Image: Code Red/Duly Noted/Homegrown Pictures
“Wow, you’re so articulate.”
“Are you the cleaning lady?”
“Do you have a Ph.D.?”
“James? What’s your real Asian name?”
You’ve heard (or heard of) statements like these. Students and scholars call them “microaggressions”—casual, everyday comments and questions that might not rise to the level of a verbal altercation or a physical beatdown, but are rooted in stereotyping and racially-biased assumptions nevertheless.
Some microaggressions are obvious. But it can take a well-tuned ear to perceive the subtleties and nuances in others. The people delivering coded comments might actually intend them as compliments, not realizing that they are holding on to stereotypes that are invisible to them.
Added over time, these slights and jabs—at scholars of color’s appearance, intelligence, scholarly work, and their mere presence on campus—can take an emotional and physical toll. Some underrepresented scholars have told me they’re exhausted from being battle-rammed in interactions with hiring committees, with students in the classroom, and in department meetings with fellow faculty members.
The greatest microaggression, some say, is that they feel unable to express their displeasure. That’s because they don’t want to be perceived as “angry” people of color who constantly play “the race card.” A few others say they’ve learned not to get angry or paranoid: Microaggressions, they say, reflect the flaws of the people dishing them out. Better to invest their time and energy on working on things they can change.
These issues are explored in a new film called Dear White People, out in wide release today, which takes a satirical look at how four black students at a fictitious Ivy League college navigate stereotypes and racial slights. The film comes with a companion book, Dear White People: A Guide to Inter-Racial Harmony in ‘Post-Racial’ America—a tongue-in-cheek guide designed to help white people learn what is and isn’t appropriate to say or do when interacting with black peers. For example: Don’t touch a black person’s hair without permission. Don’t dress up in blackface for a Halloween party. Don’t date a black person just to satisfy a racial fetish. Things like that.
Inspired by the film and the book, I was curious about what other microaggressions real graduate students and professors from different ethnic and racial backgrounds experience. So I reached out to a few dozen folks who were eager to share examples of comments they’ve heard in academic settings.
Here they are. Consider this our own manual to academic microaggressions—a half-funny, half-helpful guide to how some comments might unintentionally come across. And remember: These came from the scholars themselves, so don’t kill the messenger.
The Microaggression Translation Chart for Academics
What gets said to scholars of color:
How it comes across:
From a white doctoral student to a biracial Ph.D. student:
"I can't tell from your writing that you aren't white."
"I can't tell that you're not as good as me."
From a white college student to a job interviewer:
“I want to teach in an urban setting because I want to make a real difference.”
“I want to save the little brown children and feel good about myself.”
From a white Ph.D. student in a cultural-history course to a multi-ethnic peer:
“This assignment will be easy for you.”
“You already know this material. I have to work hard to learn about your people."
From a white female student to a black female classmate:
“You are such a strong person. I could never express myself like you.”
“You’re so black and hostile that you don’t know how to express yourself appropriately.”
From a professor to a biracial colleague:
“We need real diversity in this department.”
“Your happy yellow ass isn’t black enough. We need black people.”
From a faculty member trying to make conversation with a Latina Ph.D. student:
“My gardener is from Puebla, Mexico.”
“Aren’t all Latinos Mexican? And don’t you all know each other?”
From the chair of a hiring committee to a black female candidate:
“Tell me how you handle conflict and what it’s like when you are angry.”
“Are you an angry black woman? Are you loud or confrontational? Are you going to sue us?”
From a math student to an Asian classmate:
“You’re so smart! I want you on my team.”
“I have no clue if you’re smart. I’m just assuming you’re good at math because you’re Asian.”
From various colleagues to a black female colleague with a new hairstyle:
“Did you do something different with your hair?”
“Deep down, I’m wondering if that’s a weave, but I’m too afraid to ask. Since you probably lie.”
From a program director, about an Asian co-worker with a Korean accent:
“I guess we won’t have Dr. Namgoong making phone calls, ha ha.”
“I have no respect for cultural differences, and you can bet I make similarly offensive comments like these about you to others.”
From a professor to an African-American graduate student:
“Do you understand how to cite a paper using MLA style?”
“You got through high school and college, but I still think you’re illiterate.”
From the chair of a search committee who can’t pronounce an “ethnic-sounding” name:
“Whoa, that’s hard. Is there anything else I can call you?"
“I can’t be bothered to learn to say your name.”
From a white student to his minority professor:
“Do you really have a Ph.D.?”
“Are you really, truly qualified to teach here and at this level? Prove it!"
From a white campus police officer to a black female professor:
“Excuse me, miss! There are only faculty offices down that hall.”
“Stop! You are clearly trespassing and have no right to be here.”
From a white student filling out a course evaluation for a black professor:
“This professor takes herself and her subject too seriously.”
“How dare she think what she has to say or has to teach should merit any respect? Who does she think she is?"
From a white faculty member to a black professor:
“Of course you write about black women.”
“What else could you possibly be expected to or qualified to write about?"
From a white faculty member to a black professor:
“You got into Princeton for your doctorate? Whoa!”
“How on earth did you manage to get into that school?”
From a white student taking a course taught by a black female professor:
“This professor does not make me feel comfortable in class.”
“This professor makes me think about race and doesn’t console me in class and treat me like a 'mammy' would.”
From a white colleague who is tired of talking about race:
“Let’s not make everything about race.”
“Why are you bringing up this thing that only impacts you as if we need to care about it?"