Photo Campaign Addresses the Microaggressions Students of Color Face at UC Berkeley

I, Too, Am Berkeley,” a photo campaign launched in March, documents the voices of underrepresented students of color at UC Berkeley. The photos, posted on Facebook and Tumblr, feature students holding signs that reflect the offhand discriminatory remarks and questions that have been directed toward them on and near campus. One sign states, “You didn’t have to try hard to get in.” Another reads, “Was your brother in a gang?”

Inspired by “I, Too, Am Harvard,” a social media campaign spotlighting African-American students at Harvard, sophomore Joanna García founded the Berkeley project to empower historically underrepresented students and to educate the broader campus community about the microaggressions — or everyday verbal and nonverbal slights — that they experience.

“One way in which microaggressions have their effect is by inducing doubts,” said UC Berkeley associate professor of psychology Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton. “Despite very overt assurances that students of color are welcome and included on campus, people’s either real intentions or unconscious biases can, in fact, undermine those very explicit messages. So it puts students in a state of not knowing whether those explicit messages and those welcoming messages are, in fact, to be trusted.”

“I, Too, Am Berkeley” was created in the same month that illuminative data from the UC Berkeley Campus Climate Survey — an unprecedented analysis of student, faculty and staff experiences — was released. Overall, underrepresented minorities expressed feeling less comfortable at Berkeley than members of other ethnic groups. While 76 percent of all respondents reported that they were “comfortable” or “very comfortable” with the climate at UC Berkeley, about one in four respondents reported that they had personally experienced exclusionary, offensive, or hostile conduct in relation to issues such as race, gender, and sexual orientation. Ten percent of respondents said that the conduct interfered with their ability to work or learn.
Mendoza-Denton said, “My research, as well as the research of other psychologists, has shown that issues of belonging, issues of acceptance, particularly around race and stigmatized identity, occupy mental space, and, as such, get in the way of that level of comfort that you need to pursue academic interests freely.”

García agreed that the culturally insensitive comments of her peers have affected her self-perception in classroom environments. “These sorts of incidents have made me have to over-compensate and feel like I have to know everything or people are not going to think that I’m just as qualified as them,” she said.

Rasheed Shabazz, the online editor of Onyx Express, a black student magazine, recounted an uncomfortable experience he had as a UC Berkeley undergraduate. “I had a woman, my first semester here at Berkeley, ask me how to get to the Morrison Library. Now, there’s over two dozen libraries on campus. And I didn’t know where this one was, particularly. And this woman says to me, a white woman, or Caucasian, she says, ‘Well, you don’t go to the library much anyways,’ and this is right after she had previously questioned whether I was a student or not,” Shabazz said, noting his belief that black students are often questioned in a manner that makes them internalize doubts about whether or not they belong on campus.

García is pleased that the social media campaign is providing a safe space for underrepresented students of color to explore and share their unique, often untold, experiences. She hopes that the platform will prompt honest, meaningful discussions about race relations on campus and, potentially, capture the attention of school administrators. “With ‘I, Too, Am Berkeley,’ I’m really just bringing awareness to the things that underrepresented minorities face in terms of racial microaggressions,” she said. “This is just a small part of the experiences of underrepresented students of color. But I do hope that maybe someone in the higher powers of the institution will see this and it will really spark up a change and someone will do something about not only these little microaggressions, but the larger problems that we face.”

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