Ithaca College is pretty sensitive to “microaggressions.”

What is a microaggression? Where have you been, under a rock? (I hope that didn’t offend you.)

One of the inventors of the terminology and theory describes it this way:

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.

For some background, see our prior posts:

At Ithaca College, in what may have been a first, last spring the student government voted to set up a microaggression reporting system. (I don’t know if they actually ended up setting it up.)

This semester started at Ithaca College with accusations of campus security insensitivity:

Two Public Safety officers, Sergeant Terry O’Pray and Master Patrol Officer Jon Elmore, made comments described by RAs as “racially insensitive,” “aggressive” and “invalidating” during RA-training sessions Aug. 18. The group of RAs had asked Terri Stewart, director of the Office of Public Safety and Emergency Management, for an opportunity to address the issue directly with the two officers, but the officers have not attended subsequent meetings.

The comment from O’Pray that sparked the RA’s anger was a dismissal of an RA’s concerns about racial profiling, saying that it does not happen at Ithaca College. During a simultaneous training session, Elmore and other officers began talking about weapons and showed the RAs a black BB gun.

“[Elmore] said, ‘If I saw someone with this I would shoot them,’” RA Rita Bunatal said.

The comments made by the two officers during the sessions caused two RAs of color to walk out in anger and frustration.

To top it off, a frat event called a “Preps & Crooks” party currently is reverberating on campus.

But the biggest topic of conversation is about the use of the term “the savage” by two famous alumni during a panel discussion of career prospects. They used the term a total of four times in reference to a black alumna on the panel who had just described herself as having a “savage hunger” to succeed in her career.

The student newspaper, The Ithacan (which recently interviewed me on an unrelated issue), reports, Blue Sky kick-off marred by racially insensitive comments:

The kick-off was headlined by a panel of alumni, moderated by Bob Kur ’70, a former NBC News correspondent. The members of the panel were J. Christopher Burch ’76, CEO of Burch Creative Capital and co-founder of the Tory Burch women’s fashion label; Tatiana Sy ’09, director of special events at the Downtown Ithaca Alliance; and Will VanDyke ’05, director of digital accounts at Warner Music Group.

Near the beginning of the discussion, when describing her undergraduate experience, Sy said she had a “savage hunger” to make her professional career happen.

Shortly after Sy’s comment, Burch referred to her as “the savage” in the course of his remarks. Kur also referred to her using the phrase.

Near the end of the event, while Burch was talking about empathy in higher education, he referred to Sy as “the savage” a second time.

She interrupted him and said, “Alright, I mean,” before nervously laughing, adjusting in her seat and looking down.

Burch, noticing she was uncomfortable, quickly responded and said he was complimenting her.

“I think you’re an amazing young woman, or I wouldn’t give you that nickname,” Burch said.

Kur followed up with “She gave herself that nickname.”

“Right, right, right,” Sy said, while looking down at her hands.

According to The Ithacan, Sy felt that the use of the term “the savage,” while not necessarily racist, was a “microaggression”:

After the exchange, audience members began talking among themselves. Sy told The Ithacan she and some audience members were troubled by the repeated use of “the savage” when referred to her.

“It was uncomfortable for everybody in the room,” Sy said. “It was awkward because anytime something completely gets pulled out of the context it was meant for, especially with language as sensitive as that, it was awkward for everyone.”

Sy said she thought the repeated comments were microaggressions. She also said she wouldn’t assume the comments were racially charged.

“I think that the actions will speak for themselves,” she said.

Burch issued the following statement:

“Mr. Burch is extraordinarily disheartened and saddened to learn that his comments at the October 8 panel discussion were interpreted as derogatory or offensive by some in the campus community,” the statement said.

“He sincerely admires Tatiana Sy and her extraordinary achievements and has reached out today to apologize to her directly. In response to Ms. Sy describing her own ‘savage hunger’ to succeed, Mr. Burch applauded her as an example of someone who has a drive that propels her to success. He did not intend to be insensitive and could not be more apologetic if it was perceived as such by Ms. Sy or the community.”

Apology not accepted by Dom Recckio, Student Government Association President Open Letter: SGA president deems Blue Sky kick off unacceptable (underlining and italics in original):

This event was heralded as being a great opportunity to reimagine higher education, and much of the conversation was focused on empathy, yet the disgustingly racist and sexist remarks made by Bob Kur and Chris Burch showed an ultimately fractured sense of empathy. Referring to the one woman of color that had the chance to speak — Tatiana Sy — as a “savage” 4 times was completely unacceptable. Tatiana explained that she had a “savage hunger to make it happen.” not that she is a savage. Mr. Kur assured everyone present that “she gave herself that nickname” which is and was blatantly untrue. With these prominent members of our alumni acting so unapologetically racist and sexist, we have to challenge where Ithaca College’s values truly lie

I for one do not consent to the future of the Ithaca College experience being built on racist and exclusive events like the Blue Sky kickoff. This is a foundation that is utterly unacceptable, let’s look forward and create a better future that is true to a commitment to excellence.

The President and Provost sent a campus-wide Message to Campus Community on Blue Sky Kick-off Remarks:

On Thursday, October 8, we conducted a Blue Sky Reimagining kick-off event, featuring a conversation among four alumni followed by work in small groups brainstorming on how to make the Ithaca College educational experience more immersive. Insensitive comments were made during the conversation. Immediately following the event, I (Tom Rochon) apologized to the alumna to whom the comments were addressed. We regret that what was intended to be a visionary moment for our community was diminished by insensitive comments.

In general, the college cannot prevent the use of hurtful language on campus. Such language, intentional or unintentional, exists in the world and will seep into our community. We can’t promise that the college will never host a speaker who could say something racist, homophobic, misogynistic, or otherwise disrespectful. Even so, we reaffirm our commitment to making our campus an inclusive and respectful community.

We recognize the concerns raised by members of the campus community about the language used during the Blue Sky event. We reiterate our commitment to the principles of respect and inclusion and to the goal of ensuring that Ithaca College is a place where all students, faculty, staff, and visitors feel safe and respected.

Tom Rochon

Benjamin Rifkin
Provost and Vice President for Educational Affairs

You know how all this sensitivity makes me feel? (don’t ask)

Obama kick open door gif


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