Faculty and staff discuss hard questions concerning race and microaggressions in CDEIE’s diversity workshop

“So…what are you?”

“You’re pretty for a black girl.”

“But you sound so white!”

On Feb. 13, the Center for Diversity, Equity and Inclusive Excellence (CDEIE) hosted the diversity workshop on microaggressions. The walls of the Los Angeles Pacific College Board Room (LAPC) were lined with pictures of students holding up signs with phrases like the ones above. The images were part of a 2014 microaggression awareness campaign by the University of Florida.

A microaggression is an indirect, subtle or unintentional act of discrimination toward a member of a marginalized group. Microaggressions can be non-verbal insults or subtle biases based on race, gender, class, sexuality or physical ability. A person experiencing a microaggression will often feel that they can’t confront the issue because it was subtle or unintentional.

Last year, the CDEIE hosted the first microaggressions diversity workshop with Elaine Richardson, the Director of the Office of Women’s Development, and Stephanie Fenwick, the Executive Director of Curricular Instructional Effectiveness. The purpose of the workshops was to educate faculty and staff on issues like these and facilitate healthy discussion.

“Any time anyone speaks up to talk about a hard issue, it helps people,” Richardson said.

Back by popular demand, this year’s “Microaggressions 2.0” workshop focused on going deeper. Kristine Cody, the Associate Director for the Student Center for Reconciliation and Diversity (SCRD) spoke alongside Richardson and Fenwick.

“Language constructs reality,” Cody said. “It’s my duty to honor people with the words that I choose. Even if I didn’t intend harm, I need to take responsibility for the impact my words have on people. I need to be sure that my words are restoring the Imago Dei [image of God] in people rather than tearing them down.”

During the presentation, the hosts played a video from the LISTEN Campaign called: “How Do You Respond to Microaggressions?” The video explained that a microaggression is something that might not have had a malicious intent behind it, but can diminish a person’s identity.

After the presentation, the hosts asked faculty and staff to discuss their experiences with microaggressions. Monte Thigpen, an IMT employee, shared his experience.

“I grew up in Arkansas. We moved to a neighborhood that was really nice, but was [typically populated by] white people,” Thigpen said. “When my little brother put his address down on a form, his elementary school teacher got mad at him for lying. She told him he didn’t look like he lived there. She didn’t say it, but it was because he’s black. She even sent him to the principal’s office for lying.”

Thigpen contrasted his experience growing up in Arkansas with his experience in California. He said he thought racism was tied to education.  

“In the South, people are racist because they were taught to be racist,” Thigpen said. “In California, people are racist because they just don’t educate themselves enough. Some of the very first settlers in California were black. They had a legend about an African queen called Califia, who ruled the island of California. That’s how the state got its name.”

Because of the current tense racial climate on campus, the CDEIE tries to remedy this lack of education on diversity through these workshops for faculty and staff. However, many faculty and staff members do not always take advantage of this training.

Courtesy of Micaela Ricaforte

Several employees in attendance said their fellow staff members thought they didn’t need to attend this year’s workshop because they went last year.

Patricia Becerra, a clinical care and crisis manager at the University Counseling Center, said that she thought the conversation shouldn’t stop at the workshop.

“I think it’s an ongoing conversation,” Becerra said. “Why aren’t we talking about it more?”

However, several other staff and faculty in attendance at the microaggression workshop declined to be interviewed for this article because they didn’t want conflict with their employers.

Fenwick spoke of the comfort that many people with privilege benefit from, like the choice to opt out of conversations like these.

“People with privilege need to be aware of the benefit they get from the systems in place. Those benefits have implicit biases…and are tied to the system, or else they would never work,” Fenwick said.

The diversity training workshops for faculty and staff are a step Azusa Pacific takes to raise awareness about microaggressions and promote sensitivity into the system among faculty and staff.

The CDEIE’s next workshop will be “Conversation 2.0 for Christian Higher Education on Sexual Gender Identity” held on March 1.