Blog Post Author: Kevin Gin
Date: February 2015
“A Thousand Paper Cuts and a Ton of Feathers:” Microaggessions on College Campuses
Addressing a tenuous racial climate on college and university campuses continues to be a confounding issue for higher education educators and administrators. While it has been suggested that the United States has achieved post-racial status, overwhelming evidence from research and scholarship documents the continued presence of racial prejudice and discrimination in settings such as colleges and universities. The costs of harboring such an educational environment leads to concerning academic and social outcomes for students, such as decreased persistence and campus affinity, low classroom engagement, psychological distress, and increased risk for physical harm. Awareness of such consequences should be cause for concern for those situated in campus communities. So, why is there a notion that negative racial climates are no longer an imperative concern in educational environments?
Some claim that if you cannot see and identify racism on a tangible level, it cannot exist in the educational setting. As an example, the physical manifestation of burning crosses, swastikas, and hanging nooses are no longer prominent societal symbols, and therefore equate to a lack of racism within our communities. While studies have confirmed that overt racist acts, such as the ones previously mentioned, have decreased in previous decades, assertions of a colorblind society neglect the fluidity that racial bias, discrimination, and prejudice posses. Rather than revealing itself in observable and concrete manners, racism has evolved into invisible, or subtle discrimination that is grounded in both conscious and unconscious behaviors in contemporary society. These behaviors have been classified as microaggressions, or what Sue et al. (2007) define as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group” (p. 273).
The identification, and study of microaggressions has become an issue of significance within higher education communities, and is a burgeoning area of research. Because of their covert characteristics, microaggressions are often difficult for students and administrators to identify or detect in everyday life. And when experienced, students often dedicate a substantial amount of energy internalizing their negative effects, anguishing about the validity of their encounters. This leads to difficulty in reporting and documenting microaggressions on college campuses. But, numerous studies situate the importance of addressing microaggressions within higher education settings. A recent national study by the Voices of Diversity Project at Harvard University documents this urgency by reiterating the rise of microaggressions cultivates a chilly, and unwelcoming campus environment for many college students, such as women and students of color (Caplan & Ford, 2014). More concerning, the study continues to cite severe consequences of microaggressions, such as “diminished mortality, augmented morbidity, and flattened confidence” (Pierce, 1970, p. 281). And, scholars have symbolically represented the effect of this covert racism as “death by a thousand cuts” (Nadal et al., 2011, p. 234) or “lifting a ton of feathers” (Caplan, 1993, p. 1). These descriptions elicit compelling arguments for higher education administrators to accentuate their knowledge and awareness of microaggressions within campus life.
But, due to the aforementioned difficulties of students identifying, and administrators perceiving the manifestation of microaggressions within social and academic experiences, uncertainties emerge about how to address these behaviors on the physical campus environment. More confounding, little literature and research exists about the emergence of microaggressions within social media platforms such as Yik Yak, Snapchap, Facebook, and Twitter. Current statistics from the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life (2015) cite 89% of traditional college aged individuals currently engage within social media sites. This fact, combined with anecdotal evidence documenting regular reports of racial cyber bullying, supports the occurrence of racial bias within these online settings, and further emphasizes the need to advance the study of microaggressions within social media contexts.
These arguments should elicit uneasiness for higher education administrators. While colleges and universities have yet to effectively develop strategies to confront microaggressions within their physical environments, they simultaneously must be cognizant of how the largely unregulated, and expanding context of social media influences the racial climate on their campuses. Through this, questions arise. How does higher education neutralize microaggressions within their communities? What role does/can higher education play in addressing racial microaggressions in social media? How will race, discrimination, and prejudice continue to evolve in changing educational contexts? And, can higher education progress in a fluid manner to effectively answer these questions?
Caplan P.J. (1993). Lifting a ton of feathers: A woman’s guide to surviving in the academic world. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Caplan, P. J., & Ford, J. C. (2014). The voices of diversity: What students of diverse races/ ethnicities and both sexes tell us about their college experiences and their perceptions about their institutions’ progress toward diversity. APORIA, 6(3), 30–69.
Nadal, K. L., Issa, M.-A., Leon, J., Meterko, V., Wideman, M., & Wong, Y. (2011). Sexual orientation microaggressions: “Death by a Thousand Cuts” for lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth. Journal of LGBT Youth, 8(3), 234–259.
Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life (2015). Social networking fact sheet. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheets/social-networking-fact-sheet/
Pierce, C. (1970). Offensive mechanisms. In F. Barbour (Ed.), The Black seventies. Boston: Porter Sargent,
Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M. B., Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: implications for clinical practice. The American Psychologist, 62(4), 271–86.