The Need for the HBCU

The other day as I muddled through the daily morning routine of getting children ready for school, making lunches and snacks, watching the clock and listening (when I remember) to the usually interesting topics blaring from the radio tuned into my local National Public Radio (NPR) station, a story came on and I had to stop. The new regulations and changes put on the federal student aid applications were having (HBCUs).  This really hit home today because, I had just returned from a wonderful Homecoming weekend in Petersburg, Virginia at my alma mater, Virginia State University.  I graduated from there 20 years ago. And I understand how much that place shaped my life, my thoughts and help to begin my path to being the scholar that I am today.

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VSU was the place where it all got started for me. VSU helped me figure out who I was and maybe even who I wanted to be. The reason why this is so important is because when I was in High School in the late 1980s, a guidance counselor that told me that I was probably not college material. I should try to go to a community college and then try a 4 year institution. I was shocked, speechless, because my mother never said to me “if you go to college,” she always said, “when you go to college.” So, instead of listening to this clueless woman put in a position of power and influence, I listened to my family and my community and I looked to the South, toward my ancestral home. I only applied to HBCUs because I felt I had no choice, if I was going to make it in college (as I always knew I would), it was going to be at a place where I knew I would be valued and have a voice. I had to leave the Northeast, I had to leave New York City and I still believe it was the best thing I could have ever done.  HBCUs have a large number of students that need financial aid, that benefit from federal programs, these regulations are decreasing the numbers who are eligable to stay in school and earn a degree.   Lets face it, I work at a large public, state university where I see the costs of higher education making the prospect of getting a Bachelor’s degree somewhat of a luxury for larger numbers of undergraduates. I have taken my alma mater for granted, in the pursuit of my own career and my own upward mobility, I have forgotten my foundation and I am sad about this.

I read in a recent article in Black Voices an open letter to graduates of HBCUs by Dr. Charlie Nelms, I quote:

“Dear HBCU graduates,

Although most of us have never met, we share a special bond as graduates of one of America’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). With few exceptions, these are the places that sprouted from sweat-soaked seeds planted by the sons and daughters of former slaves, sharecroppers and subsistence farmers whose belief in the power of education confounded the plans of plantation owners, straw bosses and Southern white politicians. HBCUs were the places that accepted us because they wanted to serve us, not because they were forced to do so or wanted to “diversify” their enrollment. They welcomed us with open arms and did not need to establish black culture centers or persuade faculty and staff to accept or embrace us. HBCUs never characterized us as high-risk or academically or culturally disadvantaged; they chose instead to focus on our assets. Thankfully, we were the reason that HBCUs existed and not a special project on diversity and inclusion. Most of us would agree that our alma mater enveloped us in a culture of caring from which it was nearly impossible to escape. As a consequence, we developed the intellectual, social and leadership skills that allowed us to compete with anyone in the world. All of this HBCUs did with only a fraction of the fiscal resources available to predominately white universities (PWIs).

I am sure you must have read by now that HBCUs are at a major crossroads. Enrollment is declining, in part because of increased competition from PWIs, online universities, proprietary schools and community colleges. In fact, according to the Oct. 9, 2014, edition of Diverse Issues in Higher Education, the University of Phoenix Online Campus is the largest producer of African-American recipients of bachelor’s degrees in all disciplines. In addition, leadership and fiscal instability, problems with accreditation and growing discord between presidents and boards of trustees are affecting even the strongest HBCUs. In all fairness, I must note that many of these same challenges afflict PWIs as well. The difference, in my view, is the fact that failure at HBCUs has disproportionate implications for African-American students, families and the communities in which they are located. The failure of HBCUs is not an option; we have too much riding on them to let that happen.”

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I had to quote this because I could not say in any better. Dr. Nelms is correct, our HBCUs are in crises and I for one, do not want to see them disappear! VSU is deeply entrenched into my fabric, my soul. I learned so much there. I learned about the politics of Blackness, the complexities of race and racism in the south and in the north, I learned about how to be successful in the academy and I learned a lot about myself and where I could best apply my interests and talents.  When I had a very rough semester my freshman year, I was met with a healthy combination of tough love and support that helped me through to be a really good student.  Because I knew inside, that I could not let my community at VSU or back home down, I was in it for the long haul. I was going to be successful.

