The students’ gaze was fixed on us, the only Black folks in the room. “They’re not gonna want to talk to us,” one of them said under their breath. I looked over to my friend and made a slight grimace, yet we continued walking past.
My friends and I moved toward the windows of Lincoln to get a good view of the lake—one not available from our south campus dorms. A small smile formed on my face as we gawked at the rushing waves of the lakefill.
We suddenly hear called out to us, “So where do you guys go to school?”
My head slowly turns to face toward the students, and I make a quick observation: not one colored student could be found in their circle. My smile has fallen, and my nostrils flare.
“We go here. We go to Northwestern,” we all said at once.
A few of them sputtered and laughed, perhaps at the question that their friend asked or at our reactions. We hurried out of the space—or rather—we were moved to leave out of shame.
I was so angry at that moment. I wanted to run back over to those students and just ask them, “Why? Why do we look like we don’t go to this school? And if we didn’t go here, how the hell would we have gotten onto the seventh floor of a campus residence hall?”
This is just one instance in which a student of color’s presence on this campus was questioned or doubted. As a first-year, after we all fought our asses off to get here, that question is jarring, to say the least.
Dakota DeVore, a friend and fellow first-year with me that night at Lincoln, was extremely shaken by the incident. She is Black, grew up in Chicago, and went to a high school that comprised mostly Black and Latinx students.
“It made me feel unsafe,” Devore said. “It felt racially motivated. I felt like they were trying to make fun of us.”
Crystal Tang, a Chinese American student, recounts a similar incident from earlier that week.
“I was coming out of the room with Dakota, and this woman was moving her daughter into her dorm and she asked us, ‘Oh are you guys the maids? We’re looking for toiletries and stuff,’ and we were like, ‘No, sorry,’ and Dakota started laughing uncomfortably. The woman was like ‘Oh sorry,’” Tang said.
Tang said that she is often mistaken for a service worker. She said it normally happens at restaurants or clothing stores, but she didn’t think she’d see it on Northwestern’s campus—a place she’s supposed to call home for the next four years.
“It was stupid and gross and annoying,” Tang said. “It sucked, but also didn’t suck, because I’m used to it—but that’s a whole other issue in and of itself. So I was like, ‘Alright, I’ve already been through this, I’m not the maid. [But] I guess it’s happening at Northwestern, too.’”
But what is this thing that Tang says is “happening” on our campus, too?
“When people say microaggressions like that, it’s when their implicit bias comes out,” said Qiu Fogarty, associate director of Northwestern’s Social Justice Education (SJE) department.
A microaggression, as defined by SJE, is the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slight, snub, or insult—whether intentional or unintentional—that communicates derogatory or negative messages, which target people solely based upon their marginalized group membership. Implicit bias is best defined as the unconscious attribution of particular qualities to a member of a certain social group.
“We know that [a microaggression] has a large impact,” Fogarty said. “It brings up questions of confidence, depression, anxiety, even a sense of belonging amongst the people that experience microaggressions.”
Not only do microaggressions make us question ourselves and our place on this campus, but they also make us question whether an instance of discrimination really happened to us.
“She didn’t do anything so explicit, that someone would hear me and be like, ‘Yeah that was racist.’ She didn’t call me any racial slurs, she didn’t kick me out or anything like that. She was rude, but it’s kinda one of those things that’s hard to report because I felt like if I would do that it would be scary,” said Toy Suliman, a student of Sudanese, Chinese and Japanese descent.
Suliman and a group of other Black first-year students went to the financial aid office in order to get adjustments on their aid, when a worker said that “anyone that wasn’t a student” in the office has to, “get out.”
“It’s not like I’ll be able to say something and I’ll be believed and that it’s it, period,” Suliman said. “There’s a process. I have to prove this, I have to testify, and honestly, I hate systems like that. I’ve had bad experiences with them before. So it’s just overall not worth it, you know? I just try to do my best to get by.”
Suliman’s response falls right in line with what Fogarty says happen to students that face microaggressions. “Students tend to talk themselves out of actually seeking out resources. There’s an emotional taxing that goes on and thinking about the harm that happens, and also in trying to figure out what is the underlying meaning of their actions,” Fogarty said.
The bigger question is: what will it take for students, faculty and staff on Northwestern’s campus to undo this implicit bias, which is harmful, triggering and detrimental to the identity of students of color?
“I think the biggest thing that it’s going to take is a real culture shift and prioritizing the values of student wellness and social justice,” Fogarty said. “I think a lot of us have to be willing to interrogate ourselves in what we’re really saying when we’re saying things. If we want a campus where people feel physically and psychologically safe, people need to be willing to think further about their actions.”
If you’re ever feeling out of place, here’s a reminder: we all worked our asses off to get onto this campus. Whether it was countless all-nighters doing homework or trying to outrun the statistic, we all earned our seats at the table. No one student belongs more than another. It is all of our responsibility to build a safe campus community. We need to all work together, so that we can thrive on this campus, together.
If you ever experience an instance of discrimination, please report it at https://www.northwestern.edu/equity/get-help/reporting/how-to.html