During our recent student staff training, some of my colleagues and I hosted a panel session on understanding and navigating racial micro aggressions. I thought it was a powerful conversation to start discussing with undergraduate student staff because so much of our language reflects a variety of histories (and herstories) of oppression and we don’t even realize it because the language is so prevalent. Starting to become aware of how our language can subjugate and ostracize people is crucial to starting to change how we interact with one another in the world.

We witness small instances of oppression in every day conversation. It’s in the words, tone, body language, and emotions we use and express at almost every minute. What do we do to confront them? How do we talk about them with peers? With our student staff, we started with a foundation on an article about racial microaggressions in the context a counseling relationship. After laying the foundation for the conversation with definitions of microaggressions, we asked our students what they had witnessed before. While some stories were deflections based on privilege, many of the stories reflected the reality of what our language and subtle actions do to people many times a day.

The primary reason why I wanted to be on the panel was to be able to put the privileges I have as a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, middle-class, male into contrast with the topic. As someone who holds the identities that I do, I rarely experience a microaggression (and when I do the underlying meaning is one that’s pointed at a subordinated identity). Rather than experience microaggressions, I witness them. I participate in them. I communicate them. Part of my privilege is not having to experience these small ways that the majoritized others the minoritized. The way that I started to think more critically about my role in oppression was through activities like this and they made a huge difference for me.

At the core of this panel is helping our students create a more inclusive environment for everyone on our campus. Starting to recognize microaggressions will help our students gain a critical consciousness of the environments around them. This consciousness is one of the first tools in helping our students recognize when there are environmental problems that favor one group of people over another. This consciousness can help our students realize when they’re participating in oppression whether actively or passively. These tools can be a first step in recognizing that oppression is more than just interpersonal bigotry. These tools can help someone start to recognize the systemic issues that create oppression for some and privilege for other. It’s important to provide these tools because none of us can do everything but all of us can do something.