If Vassar could be described in one word, it would be “woke.” Every conversation on this campus is done through the lens of consciousness, which extends well beyond the classroom. Whenever I open up Facebook, I’m bombarded with videos shared by my Vassar friends showing congress- women drilling CEOs with tough questions or posts with clapping emojis in support of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I cannot count the number of times in my past four years that I’ve been asked to sign a petition online. From Facebook alone, I’ve gathered that Vassar students are hungry for change, and discussions around here are abuzz with words like “POC,” “representation” and “marginalized communities.” These big-picture changes are goals that we hope to someday achieve. However, change can start in small ways right here on campus, especially by rethinking the ways we interact with others. One small correction that could have a large impact would be to question whether our behaviors are microaggressive.
The Oxford Dictionary defines a microaggression as “a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority.” They are often short ex- changes, such as small comments or “jokes,” but their brevity is what makes them difficult to address. According to an article that published the findings of Harvard University’s Voices of Diversity, targets of microaggressions are often unsure about whether or not the microaggression took place, the intention of the microaggression, if they should pursue consequences for the perpetrator and how to prove that the interaction happened (Aporia, “The Voices of Diversity,” 10.01.2014). Micro-aggressions may only last a couple of seconds, but targets of microaggressions spend a lot of time afterwards navigating them, and the difficulty in handling them can have strong psychological impacts. In a recent study that measured trauma levels against experiences of racial discrimination, such as microaggression, those who had experienced more racial discrimination had higher trauma levels. Researchers found that these trauma levels were linked to increased risks of anxiety, depression, substance use disorders and even suicidal ideation (Psychology Today, “Are Racial Microaggressions on College Campuses Harmful?” 11.12.2017).
Even in a place as “woke” as Vassar, microaggressions persist despite our best efforts. A couple weeks ago in a class, it only took the mention of “Vietnamese” in a conversation for people’s eyes to turn toward me for no reason. There was no correlation between my identity as a Vietnamese person and the topic being discussed. But in that split sec ond, the damage was done. I felt compartmentalized into a space of foreignness, and I spent the rest of the class painfully realizing that I was one of the only Asian students and wondering if that was all I represented.
These microaggressions at Vassar are unfortunately not rare. For instance, I’ve had someone assume that I speak French simply because I’m Vietnamese, which is troubling given Vietnam’s horrifying history with French colonizers. Not only that, one of my professors continually mixes up my name and another Asian classmate’s name, constantly confusing us for each other. Another professor for whom I work once asked me if I was a different Asian student despite the fact she had employed me for over a year. Additionally, a professor once emailed me the name of a “fellow Vietnamese student” in my class and told to strike up a conversation with them simply because we were both the same nationality. The microaggressions don’t even stop at my race. They include my gender too. I’ve had men—men whom I have loved as friends and to whom I have been close—make unwarranted and unsolicited comments about my body and its sexiness or lack thereof. When I protested these comments, they called me “oversensitive.”
These experiences are especially painful because I have listened to years and years of talks on inclusivity and acceptance, and yet in these moments, I feel excluded. Microaggressions reinforce my invisibility and make me question my belonging in white spaces. I feel confined to a box of preconceived notions about myself, struggling to break out.
And it’s not just me. If I have had these experiences, others have as well. For example, I’ve seen people compliment my international friends for speaking English without an accent, drawing attention to how they “sound good.” This statement is based upon a prejudice that an international student’s English would inherently be accented. However, international students have to provide certifiable proof that they have solid English-language skills to even gain acceptance to Vassar, so of course their English is good. This statement also establishes a hierarchy between certain accents and dialects. Within this hierarchy, people enforce the acceptability of certain accents and dialects, deeming deviations from white standard English as lower-quality. While I’m sure this was a well-intentioned compliment, it came across as a slap in the face.
In all these situations, I have always assumed best intent, mostly because I believe in the community here at Vassar, and I don’t believe that anyone here would ever intentionally say something for the sole purpose of hurting someone else. The person who assumed I speak French was probably trying to give me a chance to flex my nonexistent French-speaking skills. The person who referred me to a fellow Vietnamese student probably wanted to make sure I knew there are people here who may have similar experiences to me. But despite our good intentions, it’s important to analyze our actions and their impacts and make sure that they don’t inadvertently cause harm.
For example, looking at the Asian student when something remotely Asian comes up in conversation can be a super isolating experience for that student. And while you might have meant it as a nod, like “Hey, I hope you feel good about getting some representation,” it doesn’t come off that way. You might be concerned about your female friend’s health, but commenting on the shape of her body can come off as hurtful and malicious.
As we work every day to make the world a more inviting and accepting place, we need to ensure we incorporate our “wokeness” into smaller, individual issues, not only larger-scale ones. Signing a petition on Facebook for equal pay for women is great, but it means nothing if we allow microaggressions toward women to persevere. Vassar students are active politically, and we raise awareness for issues because we care, and this care leads us to try to be well-intentioned in our actions. However, it’s important that we don’t let our good intentions excuse us from the very real impact of our actions.