At the moment, I sit as a tenured professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst (a PWI). Yet, I remember that I was trained to understand that mentorship is just as important as scholarship, which is not something that is necessarily standard at my current institution. I was also trained to recognize someone struggling and reach out my hand to help without a need for acknowledgement or praise.  It is not about service, it is about responsibility. So, although it took me a long time to go back home to Petersburg, I now understand that VSU is a part of my soul, my identity, and the foundation of who I am. My husband a graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta sees things the same way, it is how we view the world, it is how we teach our children. And now it is time to step back in and bring our children, so they may see and understand the beauty of belonging and the beauty of family. There are no more excuses.

It is time to pay back, join my Alumni organization, and continue to support the place that will forever be a part of my identity.

VSU, I love it, I love it, I love it!

blog out….

 

Standing in place

My sabbatical is not what I expected. My “time off from teaching” has made me feel vulnerable and I am still trying to figure out why.

I feel like I am standing still thinking and the world is spinning, turning, churning and blowing up all around me. This is what my post-tenure feels like. It is not what I expected, in fact, most of this journey has been a bit of the unexpected. During my time off, I had plans. I had lots of plans, yet, I feel as if my feet are solidly in mud, not quicksand, just mud.  I am not moving and writing and producing with the speed I thought would come naturally.  The things I accomplish seem selfish, they seem as if they do not matter in the scheme of things.  I am not always sure about exactly what I am doing most of the time or why.

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Taking on this new identity as writer has also added a level of uncertainty. I thought it would be easier – this writer thing, not sure why, but I felt so liberated when I stepped off that ledge and claimed myself a writer, but now I feel as if I am in an abyss (with feet in mud, which is hard to do at the same time).  So many things are happening in the world, in the country, at my university, in my own house, that I want to write about it all, but the thoughts and the words seem so jumbled and complicated that sentences escape me.

I wanted to go to Ferguson for Moral Monday [#FergusonOctober] or at least write about my feelings on the current state of affairs there, but the moment was fleeting and it passed quickly. I still had to attend to affairs at home, especially at some critical moments with my oldest child.

I wanted to write a strong piece about my decision to no longer celebrate Columbus Day [#IndigenousPeoplesDay] and my process of re-connecting with my Eastern Band Cherokee roots, but I missed that moment as well. On that day, I thought a lot about my family origins in Eastern North Carolina, my great-great grandparents, Ransom and Elizabeth Shaw, but that is a far as I was able to go with that moment and those feelings.

Recently, there have been some disturbing moments at UMass Amherst, as students find more and more racist and threatening graffiti on the doors of their dormitory rooms [#WrongDoor]. These realities are not surprising to me, for I have been listening to our undergraduate population talking about issues such as these on our campus, but now that it is being put on display for all to see, the larger conversation has to happen (and our Chancellor is on it in a good way). This campus, where I call home is reflective of larger evils – and yet, again, I could not find the words to express my thoughts on the subject fast enough.

And I cannot forget the topic of Ebola and the panic the media re-packages as information.  The approach to how we in this country understand the disease is frightening.  I am more concerned about the lack of awareness and preparation for the thousands and thousands of health workers in our fair nation, than thinking that I am going to get it by walking down the street in Western Massachusetts.  The real tragedy is the thousands of people who have lost their lives to the disease in places like Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea.  I am not sure that cutting off flights to certain countries is going to keep the disease in one place.  However, in this country the disease brings to light disparities in health care, the villainization of countries in West Africa and all of the people from there [#IamLiberianNotaVirus] becoming the target of a new form of racism. I swear I feel like it is a flashback to another deadly disease and the association with a particular country and people some 20 years ago.  Yet, my strong feelings and opinions stay trapped in my head with no way out and really nowhere to go.

Because, what is time off to a person who has never really understood what taking time off really means.  To a person who realizes that even when the body is at rest, the mind is still in action, in movement and in process (at least mine is).  I think I am beginning to understand the real meaning of the post-tenure sabbatical. Or at least be at the cusp of understanding what it might mean for some of us.  I have three children and a husband, so going off to travel for a semester or a year to write and research is not really an option for me, but I am in the process of healing or trying to understand who and what I am in this universe of scholar.  For without this ability, the words may begin to mean less and less – even if they come out quickly enough.

