From the Margins to the Center: Tackling Microagressions at Claremont

Oct. 4 was a day of hazy clouds and languorous wind. I was enjoying my Saturday when I
got an email entitled “Family Emergency.” A friend and fellow student was
struggling with the loss of a close family member. To make matters worse, her
professor did not allow her to make up an exam she missed the day after this
family member’s passing. I wondered how I could help this student who I knew
had already lost five family members since coming to CMC.

As co-leader of
the Brothers and Sisters Alliance (BSA), I took on the role of a mentor and
leader on campus. In my experience, mentors, especially other Afro-American
women with similar interests and/or experiences, were instrumental in making my
CMC experience extraordinary.

The Office of
Black Student Affairs is a positive motivational force, but it can seem distant
for some CMC students. Thus we created BSA, a CMC club founded to serve black
and brown individuals and their allies with a judgment-free space where we
can exchange ideas, build alliances and enhance cultural and political
awareness within the broader Claremont community. We strive to retain and
support BSA members throughout graduation, especially low-income and first-generation students and those who face other challenges outside of their control.

My mentee was
facing such challenges, but we felt confident that all that was needed was
communication, and action would be taken on the part of the school to protect
the student. Under this assumption, I accepted a role as advocate for this
student, atop my many other responsibilities as a CMC senior, and proceeded
into the murky world of social justice work which is needed on the Claremont
College campuses.

The CMC Dean of Students office was of little assistance, so my
mentee and I decided to call upon the Dean of Faculty. The dean was out, so we were
accommodated with a room to share the story with two other members of the office. Before we could begin, one of the women, who was Euro-American, said, “Are you two CMC students?” She paused, but continued, “Because if you go to Pitzer we can’t help you.” 

I was taken aback because I was not sure what business we might have with CMC’s Dean of Faculty if we
were not students from the college, but we simply answered yes and proceeded nonchalantly. I tried to shake off the experience, but it came right back
to haunt me.

Racial Bias Knows No Boundaries

Two weeks later, I arrived outside Atherton Hall at Pitzer at
around 1:15 p.m. on a sunny Monday afternoon. My Power and Social Change class
was happening inside, but I did not have card access to the locked Pitzer
building. I saw a young woman walking downhill from the new dorms. Based on her
book bag and her lackadaisical gait I assumed
she was a Pitzer student. I asked if she
could let me into the building, and she agreed. 

I could not have been more surprised
when she turned to me and said, “Unless of course you’re coming here to steal or
loot something.” The accusatory tone with which she said those words was
perplexing. Caught off guard, I said, “Why would I do that?” She simply
responded, “Well, the doors have locks on them for a reason.” 

She asked me what
school I went to, and I shot back, “CMC,” and opened the door and walked through
without another word, furious and unable to comprehend what I had just
experienced. I tried to focus on my professor’s lecture, but two minutes
later I found myself walking back outside to clear my mind in the lobby. I looked
out of the glass door to find the girl still standing there, as if to make sure
I actually was going to class like I said I would.

I was shocked and discombobulated. It took several
conversations with myriad individuals to help me heal and move past those
accusations and the hateful rhetoric, but I was reminded that racial bias knows
no boundaries. It is not confined in cities or institutions; it grows in our
minds.

Casual Remarks, Real Pain

Racism is ideological, but it also has physiological
ramifications, especially for women of color who also deal with the burden of
sexism.

Microaggressions—social exchanges in which a member of a
dominant culture says something, even if accidental or without
intended malice, that belittles and alienates a member of a marginalized
group—can actually initiate a cortisol (stress hormone) response also known as ‘fight or flight’ mode. Because there is no actual fight or flight, this
cortisol just builds up in the human system and over time can lead to anxiety,
depression, heart disease, weight gain and memory and concentration
impairment, among other health deficits. 

As a human biology major, I cannot
help but to be concerned that women of color have involuntary responses to
microaggressions which can occur on a daily basis, creating health disparities
that are out of their control. This produces a compounded effect as women of color also suffer from lower health status because race and socioeconomic
status affect health outcomes.

I never expected I would be profiled in broad daylight until
it happened, and perhaps there are some Claremont students who thought it would
never happen, but unfortunately it did. I believe that publicized,
institutional discussions around this issue are too few on our campus, but it
is up to us—as students who want to see a better future for our peers and for
ourselves—to start having these conversations. Let’s begin (or continue) the
discussions among friends and club members, in classes and with the administration about this issue. I challenge you to answer this question: Our
Claremont community is generally considered to be physically safe, but is it
emotionally safe, especially for those who are marginalized based on appearance, race, class, gender, sexual orientation and/or religion?

Sesa Bakenra-Tikande CM ’15 is a human biology major from Cleveland, Ohio.

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