Graduate school is difficult. It is fraught with imposter syndrome, stress, and for many students, financial insecurity. Compared to the rest of the general population, graduate students are more likely to develop or suffer from anxiety and depression. And yet, it is our mental health that we, and others, often neglect. Toxicity in academia can partially be attributed to the subtle comments that tell students, and faculty, they don’t belong.

What is a microaggression?

The term “microaggression” was termed by Black psychologist Chester Pierce in the 1970’s. Merriam-Webster defines a microaggression as “A comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority).” Microaggressions tend to reinforce the dominant cultural group and can target ethnic heritage, gender expression, sexual preference, religion, financial status, or some other aspect of someone’s identity. These subtle dismissals and insults create hostile and toxic work environments and lead to dehumanization of the victim.

How do microaggressions affect mental health?

Microaggressions are small, sometime seemingly innocent comments or actions, that over time, wear down an individual. They generate a sense of “othering”, psychological and performative stress, and can be accompanied by a variety of disruptions to everyday function, such as: insomnia, tension, hypertension, PTSD, and muscle pain, among others. Microaggressions are a form of trauma and at its worst, can lead to suicidal thoughts or actions

From “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications in Clinical Practice”: 

“The power of racial microaggressions lies in their invisibility to the perpetrator and, oftentimes, the recipient (D. W. Sue, 2005). Most White Americans experience themselves as good, moral, and decent human beings who believe in equality and democracy. Thus, they find it difficult to believe that they possess biased racial attitudes and may engage in behaviors that are discriminatory (D. W. Sue, 2004). Microaggressive acts can usually be explained away by seemingly nonbiased and valid reasons. For the recipient of a microaggression, however, there is always the nagging question of whether it really happened (Crocker & Major, 1989).” 

The quote above indicates how microaggressions can lead to gaslighting, a form of psychological manipulation that results in the victim questioning themselves, their perceptions, and sanity. This self doubt affects more than just the victims’ interactions with the perpetrator and can seep into every aspect of their lives, leading the victim to doubt their competency at work or their relationships at home. 

Gaslighting, intentional or not, is a tactic used to assert dominance over a person or people in a way that the dominant party defines the reality of the situation. Two very common examples of gaslighting victims of microaggressions include telling them that the microaggression didn’t happen in the first place, “I never said that”, or trivializing the victim’s reaction, “They didn’t mean that”, “You’re being too sensitive”. This is especially true for people from historically marginalized communities, who, throughout their entire lives, have been “othered” by the dominant societal group for simply being themselves, or patronized and trivialized for standing up for themselves. Microaggressions and gaslighting, as an “innocent comment” or in retaliation to confrontation, create compounded harm towards the victim’s mental, and by extension, physical health.

How do we address microaggressions?

The first barrier to addressing microaggressions is to recognize that they are hard to detect, in part because they are often unintentional and therefore missed by the perpetrator.  A second barrier is the lack of understanding the difference between intent and impact. Sometimes, the perpetrator doesn’t intend to say something offensive and will use this to defend themselves from the guilt that they offended someone. The perpetrator may also attempt to “apologize”, not taking blame for their actions, but rather placing the blame on the victim for feeling offended: “I’m sorry you feel that way.” This “apology” is empty and patronizing, and prevents the perpetrator from taking responsibility for their harm towards others. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter the intent of the perpetrator, because it is the impact that will be felt and left on the victim. Recognizing and accepting blame that your comment offended someone is both an important step and a lesson towards understanding and addressing microaggressions.

Educating yourself and others on microaggressions and gaslighting will make academia less toxic and more supportive and productive. Put in effort and do the work to recognize microaggressions. The internet has a community for people to share their experiences with microaggressions; Tumblr and Twitter both have pages dedicated to this. Please spend some time on these pages and reflect on how these experiences are harmful towards those that experienced them.

For those who witness microaggressions: Speak Up. Asking the perpetrator “What do you mean?” or “Can you explain that?” can result in some self-reflection on why their words were inappropriate, or make them uncomfortable enough to recognize that what they said was inappropriate, even if they don’t know why. If you don’t feel comfortable speaking up and confronting the person, report it to HR or upper management, or ask the victim if they are okay.

UNC-CH is not immune to microaggressions. A recent survey has revealed that professors, those who are meant to be mentors and supporters, are harming students by not bothering to pronounce non-English names correctly, telling graduate students “they don’t matter”, asking a first-generation graduate student if they “are capable of learning python,”  and saying that another professor can’t be racist because they “have a Black friend/family member,” among numerous other comments. From calling graduate students “princess,” to asking non-white appearing students “Where are you really from?”, to telling students they can’t speak their native language, UNC-CH has proven that it has a long way to go to improve the environment for their students and faculty. Graduate programs talk about the importance of mental health, but fail to recognize major contributors that damage the mental health of students and faculty. With education, self-reflection, and empathy, we can begin to make a difference.

Science, and society in general, benefits from diverse perspectives, leading to different thoughts and more creative solutions and without that diversity, science suffers. The multidimensional world we live in should be reflected in all institutions -in government, in healthcare, and in academia. Students attend graduate school for many reasons, but many don’t reach the end, or if they do, they are damaged by the aggressions that their mentors and peers inflict. It is everyone’s responsibility to educate themselves on the impact of their words and actions, and to care for the mental health of others. We must remember that while sticks and stones can break our bones, words are just as equally, if not more, harmful.

Peer edited by Chip Norwood and Juanita Limas

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