My sabbatical is not what I expected. For the first time in a long time, I am standing in place and learning how to be okay with the stillness.

 

blog out…

My hands are up!

Its been a difficult day, not because of any one particular thing, but because of many things. I think about the tasks on my immediate “ToDo” list and none of them seem to keep my interest. I know I have a serious deadline that is about to pass me by. I know I have obligations at work that I need to address on a daily basis. I know there are things at home that have to be maintained and tended to, but then I cannot help but to think about the murder of Michael Brown, yet another young Black male shot down at the prime of his life. Shot down for no reason.

I hear that he would have been off to college yesterday. I hear that he was a young man that was about change (if even for himself and immediate community). I hear that he said something along the lines of “my hands are up”. How is this possible? It seems like only minutes ago, another Black man, Eric Gardner was yelling about not being able to breathe, and now he too is dead.  What does that mean today? What do these words mean, I thought they were ways to say STOP or TRUCE. But clearly, when you are face to face (or even running away) from someone that feels that you are a threat (even if you do not know why) it does not matter what words are spoken.

I have to say that today was one of those days where I wanted to throw my hands up. I needed to write something, but didn’t want to write another “scared for my sons” kind of blog…but I ended up doing it anyway. The names keep multiplying, we are adding too many names to the list of victims, that I feel like I cannot keep up and that is not a good thing. I am hoping that these incidents do not make some of us become complacent, for now is the time to stop this from becoming common place.

I cannot be complacent, I grew up in New York during a time that spanned the regimes of Mayors Koch, Dinkins and then Giuliani. I knew police brutality first hand and so did all of my friends. All of this was before 9/11 and all of this was when there were no campaigns to get to know your local police officer or campaigns to help you connect with your local precinct or see the NYPD as allies. It was the age of plungers and 41 shots, and it was scary. It has tainted how I feel about the police to this day and I am feeling those brutal dark memories resurface.

Today, the town I live in is really small and ironically, I know my local police and they know me. There is no hate and my children know them and see them as people that are around to protect. However, I still teach caution. They are still young, but it doesn’t matter, I need them to know the truth and that truth is, that their trust in the police – even from their town can lead to death somewhere else, even with their hands up.

Missouri protestors with their hands up!

Missouri protestors with their hands up!

So, after I put in a day’s work toward my goal to meet this pending deadline. I came home and hung out with my children and I turned on James Brown. It was quality time. We danced and we sang and we danced some more, because sometimes, you have to breathe,love your children and remember to bring truth to power and keep moving – with your hands up!

So, I leave with this, its not James Brown, but a song that we have been singing around the house over the last few days. The Bob Marley song, War, based on a speech originally given by Haile Selassie I’s address in NYC to the United Nations in 1963:

“Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned, everywhere is war and until there are no longer first-class and second-class citizens of any nation, until the color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes. And until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race, there is war. And until that day, the dream of lasting peace, world citizenship, rule of international morality, will remain but a fleeting illusion to be pursued, but never attained…now everywhere is war.”

blog out…

Making the Time for What Counts

So, it’s just another TBT (Throw Back Thursday), right? Well, I have never really indulged the whole #tbt thing, but today I was feeling quite nostalgic. Part of my nostalgia (and sadness) was sparked by some recent posts by two friends, Marc Anthony Neal and David J. Leonard. These two men, who I admire on so many levels, posted some Facebook statuses over the past few days that really started me to thinking about my own life and balancing act between family and the academy. They were not just talking about family balance, but real-time and consequences and privilege. It really hit home.

I decided to write down my thoughts sooner than later on my blog for once, because I am at that moment of a “could be crisis,” where I have some choices to make.  I am not going to get into details about the differences between men and women in the academy, the varying demands on our time, how these issues affect single parents or people of color in ways that are not always clear or transparent. I am not going to detail how race, class, or hetereosexism affect us all in the academy in very different ways. That would be too much work right now, at this late hour, I am just getting my thoughts onto the screen and wondering if I am making the right choices.

