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Guest: Four years of microaggression

BY GUEST OPINION | MAY 15, 2014 5:00 AM

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It still hurts. Four years of heads dropping or turning away at the sight you, with a quickness so automatic, you wonder if it hurts; of strangers watching you through the corners their of eyes as if looking at you head-on might provoke you, like a ravenous animal; of fielding stares from a distance while you engage in day-to-day activities.

Four years of entering spaces to a symphony of responses — avoidance, apprehension and, at least you believe, baseless hostility, of watching dread seep into the faces of people who might cross your path. Four years of being assumed to be from out of town, a Chicago transplant, a student at Kirkwood (ironically, at a diversity event), a janitor (more than twice), or anything else but a UI student.

Four years of visible shock when you speak in class, on the bus, or in public period; of people who ignore you when you directly speak to them. Four years of returning to your dorm after a long day only to deal with residents who do all the above, barring some friendly international students.

Four years and the time of day has never mattered; nor has the location, what you wore, how you styled your hair, who accompanied you, or your reason for being there. You simply existed, and that was sufficient. You are a rather large, dark-skinned black guy with coily hair, and your experience at UI has been little more than these experiences strewn together.

I struggled to understand what was happening. Never had I known an environment where people responded to me in the ways listed above. Because of the acts were largely non-verbal, they were difficult to attribute to a sole cause. All I knew is it was something external and ever-present with me as the reactions were consistent across context. I sought counsel from a few friends and advisers, and while some offered sympathy, many responses fell into two camps: indifference, as if my experiences did not meet some imagined threshold of significance; and mild surprise that I was surprised as a large black male. I salvaged no comfort in either response.

Does knowing you will receive an injection make it any less painful? Is a series of frequent and consistent pricks that less inconvenient than a single, deep injection? The former is simple victim-blaming logic, identical to that used to shame survivors of sexual assault or tragic victims of racial profiling. I now felt both confused and isolated.

At first, I thought it could be my size because I am a rather large guy. However, I have always been and I mentioned, before coming to UI, I had never faced those kinds of responses to it.  As well, I had seen plenty of people my size and larger, on campus and in city, who did not appear to garner the same responses (I did note they were often not black). The idea that it could be racial was lodged in the back of my mind, but I shied away because it seemed some other black students were faring well (so I assumed). And if it were only my race, I reasoned, then I expected more consensus. I also wanted to avoid the stigma of assuming race as a black person. While I knew racism continues to frame the lives and to limit the opportunities of people of color, I did not want to succumb to that thinking. It was much to disheartening and carried the weight of a reality I did not want to face.

I would engage in this cognitive process daily, all the while juggling the demands of class, two jobs, research, volunteering, graduate-school prep, family support, and just simply dealing with myself. With no frame of reference to guide me, the depression I already battled worsened. Most days I barely wanted to leave my room. I stopped attending most university events and declined friends’ invitations to hang out.

I became reclusive and dreaded meeting new people, viewing it as burdensome. The fear responses shook the most (and still do). The lens through which I viewed myself shifted; it now highlighted what I believed others saw in me, the source of their apprehension. Joshua —the guy who is fluent in sarcasm; who sometimes writes his notes in IPA; and who could not imagine life without a piano — vanished. In his place was a just dark black body and all the lore attached to it. I realized little stopped me from being another Trayvon Martin, Jonathan Ferrell, or worse. I was constantly anxious, worried that this would be the trend of my life. I felt hopeless.

To cope with all of this, I took courses and aided organizations that promoted social change and inclusiveness such as the Women’s Resource and Action Center (where I was trained in group facilitation and bystander intervention), the Men’s Antiviolence Council, and the Center for Diversity and Enrichment. I was still making sense of my own experience, so I channeled the hopelessness I felt into serving as an advocate for other marginalized groups, where I held positions of privilege. I still had negative experiences in these spaces but not as often. Through this, I met other students and locals who had had comparable experiences. I started to feel validated in what I experienced. I fostered a network of close friends and acquaintances that offered support in the forms of wisdom and an open ear. Through personal research and serving as a research assistant, I learned what I had experienced were “microagressions,” and that there existed research on their deleterious effects on a person’s well-being.

I saw fertile ground for future research in graduate school (I am proud to say I received an offer of admission from Columbia University for graduate study).

I cannot say that reactions like those I listed do not bother me, nor do I want to become fully desensitized to them. But I now understand on a personal level that these microaggressions — subtle acts that communicate negative slights toward a target — are products of systems much older and more powerful than I. While more directs acts of prejudice and discrimination can be traumatizing, microaggressions — like remarking that a Latino person speaks English well, under the presumption English is not that person’s first language or asking a transgender person to reveal their “real” name, as if what the person provided was not legitimate enough — can create a climate of persistent invalidation. Because these acts seem innocuous on the surface, they are difficult to point out and combat, which can create feelings of hopelessness in the targets of those acts. As part of the capstone course for the Certificate in Critical Cultural Competence program, I worked with several classmates to host an event to boost awareness of some issues East and Southeast Asian international students face.

This letter is not a call to action. I am not speaking for anyone specific individuals or communities at UI and in the city. To me, it makes no sense to list specific incidents, as they are symptomatic of a larger problem. My reasons for writing this are purely selfish: As a graduating senior, I refused to leave without sharing the largely tumultuous path that I trekked while here. I will not participate in commencement for the Class of 2014, so this will serve, in part, as the culmination of my time here at Iowa.

Joshua Hill


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