Acknowledging violence at the College: A scientist’s perspective on racial bias and microaggressions

Phoebe A.

I am white. I am racist. I am not proud of this fact, but I have accepted it. Acknowledging that I am racist helps me to become, I hope, less so. I catch my instinctive thoughts and ask them why they are there. Why am I feeling annoyed, fearful, dismissive in this moment? When someone in my community at Williams tells me they feel unsafe, and my first instinct is skepticism, I know that it is a fallacy to say that I’m skeptical because of my training as a scientist. Instead, it is because I don’t want to believe that my colleagues are racist, sexist, transphobic. Not believing it doesn’t make it true. I am a white person raised in a racist, white supremacist country. Every day I have to make a conscious decision to fight against that and to challenge my own thoughts and biases.

Our students and colleagues live in a world where exposure to violence is common. Black men and women are shot while trying to live their lives. Jews are shot in Synagogues. Trans people are murdered for not conforming to the gender binary. Members of our community are not asking to be protected from these things because they can’t handle them – they are asking to be protected because they are tired – tired of the emotional effort it takes to write a term paper or type up a tenure narrative while constantly faced with reminders that there are those who seek to deny them their humanity or even their lives. They are tired of always having to speak up when it seems that their classmates and colleagues will not.

I know this because I mentor students and faculty, and I try to listen to them. I hear about my students’ experiences of sexism and racism. I hear about what happens to their friends and families. Violence, both physical and emotional, happens to our students, faculty and staff. If you do not hear about these experiences, it is not because they do not happen. Perhaps it is because you have not earned their trust. I do not always understand the experiences that my Black, queer, Asian, trans colleagues are having. But, I do not need to understand them to believe them. The language that people use to describe these experiences may not be familiar to all of us, but that doesn’t mean that those experiences aren’t real. No one person gets to decide what is and isn’t racist. And it is not the responsibility of our victimized students and colleagues to prove their experiences. Instead, it is our responsibility to believe them. 

As a scientist, I love to go to the literature. I pull up Google Scholar and what I find confirms what I am telling you. People are racist and full of biases. And while it may be true that people don’t often get punched in the face on our campus, that does not mean that violence does not occur. What happens more often are the much maligned “microaggressions.” The thing is, even if you don’t want microaggressions to matter, they do. The research backs this up, but so do the experiences of our own friends and colleagues.  Why should people in our community have to accept the (literally) toxic emotions that arise when their child is racially stereotyped, or when they’re mistaken for “the help?” The work to make our community a more inclusive, equitable place shouldn’t fall on those who are marginalized; it should lie with those doing (intentionally or not) the marginalization. Those of us who consider ourselves allies need to confront our colleagues, our classmates, our friends about their microaggressions. It is scary. I am not great at it. But I am trying to be better. That is what I would ask of others as well. 

When I was in graduate school, I struggled with depression and an eating disorder. I struggled to come to work, to write my thesis. With a lot of professional help and endless support from my family and my friends, I was able to become a healthier person, and also to get my PhD. At some point during this period, my mother, a psychologist, told me that some people describe depression as what happens when you are full of “anger you don’t feel you have a right to.” Looking back, I see that for me this definition was spot on. My anger came from a long series of both macro- and microaggressions during my time in graduate school in a male-dominated field and a department rife with macho culture. At the time, however, I was not conditioned to notice microaggressions because I didn’t even know what they were. Instead, I internalized them, and my mental and physical health suffered as a result. I do not blame those behaviors for all of my problems. But I do blame them for exacerbating my underlying mental health conditions. I blame them for making my time as a graduate student challenging not only intellectually but also emotionally and psychologically. 

I tell this story not to compare my struggles with those of minoritized people on our campus. I tell this story because I reject, intellectually and personally, the idea that recognizing harm creates more harm. The only way to begin to remedy harm is to acknowledge it, to see it and to name it.

Phoebe A. Cohen, an Associate Professor of Geosciences, has been at the College since 2012.