a hidden, more complicated manifestation of modern prejudice - that of the prevalence and impact of microaggressions - which is a cause for considerable debate on UK campuses today.

What are microaggressions?

It’s likely you’ve heard of the term microaggressions by now. It’s a fairly old phrase coined back in the 1970s by Harvard University professor, Chester M. Pierce.

Microaggressions are subtle - but offensive - comments or actions directed at a minority or other non-dominant group. In many cases, they can be delivered unintentionally but more often than not, they reinforce a negative stereotype associated with a marginalised group.

They’re different from overt aggression. Microaggressions are often subconsciously delivered in the form of backhanded compliments, well-meaning advice, innocuous jokes and racial segregation.

The renewed embrace of the concept has aggravated some who think "microaggressions" simply describe situations in which people are being overly sensitive, or too “woke”.

But microaggressions are more than just harmless, insensitive comments or innocuous bad behaviour.

They're something very specific: the kinds of remarks, questions, or actions that are particularly painful because they’re targeted at a person's membership in a group that's discriminated against.

Microaggressions on campus

While microaggressions can happen anywhere, they're widespread in higher education. A study by Epigram found that a quarter of staff and students at a single UK university had experienced microaggressions while on campus.

One thing that can be common with microaggressions is that they’re in a sense ambiguous, and can on the surface even sound like compliments. For instance:

  • Saying to someone in your halls, “I don’t even think of you as Muslim!”
  • Translation: What you’re saying is “You’re not like the Muslim people I’ve seen on TV!”  - or, seeing you as a Muslim person would somehow be less desirable.
  • Saying to a Black classmate, “You're so well-spoken!”
  • Translation: We're sending the not-so-subtle message that this person is from a group we did not expect to be articulate.
  • A lecturer saying, “Oh sorry, wrong person!”
  • Translation: Under-represented minorities are all the same, there's no point in learning their names.
  • Asking a student, “But where are you really from?”
  • Translation: If you're on the receiving end of that question time and time again it can imply you don't truly belong, just because of your appearance.
The impact of microaggressions

While microaggressions are often unintentional, that doesn't make them any less harmful. In fact, they can have a profound effect on their recipients. People who experience them often feel isolated and lonely, and their mental health can severely suffer too.

They’re particularly harmful because of the cumulative impact they carry. The effect of being on the receiving end of them day in and day out has been likened to a “death by a thousand cuts”. Microaggressions may be brief, but their effects can last a long time.

The impact of cumulative trauma is real and can be anything but “micro”. The University of Edinburgh cites some of the known effects, such as:

  • Low self-esteem and feelings of exhaustion
  • Mistrust of peers, staff and the institution
  • Decrease in participation and the ability to study
  • Students dropping out of University
Words Matter

Many of us who commit microaggressions are probably well-meaning and good-hearted people. But to victims of microaggressions, the impact of our words and actions matter more than the intent. It is all too easy to hurt and insult others without exercising vigilance in interacting with those whose lived experiences are different from our own.

This particularly matters in the context of universities. Universities are charged with providing education in an environment in which everyone feels welcome. Asking people to consider their language more thoroughly is rooted in empathy, not a desire to criticise.

Far from limiting academic freedom, people who advocate for more empathy towards microaggressions, invite students to think more critically and engage with different ideas in smarter and more complex ways.

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