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My entry into the academy was quick, constant, scary and fluid. I finished up that dissertation, got a post-doc, got married, had the first child during my first year of marriage. Post-doc ended and boom, a job (it really wasn’t that easy, but I am summing up to get a point across). This is what we all dream about, this was the way it is supposed to happen, right? I am not really complaining, but I am saying that time flies and that is the scary part. My first son was only 15 months old when we first moved to the Amherst area, he is now 8 years old and we are well on our way to being here for a decade. I have been in the game of archaeology for 20 years and I have had my share of ups and downs and doubts and stumbles, but the central question is now that I have tenure, does the pace ever slow down or do I just keep going and increase it to get over the next hurdle (and there are more, believe me)? I think about conversations I have had over the past few months, like: What is your next field site? Are you working on an article? When will your second book be out? Do you already have a contract? Will you start to be on those cable shows? What is your next big move? Makes my head hurt just to think about one or two of those questions on a cool summer night in July.

Then I ask myself a very simple question. Have I lost the ability to be there for my family when it counts? I am there just about every day to pick up children at 3:15 and attend special programs and events and run from ballet to basketball to track on weekends during the school year, but am I really present when I am there? What is on my mind? Am I checking emails or fielding calls quietly because there is some minor crisis or issue at work or with a student, etc.?

Note to self #1: I don’t make octopus shaped hot dogs anymore.

I remember how hard I tried to be everything to my little guy (when there was one). I wanted to know what he liked, if he was allergic to anything, or was he a picky eater, etc.  Then I had a second one and she was such a small thing that I wanted to make sure all was perfect for her. Time passed and I realized that I had this thing down, but is it habit or is it that I am busier and I know how to fake it better? This week I have had some pretty sizable deadlines. Important things that had to get in. I spent almost 2 days (off and on of course) in front of my laptop fine tuning abstracts, making travel plans for the next trip to my field site, reading and carefully reviewing grant applications for a panel I am sitting on (due at the end of the week), in other words, I was busy – at home with the children, but busy. Am I really present for my children? The truth is, there is always something else to do, and someplace that I may need to be, and some meeting that is really politically important for me to attend and I am starting to get a little weary of it all.

Note to self #2: I don’t put chocolate chips or strawberry slices to make happy faces on pancakes anymore.

I worked so hard to get to this point, and that is the point. I have worked hard because that is the type of person I am. But, I do not want to look up and notice that there are no more diapers or car seats or children who want to cuddle, just much taller individuals who would have loved for me to be around a little more. I am not panicking, just taking stock of the situation at hand.  I will admit, this is a bit of a rant and I am just probably in summer mode with children around me all day every day, but there is some real talk in between the nostalgia and the terror of missing out.

Note to self #3: I am really good at pinpointing details of each of my children’s likes and dislikes, from colors to music to food and snacks.

All is not lost, these days at home has made me smile in wonderment to see three children playing in harmony (most of the time). Playing on the slip and slide, the trampoline, with dolls and action figures, just running around in the back yard, more water games and then (as an afterthought) those electronic devices when they are a little bit tired. All in all, we are having a blast, and that may also be why I am thinking along these lines.  This is not normal for us, for me.  This week has been harder than most. In trying to have fun and just hang out, things fell behind, emails piled up and I forgot for a moment that the work never really stops, but my children, my small ones will also not stop, they will grow and need and learn and teach my husband and I that our presence (our real presence) is the most important thing we can do in this world, for the rest of our lives.

blog out…

 

The Archaeology of Microaggression

Microaggression…a theory that hypothesizes those specific interactions between folks of different races, cultures, genders or sexual orientation. The most important part of these exchanges are the small acts of mostly non-physical aggression that in many ways psychologically assault the victim of moments. The term was coined by Chester M. Pierce in 1970.

I begin this entry with a very brief glimpse into my thinking (I promise I will not expose you to too much of this).  By trade and training I am an anthropological archaeologist. This means that I focus primarily on the excavating stuff from the ground to recover and interpret the found artifacts (both above and below ground), in other words use the material left behind by people of the past to tell a story.  The one thing an archaeologist can usually do pretty well is to dig deeper (every pun intended), look beneath the surface, find the hidden meanings or even question what appears to simply be in front of you.  So, this is where I begin my little story about how the reality of the age of microaggression has impacted my life (at the moment).

