A study by the Harvard Voices of Diversity Project, published at the end of 2014, has found that regardless of the kind of campus, geographical location and admission standards, microaggressions are a major problem for colleges.
The study defines microaggressions as “manifestations of prejudice and hatred that are brief and/or subtle but great in the power or magnitude of their consequences” — unintentional discrimination by way of subtle comments that reveal bias generally ingrained in culture through race and gender stereotypes.
Though racial minorities and women are increasingly represented on college campuses traditionally dominated by white males, the study concludes, there’s substantial room to improve interracial interactions.
The study surveyed roughly 200 students across four campuses and reported their stories of daily encounters with racism and sexism that resulted in microaggressions, and provided a list of 12 recommendations for university administrators on how to address the problem.
Students interviewed said that while there is no institutionally-backed initiative to discuss and combat microaggressions, there is significant student activism around the issue.
On Jan. 14, a Facebook page titled “Overheard Microaggressions at Yale” opened, giving students a forum for sharing their encounters with negative slights, with the option to submit posts anonymously.
“A goal is for people to be open minded and to learn about how they might be committing microaggressions,” said Abrar Omeish ’17, the founder of the page. “The page will point [microaggressions] out to people so they can realize the underlying prejudices they might have.”
Everyone has unconscious biases, Omeish said, adding that the page can be a place to post microaggressions that anyone commits, including professors and administrators as well as students.
While Omeish said that it is critical to report microaggressions because little is being done about them, the page cannot be the end of activism around the matter.
“We need to go beyond listing the forms of microaggressions, but that is a good start,” Paula Caplan, Harvard Voices of Diversity director, said about the page. “Then we need to educate everyone about the reality and the very specific nature of the damage that is done.”
The Women’s Center has a held a discussion about microaggressions, said Women’s Center Outreach Director Isabel Cruz ’17. The discussion, she said, provided a space for students to share their experiences and discuss the importance of committing to inclusive language. In these type of conversations, students can talk about their legitimate emotions and feelings on microaggressions but also recognize that people have different backgrounds and exposure.
“I think there is a lot of value in [the page], and it has a lot of healing power,” Cruz said. “But we also need preventative power.”
Cruz said that even in the way in which administrators communicate with students on campus can include microaggressions.
Further, she said, the administration needs to strengthen spaces for cultural diversity on campus in order to fulfill the promises it makes to its prospective and current students — that they will find a diverse and inclusive campus.
The Harvard Voices of Diversity report recommended that all college administrations educate everyone on campus about the pervasive nature of microagressions, and on the well-documented effects of racial and gender bias on actual educational performance.
“I think every campus should have one course required of all students in which that material is taught and role playing is done about ways that students, faculty, administrators and other staff can and should step in when they see this happening,” Caplan said.
The only university which agreed to be named in the survey — Missouri State University — took immediate action as a result of the study, instituting a vice president for diversity and inclusion position.