For Freshmen. By Freshmen.
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Jul 23 2017
by Megha Nigam

How My Teacher's 'Unintentional' Microaggressions Affected Our Class

By Megha Nigam - Jul 23 2017

Charles Mann and George Twiss, in their 1910 book, Physics, asked the following question: “When a tree falls in a lonely forest, and no animal is nearby to hear it, does it make a sound?" Answering this question is doubtlessly frustrating because you know trees make a sound when they fall. Yet if you try to supply this answer, there is always someone who retorts, “Well how would you know? You weren’t there.” Trying to prove the existence of racism is the same frustrating experience. If someone discounts the reality of racism in 2017, then it’s because they haven’t experienced it firsthand. Unfortunately, it's not difficult to find racism in everyday life.

Towards the end of my senior year, my AP psychology teacher assigned my class to design and conduct an experiment on any topic that we had covered throughout the year. Two of my classmates designed an experiment to test whether the race of someone in need affected the likelihood of them receiving help from strangers. They gathered four male students from our graduating class, each of different ethnic backgrounds: Black, white, Filipino and Indian. The experiment would be conducted at a few malls in our area, where each participant would approach strangers and ask them if they could borrow their phone to call their mother for a ride home. Regardless of whether the stranger replied with a “yes” or a “no,” the participants would disclose that they were part of a psychology experiment and question why the stranger responded the way they did. The hypothesis was that the white student would be most likely to receive assistance. Out of the eight trials, both the Filipino student and the white student received assistance from four people. The Indian student received assistance from three people and the black student received help from one person.

The presentation of this experiment involved displaying video evidence to prove that the trials occurred as the presenters claimed they did. One of the videos shown in class depicted the black student trying to talk to an old white couple and calmly ask they why they would refuse to let him borrow their phone. The video then shows the couple sprinting away from the participant and threatening to call the cops (which mall security later clarified they had no basis to do). Upon watching this video, my teacher responded with the following: “These results are not accurate. I would not have given my phone to any of you. In this post-9/11 terroristic society, we are not all going to give our phone to anyone. Race has nothing to do with it.” One of the students who conducted the experiment is Muslim. Her mouth snapped shut and she didn’t speak for the rest of class.

The next presentation was by three Indian students who were also testing the willingness of people to help strangers. They put used sneakers in a bag and asked people at the mall to look after the bag as they went to the restroom. Then, another student from the group would approach the stranger to attempt to claim the bag as theirs and see if the stranger would care to help the participant who originally handed them the bag. My teacher then jokingly said, “Good thing you didn’t do this at an airport.” The bell rang and no one said anything as we left the room.

After class, my classmate approached our AP psychology teacher in an email and disclosed that she was hurt by the comments that were made during class. In response to this email, both presenters were forced into a meeting with a dean and the teacher, where the teacher said the students “twisted my words into being racist.”

My teacher is white. Almost all the students in my AP psychology class were people of color. When someone who is a minority informs you that what you have said is racist, derogatory or insulting in any manner, you have to listen instead of attempting to defend yourself. More importantly, you have to apologize.

I will be attending Rutgers University this coming fall and at my orientation, I participated in a seminar called “Language Matters.” This seminar took the effort to discuss microaggressions, which are defined by Oxford Dictionary as “a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as racial or ethnic minority.” Notice that microaggressions can be unintentional. In other words, you can be well-intentioned and commit a microaggression without holding yourself responsible for your actions. Imagine that you are throwing a football to your friend. However, you miss completely and instead hit someone in the face, injuring them. Does it matter that your intention was to throw the football to your friend? Someone is still hurt because of your actions, regardless of what your intentions were.

If you are not a minority, then you do not know what it feels like when someone says something casually derogatory. You second guess yourself and every interaction you’ve had with that person. You wonder if they pigeon-holed you into a stereotype and you wonder if they even if think of you as a person.

Being Indian is a significant part of my identity. So when I heard my teacher tell three Indian boys that it was a good thing they did not conduct their experiment in an airport, I was appalled. Here we have three boys who did not once consider the effects of being brown while trying to complete their project. By making that statement, my teacher revealed that brown men for her would always be linked with terrorism. It also showed that my teacher had no regard for their emotions and how they would always worry about being labeled a terrorist simply for being brown.

When my Muslim classmate heard our teacher say that because of a “post-9/11 terroristic society” she would not trust teenagers to borrow her phone, she was hurt. While I can empathize with being wary of strangers, mentioning 9/11 as the reason for her and society’s distrust to a Muslim person is insulting. If you mention 9/11 around a Muslim person, they wonder if you blame them for that terrorist attack. Muslims are aware that ignorance allows people to equate their religion with terrorism. But to have a teacher express this sentiment destroys any semblance of trust or safety for Muslim students.

My teacher is white. I am not. My classmates are not. This division had never existed until this moment in class. Several students all agreed that her comments came from a place of white privilege. She will never understand what it feels like to be discriminated against as a person of color in this political climate. Her room no longer felt safe.

Instead, her room became an echo-chamber for every single, “Go back to your country” and, “You’re a terrorist,” that had been lashed against us and our parents. The message was clear. We are not welcome.

My teacher did not apologize for her comments. The presenters of the projects, with permission from the dean, did not return to class. They no longer felt valued in our classroom. They no longer felt respected. They no longer felt safe. Their seats were empty for the rest of the year.

Lead Image Credit: Unsplash

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Megha Nigam - Rutgers University

Rutgers University 2021- English Major @megggha on Twitter @mgha.e on Instagram

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