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Moment went #1:

One morning I was brushing my 5 year old daughters hair. I really take the time (most of the time) to keep her loving her hair because she can wear it so many different ways. We braid it, ponytail it, twist it, cornrow it, and even blow dry and straighten it on rare occasions– it is a labor of love.  So, on this day, I was going to do her hair the same way I had done it the day before, for when she left for school she was happy with her hair and thought it was really cute. Well, this day, she held her head down and asked if I was going to do her hair like I did yesterday. I said yes, and then she asked me not to. I asked why? And she said, “they made fun of my hair yesterday, they said it looked crazy.” She was hurt (really hurt), these are the moments that she does not tell her teacher, she does not know exactly how to. In many ways, she doesn’t know why it hurts so much. It’s just hair, right? I am just glad that she is able to tell me, to share with me, so I can use it as a moment of healing and learning and building trust with each other. The layers are there, it will take our life together to make sure she grows up an learns to navigate these seemingly innocent moments.

I think I may be directly impacted because of several factors in my current life are different. First, I am married and attached to an educated, nurturing man of African American/Haitian descent that is there for the family and doing things in the community. I say this because I have had those moments when people complimented me on marrying someone that is so incredible (why? Because it is rare for a Black man to hold all of these balls in the air?). My husband, as incredible as he is in not as rare to me, I have had many men in my life who fill these roles and many more and so does he.  Second, I am a mother of three children. Two boys and one girl. We live in an environment that is very different from the one we grew up in. Pelham is not the Bronx and Pelham is not Brooklyn.  Our children are often the only ones that look like them in their classrooms. I listen very closely to what my children bring home. The things that they may see as normal.  We as a family talk about race – for our children to successfully navigate this country (and where we currently live), they have to have to skills to understand who they are and what is not okay. We do not have a choice in these matters. Third, I am a professor teaching at a Predominantly White Institution (PWI). I teach about slavery, race, gender and class (and sometimes all of these together) and I have to understand that the stuff I teach can be painful for some, shocking for others and even angering to some. My students have reacted in a variety of ways. I am getting used to not having every class I teach (mostly smaller classes with 30 or fewer) filled with folks that love what I do or what I am teaching. The honeymoon is over and now, I have come across students who are downright hostile and see me as scary, angry, racist and sexist.  And let us not forget the often heard label of “making everything about race.” I have observed that the students are changing. They are more angry than when I arrived at UMass Amherst only 7 years ago. The subtle ways in which aggression is exercised is deep, much deeper than a surface analysis would reveal.

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Moment #2:

My son, who will soon be 8 years old on Friday, asked me why there are not more Black people in his class or school? He felt that things would be a little bit different if he was in school in a place like Ghana or Brooklyn (he thinks globally). My son is absorbent (in other words he soaks up everything around him). He is quite thoughtful and has had his experiences of being singled out and made to feel different. He is longing for less work, I think, by less work, I mean, it takes a lot for our sons and daughters to not see the difference, even if everyone around you is telling you they do not see color.  We all see color, even as children, because of the houses we come from, the television we watch, the ads we are exposed to, the activities we participate in.  Color is everywhere, and it is for this reason that I often feel sad for my son, because he is right, why aren’t there more people that look like him in his class. He too has come home with some really insensitive quotes from his classmates. Sigh.

I have been trying to keep my anger at bay. I have tried to curb the pure rage I feel on a regular basis. I know that at moments the work I do is difficult and the results will often have consequences. However, as I completed my first year as Undergraduate Program Director for my department, I reflect on the stories that I heard from anthropology majors of color that sat in my office, as if in therapy, to just share with me their experience at UMass, in our department, in Amherst, in Western Massachusetts.  These talks ranged from angry seniors who could not wait to get out of here, struggling underclassmen asking for help to navigate to crying and painful testimonies that hurt me to my core.  Many of these students had or have resigned themselves to just expect living with microaggressions in the classroom, it is a part of life, they just lived with it. How is this okay? And how is this okay that they are not telling too many people (or no one).  This creates a pain that is not easy to explain, or fix quickly in counseling, or even tell your parents or friends. Our children are losing the ability to tell us what is happening, they are losing the vocabulary because the methods of these subtle aggressive acts impact the heart and the soul and makes you wonder if you are not crazy. Is it because they don’t have the vocabulary or we have neglected to continue to teach them how to talk about it out loud?

