The Subtleties of Prejudice

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When Shadin Awad had the opportunity to introduce Dr. Angela Davis at the 31st Martin Luther King Jr. Convocation, she was met with praise. Attendees admired her eloquence, making comments like, “I was so surprised to hear how well-spoken you are,” and “Wow, you are so articulate.” Cloaked as compliments, they left Awad feeling unsettled.

The comments that African/Black Student Alliance Co-Chair and psychology major Awad experienced can be defined as microaggressions –– everyday intentional or unintentional slights and insults. They can be subtle, passing comments or generally well-intentioned questions, or more overt actions like being followed in a grocery store. Regardless, such behavior can have harmful consequences for those on the receiving end and often err into more aggressive territory.

Through the use of a mobile app, UC Santa Cruz assistant professor of psychology Dr. Christy Byrd and researchers from the psychology department are conducting a study titled MicroReport BetaTest where students can report microaggressions they experience on campus.

Dr. Byrd’s research focuses on how students experience and perceive school racial climates. Interested in students’ interactions with their own and other racial groups, Dr. Byrd also focuses on how race and culture influence campus climates.

“Obviously, discrimination and microaggressions are a part of that,” Dr. Byrd said. “It’s something a lot of students — students of color — experience on a daily basis and it really affects their outcomes.”

Research for the study mainly focuses on racial microaggressions, but Dr. Byrd explained microaggressions can happen to anyone who identifies as a member of a marginalized group, including “women, racial or ethnic minorities,” or if you “identify as an immigrant, if you’re on the low socioeconomic side of the working class or if you’re gay, lesbian, transgender, queer or bisexual.”

The MicroReport BetaTest study will include about 200 participants. All participants will partake in the study at some point during winter or spring quarter. Researchers plan to continue recruiting for the study during the spring quarter, but only about 100 participants can be monitored at a time.

The mobile app uses crowdmapping, a technique used to collect crowd-generated input using geographic data.

Participants can use the app to report any microaggressions they personally experience or witness on campus. The reported information is confidential and completely anonymous.

“A lot of people who are targeted through microaggressions and other acts of discrimination feel alone a lot and this app allows them a way to see that they’re not alone,” said Ph.D. student and graduate research assistant Brittany Young.

Awad, the co-chair of the African/Black Student Alliance, said she was first introduced to the term “microaggressions” as a first-year.

“At first, I couldn’t tell if I had experienced a microaggression,” Awad said. “I was so caught up in thinking I was the problem, and that my racial paranoia was playing out.”

The most damaging aspect of microaggressions for Awad isn’t just that “they steal any feelings of accomplishment, but they leave you with a bitter taste in your mouth –– they make you feel unworthy.”

In an email statement sent to UCSC students on Feb. 19, Associate Chancellor Ashish Sahni addressed issues about campus climate voiced at a recent campus town hall meeting with Chancellor George Blumenthal and Executive Vice Chancellor Alison Galloway.

“The campus climate survey and our hate/bias reports over the last 18 months reveal that members of our community of African American/Black/Caribbean (ABC) students have been the targets of hate/bias incidents and harassment,” Sahni said.

During the campus town hall meeting, ABC students described their experiences of racism and racial microaggressions. In the email, Sahni said “their accounts were disturbing to hear but important to acknowledge.”

Assistant professor of psychology Dr. Byrd attended the campus town hall meeting and said it was surprising to hear how widespread and hurtful the experiences of microaggressions were. However, students had practical suggestions for what the campus can do.

“Students who I’ve [been a TA for] or mentored have come to me with experiences that seemed to have a negative effect on them but they weren’t really sure how to classify them or what to do about them because they weren’t as overt as other instances,” said Young, a Ph.D. student.

Young said these are common effects of microaggressions because they’re innocuous, subconscious and not always meant by the perpetrator. There’s a strong interest in faculty and staff being involved by educating and raising awareness about the issue of microaggressions for students coming into the university.

“Campus climate involves every individual person, so we all need to think about our roles in this,” Dr. Byrd said. “How have our actions been hurtful? How have we stood by? How can we educate ourselves on these issues and change our own behavior?”