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Microaggressions and Safe Spaces

There has been a lot of discussion about safe spaces in higher education, including a recent public statement by my alma mater, The University of Chicago. I’m not sure that I have a unique perspective to add to that discussion, but it’s something I think I’ll think more carefully about when I write about it. And, well, I’m not really going to write about safe spaces, but something I consider a related issue, that of microaggressions.

There seem to be a wide variety of definitions of the term microaggression. I think of microaggressions as relatively small actions or statements, intentional or unintentional, that reinforce a negative view of part of our identity. When I say small, they are small in the notion of the the person acting or speaking, not necessarily in the effect that they have.

Now, when you think about me, you don’t think about someone whose identity is one of the normal targets of microaggressions. I’m a straight, white, relatively large, professional, male [1]. But there are also some aspects of my identity that are targets: I’m overweight [2] and I’m Jewish [3]. I encounter surprisingly few microaggressions for my weight, at least at Grinnell, but I do get frustrated by the reasonably large number of Iowans who say that they Jewed someone down as a metaphor for negotiating.

But that’s not what I’m going to write about here. I’m going to write about my profession and how people’s words and actions related to that aspect of my identity impact me. I know that my experience is not going to be the same as those who encounter microaggressions based on their race, gender, or religion. But I think I share some of the impacts, and by writing about those, I might help both myself and my readers think a bit more about microaggressions.

I’m a computer scientist at Grinnell. That sounds good, right? I’m in a department with wonderful students that has an international reputation and that is growing rapidly. So it would seem strange that I would encounter microaggressions. But I do. Let’s look at some that stick with me.

In my first few years at Grinnell, Communications decided to advertise the Science Division. So, what did they do? They published a large, glossy, brochure that advertised Physics, Chemistry, and Biology. What about Computer Science, Psychology, and Math? Well, they handled that by making the brochure for the Natural Sciences. I think the rest of us decided that we must be the Unnatural Sciences [4]. It’s understandable, but it’s a bit of a slight.

As most folks know, Grinnell has an innovative science curriculum, spurred, in part, by the New Science Project (now the Grinnell Science Project). And for more than my first decade at Grinnell, whenever someone wrote about science at Grinnell, they described the revolutionary new workshop-style classes that started in Physics and spread to Biology and Chemistry. Did anyone mention that Computer Science started workshop-style teaching at the same time as Physics, and that we did so without another model to base ourselves on [5]? No, of course not. And even though I would bring this up every time I saw an article about science at Grinnell, CS’s innovation was left out of the next article. Were they intentionally leaving CS out? No, we just didn’t appear in their world view. Did it hurt to be left out? Certainly.

Grinnell is a long-term participant in the Midstates Consortium for Mathematics and Science, formerly the Pew Midstates Consortium, a group of liberal arts colleges and two R1 universities who share resources and opportunities. Each year, Midstates offers two symposia at which undergraduates present their research. CS has long been involved with Midstates; I even served as Grinnell’s representative to Midstates for a few years. About three years ago, I was looking forward to having my students present. I asked our coordinator. He said the information hadn’t been posted yet. So I waited. And I waited a little longer. And then I wrote again. He said Oh, applications have closed. You should have received a notice. So I asked him to forward the notice. Guess what? It didn’t go to anyone in CS? Why not? Because the person assigned with sending out the email didn’t think CS was included (It’s just Math and Science). Does the person who left us out hate my department? No. But we were not on their radar for science, and it hurt.

Lots of other things also injure my sense of worth. The College regularly buys crappy software and software services and don’t seem to understand that user experience is important. That undermines my sense of professionalism. Although we have a public events board on the third floor, few non-science public events make it to that board. Do folks think we’re not worth advertising to? I have no idea. However, as someone who regularly promotes activities across campus, I find it offensive. When I put in budgets that try to accommodate a near-tripling of our majors, and my amounts don’t change from the prior year (with no explanation), I take it as a sign that people don’t really pay attention.

Amazingly, even though I also get regular positive reinforcement, too, these stings still hurt. For example, CS was not originally in the Science Phase II plans, which were made before I came to Grinnell. But we successfully argued that it should be included, and got an appropriate space [6]. That should suggest to me strong institutional support. It should also minimize some of the slights, particularly since the support I got for adding CS to Phase II came from some of the same people who left us out in discussions of Science. But, as you can see from the above, I still remember the slights.

As you can probably tell, all of this builds up. None of it is intentional. (Well, I hope none of it is intentional.) But it hurts. I’ve exploded more than once about these issues (actually, usually about something smaller, but that small thing is the straw that broke the camel’s back). I’ll probably do so again.

Let’s step back a second. I hope you understand my experience and can see how these things build up and why they might make me hurt and angry. Now, think about it. These are not frequent microaggressions; they happen every few weeks or months. I’m also someone generally in a position of strength. Yet they still undermine me. What about the folks who encounter microaggressions daily, and aren’t in a position of strength? It must be awful, and it must impact their ability to do work.

And that brings us back to safe spaces. If you feel regularly attacked for your identity, whether those attacks are intentional or not, it’s something you need to escape from, particularly if you want to perform your best. I think everyone deserves spaces where they won’t feel attacked, and should be able to define who can be in those spaces. I know that this is a comparatively narrow definition of safe space, particularly as others have used it, but I also that these kinds of safe spaces are essential to our students.

Note: As someone who regularly commits microaggressions, I know that it’s hard to avoid. That still doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try, and that people don’t need a place to get away from them.

I was working on writing positive essays. Is this a negative essay? I certainly write about negative experiences. Is this a positive essay? I write about positive action. I’d say that since it’s not in rant mode and it doesn’t provide deep criticisms of any individuals, it probably fits in the vein of acceptable subjects.

[1] Toby would probably note that I should also say that I’m cisgender.

[2] Technically, I’m obese.

[3] While I don’t practice, I do identify as a Jew.

[4] My middle son likes to remind me that what I do isn’t a science.

[5] Grinnell Physics adapted the workshop Physics model from Priscilla Laws at Dickinson. Henry Walker at Grinnell developed Grinnell’s workshop CS model.

[6] Okay, I have a whole host of complaints about how the Phase II process went. However, none of those have to do with folks at Grinnell.

Version 1.0.1 of 2016-09-18.