 

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Moment #3:

This is a reflection of that initial uncomfortable feeling of being a woman of color in a predominantly Euroamerican environment and never knowing where to get your hair done. Then when you finally take a chance because you are desperate, you realize as soon as you walk in the door that all the stylists in the salon are praying that you are not their next appointment. You are being shot looks of an interesting variety. The first instinct is to leave, but you stay.  Someone is washing your hair and not knowing which, if any, of the products they use will work on your hair, so they just use what they can. Then you walk over with your hair ablaze and watch them just continue to touch your hair over and over again, moving their heads from side to side as if they are studying what lay before them, and you know they don’t exactly know what to do next. Then the stares and glances from the other women in the salon continue.  They are trying to figure out why your hair looks that way. Then, ultimately, when it is blow dried, flat ironed and clipped at the end, laying flat down my back and a stylist (who also happened to be the owner) walks by and says, “Wow! Your hair is so long, I could not tell when you walked in. It actually looks nice.”

The final moment is about me. It is about coming into my own and being able to recognize these microaggressions when they are thrown directly at me.  I have worked hard to be where I am and now, having just been awarded tenure, I feel as if my power (or at least my permanency) is a real thing.  I have never been soft-spoken and have always contributed to most conversations and meetings I am a part of. However, on so many occasions, I get the distinct feeling that some of my colleagues still see me as either a child, someone who has just arrived on the scene (clueless), or someone who snuck in the room as a favor to someone else.  Not anymore, I will begin to call these moments out, but also begin to develop my own language to navigate these moments, for they are now a part of my everyday. And in creating that language I will also be able to create a language at home to help my family and my children.

And to end with a few random last comments and moments (ad-lib):

Don’t be so passionate about things. Everyone is not as strong and opinionated as you are, they could take what you say in the wrong way.

People do not even try to say your children’s names correctly.

People are surprised when you are out and about (restaurant, meeting, lecture, conference presentation, cultural event) and your children are well-behaved.  

People cannot believe you were awarded tenure.

 Wow, you were really good at that program.

 Oh, I didn’t know you were invited/I didn’t know you knew/surprisingly, I heard your name brought up at this or that meeting.

 I have to admit, I am still learning. I am still trying to figure out how the shift is happening and how our lives are changed because of it. I do not have the immediate solutions, but the beginning is to know that these microaggressions exist and they do, they really do.

 

Blog out…

Prominent Anthropologist Welcomes Football Team Name Trademark Cancellation

Whitney Battle-Baptiste:

To think that this could have gone on sol long!

Originally posted on American Anthropological Association:

In a move that was hailed by the anthropological community, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office announced on Wednesday morning that it had canceled six federal trademark registrations for the name “Washington Redskins” citing testimony and evidence that the Washington, DC- based football team’s name is “disparaging to Native Americans” and thus in violation of federal trademark laws banning offensive terms and language.

While the decision today means that the team can continue to use the term, the phrase is no longer owned by the organization, meaning it will be difficult to stop others from using the term, and thus limiting its financial benefit to the club.

Dr. Bernard C. Perley, a Native American and anthropologist, released the following statement in the wake of the government’s decision:

Today, I am celebrating the US Patent and Trademark Office’s decision to cancel the six trademark registrations of the NFL Washington professional football…

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‘Microaggression’ Is the New Racism on Campus

Whitney Battle-Baptiste:

In the coming weeks, I will be exploring the idea of microaggression on many levels, here is just the beginning.

Originally posted on TIME:

Think everyday, interpersonal racism is a thing of the past? In progressive politics, most of the action has moved on from the Civil Rights struggles of the past to a focus on societal or “structural” racism. But, wait, not so fast — there’s a new word on the street that the old-style social racism is still with us, 24/7. That word is: microaggression. And you’re about to start hearing it everywhere.

A student at McGill University recently had to apologize publicly for the “microaggression” of “emailing a doctored video of President Obama kicking open a door” as part of a joke about midterms. Campus newspapers have begun denouncing the evils of such small, apparent slights.

Here’s what they are: The concept of microaggression has leapt from the shadows of academic writing into the bright light of general conversation, especially in the wake of widely consulted work by professors Derald Wing…

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