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Responding to Trump Microaggressions

Andrew MillinAndrew Millin

All over social media Emory University students who responded in pain to “Trump” written in chalk around their campus are being labeled as crybabies, obsessive with safe spaces, and oversensitive. Students were not the only ones criticized for their responses. One article wrote how campus authority figures “of course, were more than willing to coddle them.” Statements like those insult the work of student affairs practitioners. While Trump has said that he does not affirm the actions of any hate groups, including White supremacists, one study has shown that, during one week earlier this year, 62 percent of the people Trump re-tweeted follow multiple White supremacist accounts.

On top of this, he even condoned the beating of a #BlackLivesMatter protester, saying, “Maybe [the protester] should have been roughed up. It was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.” Trump through his actions, despite his words, has shown affirmation of both the opinions of White supremacists and of assault on people of color, especially when they protest. Microaggressions, defined as brief behaviors, intentional or unintentional, that communicate insults that have a harmful psychological impact, according to the American Psychological Association, are linked to depression, substance abuse, running away, and prostitution. Regardless of the intentions of those who wrote the graffiti, they caused pain to people of color through their microaggressions, which is no laughing matter.

From the beginning of the student affairs profession the needs of the whole student have been embedded in the core values, philosophy, and literature. Based on their work, here are two ways those who work with students—especially higher education administrators—can counsel students who are traumatized by microaggressions to work to respond with maturity:

  1. Help students apply and identify their social and cultural capital within counter spaces. Safe spaces are environments in which one needs never fear being insulted, demeaned or made to feel unwelcome—environments where they are perfectly “at home.” Counter spaces, in contrast, are where deficit notions can be challenged and where a positive campus climate can be established and maintained. Examples of these include GED classrooms and cultural and LGBTQ centers. Research shows that utilization of these spaces is a positive coping strategy to help students respond to what they perceive as racism, especially in predominantly White environments like schools, and to increase their academic successes. These spaces have also helped students to develop their voices in a professional context. There also must be a diversity of staff within these spaces, including those who identify as queer and those of color. These staff can be vital in helping students who have multiple marginalized identities to navigate oppression, and they can promote how to dialogue cultural sensitivity through advocacy.
  2. Analyze rigorously the event, not the person. In conversation about the microaggression, evaluate the given circumstances. By directing the conversation to the behavior, event, or comment you will decrease the likelihood of defensiveness. The content of an event being identified by an individual as upsetting or threatening, without a foreseeable solution toward fixing it, causes stress. When the blame is not placed on the event, anxiety can further be perpetuated within those victimized. One example is that, because racism is not identified as an event that qualifies as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), clients who seek out resources to address race-based trauma may be further traumatized by microaggressions—subtle racist slights—from their own therapists. Alumni and peers who synonymize microaggressions and free speech and cast shame on student victims who react in pain from them are hurting not only those inflicted but also themselves. The way forward from trauma is discussing the event, not dismissing the person, within the university missioned to foster intellectual discourse and growth.

Through these steps with patience and understanding, campus climates can be positively assessed at colleges and universities. Instead of students, alumni, faculty, and staff pitting themselves against one another, they can work together to promote a culture of advocacy and empathy.

Andrew Millin is pursuing his M.S.Ed. in Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania. At Penn he serves as a Research Assistant at the Institute for Research on Higher Education.

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