By Jonathan London
Deceptively simple, but deeply moving, portraits of students of color from dozens of universities around the country holding small chalkboards with phrases such as, “But you don’t look black,” “What are you?” “You speak such good English.”
Riffing off Langston Hughes’ famous poem, “I, too, am America,” “I, too, am Harvard” was initiated by Kimiko Matsuda-Lawrence as a way for black students at Harvard College to speak back to the subtle but persistent racism they experience. The campaign has clearly struck a nerve.
The messages on these chalkboards are meant to make visible what some scholars call racial microaggressions, the brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities and denigrating messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated.
Coined by psychiatrist Chester Pierce in the 1970s, the term has risen to new prominence through the “I, too, am” projects and sites such as microaggressions.tumblr.com.
What is particularly challenging and humbling as a white man is seeing phrases that I have myself used in earlier parts of my life, and sometimes still hear in my mind (thankfully self-editing before speaking them). “I don’t see color, I just see humans” is one of them that shows up on a student’s board as “If you say you don’t see color, does that mean you don’t see me?”
While they may seem subtle and unintended by the speaker, racial microaggressions can have deeply wounding impacts on people of color by excluding, invalidating, undermining and even threatening their health and well-being. In the extreme they can be deadly, as in the case of Trayvon Martin, in which George Zimmerman began following Martin because the young black man looked “out of place” in the largely white neighborhood.
In the wake of this shooting, President Obama made a deeply personal speech to explain why black people and other people of color may view the case differently based on lifetimes and generations of experiences of being followed in stores, pulled over by police and generating flinches of fear from white people by simply standing in an elevator or walking down the street.
Even understanding the Martin killing as an extreme case, research by those such as renowned scholar Daniel Solorzano, who spoke recently at UC Davis, has shown that racial microaggressions have been linked to impacts on physical and mental health, lower work productivity and inequities in educational experiences and outcomes.
The impacts in educational settings have come home once again through a recent incident at UC Davis where employees of the student-run Coffee House planned a “Cinco de Drinko Sloshball” as a parody of Cinco de Mayo celebration by Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. The Facebook invitation for this party featured three white men in sombreros climbing a chain-link fence and two white women in Border Patrol uniforms smiling for the camera.
Thankfully, the party was canceled after widespread protests and condemnations by university leaders. The student-run California Aggie newspaper published an editorial that spoke directly to the problem of racial microaggressions.
“Many justify it by saying that these are “harmless” events and that attendees are “just trying to have fun.” However, when the communities that are mocked are communities that struggle on a daily basis to have to prove their worth at academic institutions, they are indeed harmful. They invisibilize and make a joke of the lives of students who are historically underrepresented and underserved at the university.
Noting that the party was to be held on the same day as a La Gran Tardeada, the culmination of campus La Raza Cultural Days, protesters called out the party’s invalidation of the hard work of students, faculty, administrators and others to build a welcoming environment aligned with UCD’s Principles of Community.
Protesters also observed that what was especially upsetting was the pattern of similar events that this party replicated, including a recent “Holy Land” party in which students were invited to come dressed as “terrorists” and religious figures. Students also pointed to a column published by the California Aggie several years before in which a white woman described her attraction to African-American men as “jungle fever.”
Such racial microaggressions also occur in a campus climate marred by repeated incidents of graffiti and vandalism slurring people of color, Jews, lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender individuals and others.
Similar examples occur at Davis High School and in the broader Davis community, as analyzed through the Race and Social Justice class at DHS, and profiled in this column over the years. While each incident is met with strong criticism by campus and community officials, the fact that they continue unabated should cause of all of us to consider what is driving this pattern and what can be done about it.
Maybe it is time for a “I, too, am Davis” campaign? What would you write on your chalkboard?
— Jonathan London, Ph.D., is a Davis resident and parent. He shares this monthly column with Jann Murray-García. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org