The OCCU hosts “Reacting to Dishonorable Language”

Sambhav Bansal (C’23) at “Reacting to Dishonorable Language.” Photo by Charlotte Suttee (C’23).

By Charlotte Suttee
Executive Staff

“Reacting to Dishonorable Language” was the latest Honor Through Language event, hosted by The Organization for Cross-Cultural Understanding (OCCU) on March 3 in the Mary Sue Cushman Room. This discussion focused on a subtle but still harmful form of racism called ‘microaggressions’ and featured the work of the Subcommittee on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (CDEI) on developing a bias response system at the University.

Mandy Tu (C’21), event facilitator and OCCU President, is an English major at Sewanee. “I still get comments from individuals who no doubt mean well but are surprised that I can speak English well,” said Tu. “‘Your English is so good,’ they say. Sometimes I want to quip back, ‘So is yours,’ but I never really do.”

These comments, often from well-intentioned people, are derogatory to people of color, and so these comments fall onto the microaggression scale. Derald Wing Sue of Teachers College at Columbia University describes microaggressions as “reflections of world views of inclusion, exclusion, superiority, inferiority, and they come out in ways that are outside the level of conscious awareness of an individual.” He was featured in the video “how unintentional but insidious bias can be the most harmful,” published by PBS NewsHour, which played at the event.

Pods of five to six people discussed thoughts about the video and exchanged personal experiences. Then Tu handed out a list of 45 statements to each person, who was asked to mark each one that was true for them. Some examples of statements: “someone’s body language showed they were scared of me because of my race… someone wanted to date me only because of my race… I observed people of my race portrayed positively on television… Someone told me he/she was colorblind.”

“[People] should recognize my color and treat me based on my struggles—my personal struggles, not struggles based on my race,” said Sambhav Bansal (C’23).

The room vibrated with the voiced experiences of microaggressions, but Scarlett Pham (C’22) felt that the audience was lacking. “The people who need to come [to this event], don’t come,” said Pham. 

The next task was to discuss a bias response that would better support affected individuals and uphold the university’s aim, posted on the Equity and Non-discrimination website page, “to become more aware of bias—and work to prevent it—so we can learn together in an inclusive environment.”

Christopher McDonough, professor of classics and member of the CDEI on Bias Response, said, “The ultimate goal is that we have a campus where we don’t have incidents of racial bias — we set up a policy and never have to use it.”

After the Charlottesville riots in 2017 where white nationalists and counter-protesters clashed about removing the Robert E. Lee statue from the University of Virginia, some universities like Otterbein, Wisconsin, and Stanford have adapted some form of a bias incident response to combat discrimination. The CDEI Subcommittee on Bias Response at Sewanee is interested in establishing a policy here.

“If it were an easy thing to have set up,” said McDonough, “we would have done so already… There’s been some backlash from nonprofit free speech groups that say maybe we’re going too far.”

The facilitators of each pod said: “Before any conduct can be considered for the disciplinary action, it must be clear that no substantial free expression interests are threatened by bringing a formal charge of harassment.”

One of the goals of the event’s discussion was to address challenges like these and figure out what a bias response system would look like at Sewanee. Tu and McDonough gathered verbal and written responses to inform the next full meeting of the CDEI on Wednesday, March 11.

“My hope,” said McDonough, “is that after we leave here that these questions will resonate and you can take them and talk to other people about them.”