Opinion: Speak up

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Words matter.

Words aren’t enough to fix or ruin the world, but words do make a real difference. When others use words that — intentionally or not — cause harm, we must be willing to speak up.

By staying silent when we see or hear something wrong, we subtly condone the behavior. While not saying “no” is not the same as saying “yes,” the message we send with silence in the face of unacceptable behavior is often taken as one of tacit acceptance. We cannot just stay silent.

While there are many ways in which words can cause harm, microaggressions have understandably been getting a significant amount of attention of late. As described by Professor Derald Wing Sue for Psychology Today, “microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” You likely overhear microaggressions every day, so it’s important to be aware of them, and to be willing to say something.

It’s important to note that while microaggressions cause harm, there needn’t be any negative or harmful intention behind them. Sometimes the intention can even be positive. “But at the same time, microaggressions do not emerge from a vacuum,” said Atlantic Fellow and Oberlin College’s Simba Runyowa. “Often, they expose the internalized prejudices that lurk beneath the veneer of our carefully curated public selves.” For example, someone saying “she’s so pretty for a black girl” is exposing the view that real beauty is white, and others can only approximate it. Similarly, saying “you’re the only Asian I’ll let drive” might be meant to compliment someone’s driving, but exposes the view that Asians are bad drivers.

While invisible to some, microaggressions can cause real harm. For example, there is evidence that among college students, higher frequencies of experiencing racial microaggressions leads to more thoughts of suicide. There is also evidence that racial microaggressions lead to increased stress and depressive symptoms among graduate students. Having to constantly weather racial biases can lead to real physical harm by accelerating biological aging. As the 2014 “I, too, am CU” campaign highlighted, our community experiences the harms of microaggressions, too.

Our desire to not come off as hypersensitive or overly critical can make us feel uncomfortable at the thought of saying something. But that doesn’t absolve us of the duty to speak up.

Just before spring break, I had the following example in class:

Trigger warning: mass violence and Islamophobia

Our professor gave an example to point out some ethical issues and mentioned that he was adjusting the example topic from a school shooting to something less meaningful or important. Immediately after he said that, a classmate chimed in with “a mosque?” The message clearly conveyed was that a mosque shooting is less important than a school shooting, which is an especially gross message given the recent terrorist attack in Christchurch. There were some audible gasps in the class, and I turned to him to forcefully say something about how that’s not okay, and that he needed to stop, now. He did. He later apologized, expressing that he was trying to tie the example to current events and didn’t mean to offend. Importantly, acknowledged that his comment was harmful and should not have been said. Whatever the original intentions, he seemed genuinely reflective on the harm after the fact.

Was that act of speaking up comfortable? No. Was it required? Absolutely. Were I or my classmates to say nothing, not only would my classmate have sent the message that shootings in mosques were less important than shooting in schools — and associated messages about the value of Muslim lives — but as a class we would have tacitly sent the message that this was an acceptable enough view to hold, regardless of if we held it ourselves.

This is but one example of the kinds of microaggressions we experience in our everyday lives. It can be especially hard to speak up in class — especially so in cases where it is an instructor making microaggressions, which unfortunately is all too common — but class is exactly the place where you should say something. The classroom is supposed to be a safe place for learning, and there’s no reason why you can’t be the teacher.

While microaggressions may be the most common form of harmful speech that you must be willing to respond to, they are far from the only kind.

As recently discussed in the CUI, President Trump just signed an executive order to “protect free speech” on college campuses, despite it already being protected by the First Amendment to our Constitution. But to many, at the heart of that executive order, and the broader discussion over free speech, is a desire to legitimize hate speech, such as that of Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter, two recent guests of CU Boulder’s chapter of Turning Point USA.

While legally protected in most cases by free speech, hate speech can be incredibly damaging. Given that I recently wrote pieces on hate crimes in general and white supremacy in particular, I won’t dwell on all the effects here, but we should briefly note the connection between hate speech and physical violence.

It’s no secret that President Trump uses hate speech. Over the last several years, rates of hate crimes in the U.S. have risen generally, and just before break a new analysis by researchers at the University of North Texas showed that counties which held Trump rallies had an over 200% increase in hate crimes in subsequent months.

Internationally, the recent Christchurch terrorist attack has illustrated the connection between hate speech and violence — from the climate in Australia to current increases in anti-Muslim hate crimes in the United Kingdom, to even more hate speech on Reddit. While your speaking up isn’t likely to stop a terrorist in the act, it can have an effect on changing the climate of acceptable discourse and societal norms.

While speaking up against harmful language is important in changing from an exclusive, hateful climate to a more inclusive, accepting one, we must also speak up against arguably the biggest problem at CU: sexual assault.

As has been reported often here, 28% of women and 6% of men will be sexually assaulted during their time at CU, and only 8% report their assaults to the police.

At a recent protest against sexual assault and the insufficient handling of it by the administration, junior Chris Castañeda stood up to stress that “rape is a man’s issue.” He elaborated that “men are responsible for dismantling [the patriarchy] … You look at your friends, you call them out on their [expletive] … You let this happen, you’re complicit in the violence.” While much of the discourse on campus sexual assault is around women, Castañeda correctly points out how critical it is for men to speak up.

As the National Institute of Drug Abuse reports, about half of college sexual assaults include alcohol. Unsurprisingly, fraternity members are 300% more likely to rape, while sorority members are 74% more likely to be victims of rape. If you’re at a party and see something questionable, speak up. If your brother or friend is talking about a recent hookup that sounds questionable, speak up.

If you’re reading this and think I’m overreacting or overemphasizing the power of words, you should remember that one of the worst atrocities this world has ever known happened due in no small part to the unwillingness of people to speak up. All who pass through the United States Holocaust Memorial see these words from German pastor Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

To make this world a better place, you must speak up.


Recognizing harmful language can sometimes be difficult. So, too, can knowing how to respond.

Here is a handy guide from the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health which points out less obvious forms of racial microaggressions, and here’s a Buzzfeed article which shows students at Fordham university displaying racial microaggressions that impacted them.

Here is a guide from the Southern Poverty Law Center on advice for speaking up against everyday bigotry, and here’s a guide from Everyday Feminism for when to prefer calling in versus calling out. And if you haven’t already, you should click through to that Psychology Today article previously mentioned for more examples, data, and links to academic resources.

Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Alex Wolf-Root at Alexander.wolfroot@colorado.edu.

Alex Wolf-Root

Alex is a graduate student and part-time instructor in philosophy, as well as an organizer for CU's graduate labor union, the Committee on Rights and Compensation (bouldercrc.org).

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