Nov 16th, 2022, 02:00 PM

Microaggressions at AUP

By Sydney Scott
Image credit: Unsplash/@4lexmccarthy
Despite its claims to transcend borders and identities, AUP proves to be an institution that perpetuates harmful microaggressions.

“I think part of me wants to expect that professors — especially those who spend their careers studying the inequalities of global structures… — would be more aware of the way that they communicate with students, but unfortunately microaggressions are just part of the experience in predominantly white academic institutions; AUP is no different.” 

-Laurel Wong, AUP Master’s Student

When I was eight, my peers assumed that I had an absent father because he is Black. When I was 11, I moved to a new school; some students and most teachers did not realize I was new because they thought I resembled the only other biracial girl in my class. When I was 15, strangers and those I knew well, habitually asked if my hair was mine and if they could touch it. These instances may seem small but in fact they are covert experiences of racism called microaggressions. 

What is a microaggression? According to Merriam-Webster, a microaggression is defined as “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority).”

I grew up in a place where racism was a daily occurrence but when I went to college, I expected that to change because I was in a much more ethnically diverse, highly educated environment. Professors and students alike claimed to be passionately anti-racist. But in fact, the only difference was that the racism shifted from being overt to covert. For me, The American University of Paris (AUP) was a fresh start, an opportunity to exist in an academic environment that boasted about its open mindedness, celebrated differences and surpassed boundaries.

AUP’s website states, “our global liberal arts heritage drives us to… cross cultural, national, ethnic, religious and linguistic boundaries in the AUP classroom and beyond.” However, AUP is not immune to the reality of racism; in fact, they are perpetrators of it. 

Image credit: AUP website

Within my first semester at AUP, I experienced and witnessed multiple instances of microaggressive racism from professors. The most predominant experience noted was being repeatedly confused with another student of color despite not looking alike or being the same ethnicity. Though the professors were corrected multiple times, the confusion continued. Even after spending two weeks learning closely alongside the professors in another country, they still confused me and the other student for each other. 

I spoke to another student of color, Naya Brown, who had a similar experience with her name being mispronounced or forgotten for weeks despite multiple reminders. Finally, the professor decided that in order to remember her name, he would rhyme it with an African country. Naya said she believes AUP “has some ways to go and there are things I have seen and experienced from faculty and students that I know wouldn't have happened if I wasn’t a Black woman."

This semester, another professor I have regularly refers to Black people as “colored” and to Asian people as “oriental”. Several students in this class, including Master’s students Laurel Wong and Alyssa Gauk, have shared their discomfort with me about the use of these terms. I asked Wong further about her experiences with microaggressions at AUP and she said, “there are so many times that I’ve seen professors do things that feel inconsequential in the moment, but then, when I think about it later, I realize how much it actually bothered me.”

Wong continued to list examples of microaggressions she experienced or witnessed, reiterating some of the stories we have already heard, including “mispronouncing a Black student’s (very simple) name, being told that choosing ‘women of color’ as a target market [in a brand development course] is segregationist, having a white student go unchecked after calling an advertisement with a Black man in it ‘aggressive’, [and] being shown a video of [the] lynching of Black people in class with no trigger warning.”

Image credit: Unsplash/@elbahwee

Similar to my personal hope for an anti-racist experience at AUP, Wong is split between optimism and reality. She said, “part of me wants to expect that professors — especially those who spend their careers studying the inequalities of global structures, sustainable development, the nuances of advertising and branding — would be more aware of the way that they communicate with students, but unfortunately… AUP is no different [from other predominantly white institutions].” 

The microaggressions Wong, Brown, and I detail continue to occur despite AUP professors partaking in diversity training. According to the Diversity Council, “staff and faculty have completed an e-module and a webinar in Spring/Summer 2022.” As of today, this is the only training faculty have completed. Though the Council claims that “the long-term vision is to have ongoing, recurring training”, Guest Professor Saadia Mirza said that she was not required to complete any diversity training at all. 

When Rebecca Torres, 26 year-old Master’s student from Puerto Rico, introduced herself on the first day of class, her “American” accent surprised her professor. The professor proceeded to ask her to mimic what a “typical” Puerto Rican accent sounds like. 

Another Puerto Rican Master’s student, 24 year-old Jeshia Garcia, told me that when she introduced herself to her professor and corrected his pronunciation of her name, he mumbled under his breath in French, “it is badly written,” implying that the spelling and pronunciation of her name was incorrect or misleading. “He assumed I wouldn’t understand him,” she said, “which made it more insulting.”

The widespread perpetration of microaggressions at AUP indicates that they present a pervasive issue. While I have enjoyed my time at AUP, it is clear that there is room for improvement. I write this article not to induce a scandal, or contribute to a public shaming but instead to bring the reality of racism to the attention of those who can help shift the culture. AUP must do more than simply not be racist; faculty, staff and students must actively strive to foster an environment of anti-racism. 

Some students' names have been changed to protect their privacy.