As readers know, “microaggression” theory is the rage on campuses. We have covered the phenomenon extensively:

At Brandeis University, the Asian American Students Association (BAASA) sought to put the spotlight on and fight microaggressions through an installation on the steps of the Rabb Graduate Center, as announced on Facebook:

We have put up an installation at the Rabb steps to bring attention to microaggressions that are frequently heard in and out of the Brandeis community.

These words are microaggressions, targeted towards Asian (American) students drawn from our very own experiences on this campus. Our experiences connect us and create the need for Asian (American) communities and resources.

Here at Brandeis, we learn and benefit from our experiences outside of the classroom. We challenge our student body to rise to a higher level of understanding of their Asian (American) peers, and to help improve and enrich our campus climate. We hope that this installation will draw the community together through compassion, understanding, and a robust dialogue.

Our purpose in this installation is to represent the entirety of the effects of these derogatory or negative, racially based, comments called “microaggressions”. These comments build upon each other; when we hear these words used against us on a daily basis, the burden can be overwhelming and frustrating. Now, you see how these words, when visually placed together on the Rabb steps, become impossible to ignore. This is what it feels like to hear microaggressions constantly used against you. These papers are invasive of a space that you often inhabit and must pass through; similar to how these remarks invade our communities and the space we share as a whole: Brandeis. The experience is often alarming, alienating, and ultimately harmful. To us, it is unavoidable.

What exactly is a microaggression? According to Dr. Derald Wing Sue, “microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. In many cases, these hidden messages may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment”.

We have completed this project in hopes that our peers will recognize the harm in seemingly innocuous comments, and think more critically about what they say. We hope that this will foster a healthy dialogue about racism in the Brandeis community and how harmful and pervasive microaggressions can be. We encourage you to create and continue discussion with your peers.

BAASA set up a Tumblr page with photos of the installation, including the Featured Image and these photos which contain offensive statements about Asians meant to reflect common “microaggressions” (I don’t see anything “micro” about many of the statements, they are pretty blatant):

Microaggressions Brandeis Rabb Steps Asian American Student Association 6

Microaggressions Brandeis Rabb Steps Asian American Student Association 7

Apparently there was a backlash from Asian American students on campus, who felt the BAASA display itself was a microaggression.

The President of BAASA just circulated the following email to the entire Brandeis student body to apologize (emphasis added):

To the members of the Brandeis community,

We, as the leaders of the Brandeis Asian American Students Association, write this e-mail to you in gratitude for the responses to our Rabb Steps Microaggressions installation. If you are unfamiliar with our project, our installation consisted of a collection of examples of microaggressions posted on the steps and railings at Rabb. To begin our letter, we would like to present our mission statement, posted on a Tumblr page (rabbsteps.tumblr.com) which was provided on the physical installation:

The Brandeis Asian American Students Association has put up an installation at the Rabb steps to bring attention to microaggressions that are frequently heard in and out of the Brandeis community.

These words are microaggressions, targeted towards Asian (American) students drawn from our very own experiences on this campus. Our experiences connect us and create the need for Asian (American) communities and resources.

Here at Brandeis, we learn and benefit from our experiences outside of the classroom. We challenge our student body to rise to a higher level of understanding of their Asian (American) peers, and to help improve and enrich our campus climate. We hope that this installation will draw the community together through compassion, understanding, and a robust dialogue.

Our purpose in this installation is to represent the entirety of the effects of these derogatory or negative, racially based, comments called “microaggressions”. These comments build upon each other; when we hear these words used against us on a daily basis, the burden can be overwhelming and frustrating. Now, you see how these words, when visually placed together on the Rabb steps, become impossible to ignore. This is what it feels like to hear microaggressions constantly used against you. These papers are invasive of a space that you often inhabit and must pass through; similar to how these remarks invade our communities and the space we share as a whole: Brandeis. The experience is often alarming, alienating, and ultimately harmful. To us, it is unavoidable.

What exactly is a microaggression? According to Dr. Derald Wing Sue, “microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. In many cases, these hidden messages may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment”.

