Students address identity prejudice at Lunch ‘N Learn event

By Valerie McMurray – [email protected]du – Asst. News Editor | Sept. 17, 2014 |

Students gathered to address the microaggressions they've faced in day-to-day life. Photo by Valerie McMurray - Asst. News Editor
Students gathered to address the microaggressions they’ve faced in day-to-day life.
Photo by Valerie McMurray – Asst. News Editor

Students discussed experiencing subtle discrimination and racial aggression on and off campus as part of the Multicultural Student Programs’ series “Lunch ‘N Learn: Microaggressions” last Friday.
Microaggression refers to a statement that may seem complimentary or innocuous to the speaker, but is perceived as a put-down to a person from a different background.
“It’s hurtful as an instructor to hear a microaggression,” said Tiece Ruffin, assistant professor.
In 2008, Derald Wing Sue, a psychologist and professor at Columbia University, defined microaggressions as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.”
Microaggressions extend to gender, sexual orientation, ability and economic class. For the first Lunch ‘N Learn event of the semester, discussion focused on racial issues.
Designed to get students talking to each other about tough subjects in a safe space, students used the Lunch ‘N Learn to voice concerns about how persistent subtle racism inhibits their mental, emotional and physical health.
Dahlia Hylton, director of the intercultural center and MSP, said she coordinated the topic for a Lunch ‘N Learn discussion because students increasingly told her they were dealing with slights and insults about their identities.
During the discussion, students said they often don’t know how to respond to microaggressions in the moment. They fear others will tell them they are overreacting or bringing up racial baggage better left unmentioned.
Maya Newlin, a junior political science and sociology student, said she changed her major at UNC Asheville in part because all the other biology students — mostly white students — in her classes excluded her every time they were told to pick a partner.
As the only black female in the department at the time, she said she didn’t tell anyone. It’s something she’s used to experiencing.
Newlin experienced a microaggression in the past, which inspired a scene within a short film that opened the event.
In the film, a strange woman approached Newlin and said, “Your hair is so beautiful. It’s so wild.”
“Not in a bad way,” the woman said as she returned to apologize a few minutes later.
Ruffin facilitated the discussion and said microaggressions affect not only students, but also faculty and staff at UNCA.
“It’s hurtful even for me,” Ruffin said, “‘Oh, you are so articulate.’ For what? For a woman? A black woman? A person from Washington, D.C.?”
Ruffin said she can relate to the slights and uncomfortable conversations between people from different backgrounds.
“You walk around with that hurt and there’s no wonder why research says students of color, particularly college students, are walking around with mental health issues at times because of the belittling, the degrading,” she said.
She said it’s particularly problematic because it’s coming from a member of a privileged group and invalidates the person who identifies with a marginalized group.
“You’re not building them up, you’re tearing them down and destroying their own self-concept and identity,” Ruffin said.
Ruffin said as an instructor, she has seen students roll their eyes when someone brings up a racial issue or criticizes their university.
“I’m mixed and I know that I have a white personality but in the past three weeks here, my identity has been severely challenged,” said Nick Leon, a freshman at UNCA. “There is a serious lack of Spanish-speaking here.”
“What is a white personality?” Ruffin asked him.According to Leon, it’s in the way one speaks.
“People have told you, ‘You have a white personality?’” Ruffin said. “So I have a black personality, right? But you identify as having a white personality. That’s a key word for me that triggers in something different for me.”
Leon said he’s already run into problems fitting in because of his ethnic identity.
“My friend called me a ‘short half-Mexican’ when we were playing chess. That messed up my whole night. I cried myself to sleep,” Leon said.
 Daisy Torres said she used to feel shame about her identity. She went so far as to claim she wasn’t Hispanic.
“Because that made me ‘better’. That made my teachers like me more, because that meant people would say my name, not, ‘How do you spell that? Where is that from? Where were you born?’ ‘Cause I was born in Florida and it’s not that exotic of a place.” Torres said.