Microaggressions are a reality at UC Berkeley. It’s time to stop ignoring them

CAMPUS ISSUES: A recent message from Chancellor Carol Christ drew the community’s attention to a widespread issue. Now it’s time to act

Three students standing in front of Sather Gate surrounded by text bubbles
Alexander Hong/Staff

At a time when the country’s own president uses racist and discriminatory rhetoric to describe marginalized communities, it’s more important than ever for Berkeley community members to call out exclusionary behavior — no matter how subtle. The perpetuation of oppression through microaggressions alienates and dehumanizes many individuals.

Last week, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ released a statement in response to recent microaggressions directed at Chinese American faculty members and researchers on campus. Although these comments may have been “insensitive as opposed to intended to harm,” they nevertheless foster hostility in an academic space intended to uplift individuals.

Microaggressions are “everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights” that perpetuate negative or derogatory messages to individuals based on identity. Because of their subtle nature, microaggressions are often hard to identify and easy to brush under the rug. Gaslighting the severity of microaggressions – which many people do – minimizes their detrimental impact on individuals.

The comments directed at Chinese American faculty members and researchers on campus aren’t isolated incidents. Black students have voiced concerns about microaggressions they’ve experienced in campus spaces — some have even recounted fellow students choosing to take the stairs rather than ride the elevator with them. Others have also shared stories of microaggressions within Greek life, including implicit assumptions about gender and sexual identities. The campus community must accept that this behavior persists throughout campus spaces.

While a single instance may seem “innocent,” the repeated impact of these words creates a hostile environment on campus. Research shows that the collective harm of these “subtleties” impacts long-term health and can lead to higher rates of mortality and depression.

Some people excuse these insults with the feeble defense, “I didn’t intend it maliciously” or “it was only a joke.” But it’s critical to acknowledge that intention doesn’t matter when the impact is still harmful. Racism – whether intended or not – is still racism.

It’s promising that campus administrators are holding workshops to educate community members about racial profiling and biases and that the campus has announced more plans to increase faculty diversity. That said, these efforts have little impact if community members don’t apply these lessons to everyday life and call out microaggressions they witness.

Community members can’t hide behind a cloak of “woke”-ness any longer — UC Berkeley has a history of supporting progressive issues, but this doesn’t mean that people on campus can’t perpetuate discrimination. Too often, the burden of correcting individuals falls on those who experience oppression.

If UC Berkeley students and staffers truly want to be “woke,” they need to unpack their internalized biases and recognize their own prejudices. All community members must hold themselves accountable for calling out harmful and discriminatory comments to create an inclusive environment.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the Editorial Board as written by the opinion editor.