We have completed this project in hopes that our peers will recognize the harm in seemingly innocuous comments, and think more critically about what they say. We hope that this will foster a healthy dialogue about racism in the Brandeis community and how harmful and pervasive microaggressions can be. We encourage you to create and continue discussion with your peers.

We, as an executive board, found it necessary to address the microaggressions that occur on this campus. Just amongst our executive board, we have each dealt with the harmful impact of these remarks. Prior to this initiative, we came with the experience of speaking to other Asian and Asian American students about their thoughts on microaggressions both on and off campus. This is a conversation that needed to be started, and we are so thankful that our Brandeis community took the time to read, reflect, and empathize with Asian students who have been harmed by the words of their peers.

In addition, we would like to acknowledge and apologize to the Asian students on campus who were triggered or hurt by the content of the microaggressions in our installation. We understand and empathize with the effects that this installation could have without the context of the explanation provided on our Tumblr. As a response to student concerns, we installed a condensed physical explanation of our mission statement today at the Rabb steps. We want to reinforce that this installation is a commentary on how these insults build up together to create a campus environment that does not welcome Asian students.

As Asian students, we had no intention of mocking or harming our own community and ourselves. We acknowledge the disconnect between intention and effect. The purpose of this project was to call out members of our community who believe it is acceptable to say these comments to us, without understanding that we go through life at Brandeis hearing these negative and alienating phrases.

We have received responses from the community stating that this installation encouraged them to think carefully about what they say when in conversation with their Asian and Asian American peers. We encourage our peers to put themselves in the place of Asian and Asian American students who have been told these words with or without actual malicious intent.

We hope that we will all ultimately come to an understanding about the purpose and the change that is resulting from our installation. Everything BAASA does is with the goal of creating a safer racial climate at Brandeis.

Moving forward from this installation, we have set plans in place to ensure that the energy of our community will lead to a betterment of Brandeis. The microaggression section of our installation has been completed and taken down from the Rabb steps. A reminder of this project will remain at Rabb steps until the last day of final examinations in the form of our physical explanation. Our Tumblr will remain indefinitely as a lasting reminder of this installation as well. Photos of the installation will be uploaded to our Tumblr page to accompany our mission statement.

We are currently speaking to the Brandeis administration about their involvement in the improvement of our racial climate. They have expressed their commitment to not only foster a welcoming environment for all Asian students on campus, but also to all other student bodies that face microaggressions as well. BAASA plans to see that there is lasting impact from our installation.

A second part of our installation is planned for release at an undetermined point in this upcoming year. We are currently in discussion with Brandeis University on the creation of a permanent installation. It is exciting for us to receive this support that has only been made possible by each individual who engaged in our project.

We are thankful for all of the love and support we have received from our fellow Brandeis students who have truly inspired us. It is undeniably a blessing to be a part of a campus that is so incredibly receptive to building a better community. Our project was born out of love, dressed in love, and received in love. This love stems from our desire to make our campus a safer space for marginalized students. It has the power to create real change both on and off campus. We thank all of you for engaging in dialogue about microaggressions. It is wonderful to see our community discussing the effects of something that goes largely unnoticed.

Finally, we recognize that the confrontation of microaggressions and racism is hard, difficult, and painful. But it is also a confrontation that we believe is necessary in order to improve our racial climate and have our voices heard.

Brandeis students have proved that we have the ability to incite real change. This is a message we firmly believe in and one that we will make sure is realized to its fullest capacity. We urge you to keep our message alive in your mind and heart.

I emailed the President of BAASA for comment, including the following questions:

What were the nature of the complaints that triggered this apology email?

Do you think the complaints were valid?

How can groups like yours talk about and demonstrate microaggressions, without committing microaggressions yourselves?

As of this writing, I have not received a response.

Perhaps the answer is Trigger Warnings for Microaggression protests, so long at the Trigger Warnings themselves do not trigger people or constitute microaggressions.  If that were the case, the Trigger Warnings might need Trigger Warnings.

I can envision a campus walking path with one Trigger Warning after another warning of the next Trigger Warning, with no end in sight, so that you never actually heard the words or ideas against which they were warning.

It would be like a Russian matryoshka doll, with each layer a Trigger Warning, but no center.

We’re almost there already.

[NOTE: The title was changed after publication]