Sunday, December 4, 2022

LETTER: Intentional or not, microaggressions severely impact underrepresented members of society

April 7, 2015

It is not just the act itself that tears away at you. It is the pressure in the chest that follows.

It is the scurried walk you intuitively employ — hands timidly submerged in pockets or clinched onto the straps of a backpack, your spine slightly hunched over, leaning forward, eyes scanning for anything available to clasp onto, any temporary thing to grasp, an item to hold in the absence of time to hold yourself — as you search desperately for space and solace.

It leads you to the public restroom on the second floor — too much traffic on the first — of some indiscriminate building that you stumbled into only out of proximity and the immediate need for safety and silence.

It is the aloneness you feel there. It is the slow de-escalation of heartbeats and taut breaths.

It is the weariness that befalls you. It is being too disoriented to make out the reflection in the slightly streaked bathroom mirror, but conscious enough to feel the salty wetness move over the slope of your cheek and past your reddening nose.

You recollect and leave, less armored than when you rose out of bed.

It appears again between disapproving glances and underneath quickened, fearful steps that respond shallowly to the sight of your skin. As you walk, it lingers at the bottom of your water-filled soles after two white men decide, irrefutably, that the sidewalk is not built for three. And you, clearly the least entitled, are forced to take several steps in the muddy embankment just nearby.

A mother, a few paces ahead, pivots backward, and after a fleeting glimpse of you, clutches her purse and crosses to the opposite side of the street with her children to maintain enough distance from you to feel secure.

You inhale and exhale deeply, vying to keep your breached humanity intact. It conceals itself in the gentle, qualifying words you utter to yourself on buses when someone chooses to stand rather than take the vacant seat beside you. They would just rather stand. It reveals itself once that person takes a more crowded seat next to someone — perhaps someone they consider less dangerous looking — the following stop.

It taunts you as underhanded jokes about Ebola or immigration or Ferguson or SAE spew from mouths into your frustrated ears. It parades mockingly in statements like “I didn’t expect you to be so articulate,” “you speak English so well,” “you’re not like those other black people” or “that’s so gay.”

It can be buried beneath words like ghetto, ratchet, urban, thug, sketchy, inner city, illegal and sassy.

When discovered, it tells you to keep quiet. It asserts that resistance is futile.

It follows you into elevator lobbies where people, with a deceptive candor, tell you that they will wait for the next one, even though the only one in the elevator is you. As the doors close, sharp whispers and snickers attempt to cloud your character. The inertia of the elevator begets a pitted emptiness in your stomach.

It imposes, slyly demanding its space — covert, yet powerfully present. The stories are neither imaginative nor fabricated, but rather a snippet of my own experiences at MSU.

The events described, although personal, characterize the daily encounters and emotional trauma endured by many underrepresented students nationwide.

These exchanges, whether intentional or unintentional, are subtle and can severely damage the sense of comfort and space of marginalized peoples. These experiences, formally defined as microaggressions, can tremendously affect an individual’s physical, emotional and psychological equilibrium. They often accompany reductive, narrow and negligent assumptions about a person’s character or identity.

On a campus — and nation at large — in which whiteness, patriarchy, heteronormativity, cissexism, ableism and classism prevail, students that are not privileged by these constructs often have difficulty navigating hegemonic, oppressive environments.

These spaces largely exclude, ostracize and stigmatize marginalized peoples, leading to issues such as depression, social anxiety disorder, distress, insomnia, pain, fatigue and so many more disorders.

As we move on from Mental Health Awareness Week, we must continually familiarize ourselves with microaggressions and understand the ways in which they compromise mental well-being. We must be active in preventing them.

To do this, we must understand and be accountable for our privilege. We must be willing to address the uncomfortable in a wholly racialized, politicized and sexualized society to create safer spaces for all to exist and thrive in.

Rashad Timmons is a journalism senior and the president of Black Student Alliance.

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