I enter my colleague’s office, grabbing two large boxes filled with books, diplomas and office supplies. I am helping my friend move out and she has left her belongings neatly stacked for me to grab and put into my car.
As I exit the office suite with multiple boxes in my arms, I have trouble opening the door. A faculty member nearby sees me struggle and graciously offers to open it for me.
He moves toward the door and opens it. As I pass through and thank him, he asks, “What are you stealing?” Shocked, I force a smile and keep walking toward my car. That stung. I know he did not mean any harm. He probably felt good about opening the door for me and thought that his comment was a light-hearted joke. But it did bother me.
Having navigated institutions where I was one of very few Latinos, I have become hyper-aware of all my interactions with people. So when a “harmless” joke is said toward me during a political and racial climate where people like me are often associated with thieves, criminals or even animals, these types of interactions do matter. I find myself ignoring it at the moment to avoid confrontation, but the question of “Why does he think that’s okay?” lingers.
Microaggressions – brief comments or interactions that are indirect, subtle and often unintentionally discriminatory towards a marginalized group – are nothing new to my experiences in higher education. As a first-year student in college, I knew I was experiencing something wrong but I didn’t have the vocabulary or understanding to describe it. Whether it was “compliments” of how well I spoke English (my first language) or having lab partners second-guess my work because I went to a summer bridge program, these instances stung and made me feel inept. And all I could say about it at the time was that it didn’t feel right.
I learned more about microaggressions in group discussions about campus climate issues or events organized by cultural student organizations. I learned about the psychology behind it and why it is important to respond as a victim or a bystander. After learning how an accumulation of these can detract from a sense of belonging, cause self-doubt and can lead to other mental health issues, I began to understand the importance of taking action.
That’s when the guilt kicks in. By not speaking up, I allow this type of behavior to continue. Part of me knows why — because he didn’t mean any harm. But it’s still not okay. Rather than being honest with him and letting him know what he said was offensive, I think, “How will addressing this affect me in the long-run? Am I being too sensitive?”
Then the other voice in my head is saying, “Did it really have to do with you being Latino?” This question requires more thought and reflection. I’ve come to learn that it doesn’t matter whether or not my race or ethnicity prompted the comment. Although he can deny that he made his comment based on my ethnicity (which is probably true), my race and ethnicity play a major role in the way I experience my everyday life, so even though he meant no harm, his comment was still harmful.
I wouldn’t be surprised if people feel that I am being “too sensitive” or “playing the race card” about this interaction and try to belittle me or my experience. I am not demanding this person to be held accountable. I am not shaming him. However, I do think it is important to call attention to these types of instances because maybe someone will read this and reflect on a time when they may have been unintentionally offensive. In case you were wondering, I did not say or do anything about it.
As the U.S. becomes increasingly diverse, microagressions may occur more frequently as people from different backgrounds are more likely to interact. While I am not suggesting to ignore these types of interactions, I do think that they have to be dealt with tactfully, at least in the realm of higher education. Had I felt compelled enough to correct him, I would have simply told him I found that question offensive. I believe we would have then had a conversation with the hopes of coming to a mutual understanding. I felt guilty for not saying anything at first, but my friend reminded me of how frequent these interactions can be and how often I have spoken up about them in the past.
It’s exhausting. While it’s unfortunate to admit, these interactions have become commonplace to the point where ignoring them doesn’t bring up the sense of guilt like it did when I was an undergraduate, because I know I will have more opportunities to respond to them in the future.
Andrew Martinez is a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and research associate at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. His column appears in Diverse every other week. You can follow him on Twitter @Drewtle