Smith: Racial microaggression an ongoing Northwestern problem


Leanna Smith, Columnist

Since coming to Northwestern, I have been called “racially ambiguous.” I have had an almost “Mean Girls”-esque moment in which someone said to me, “You’re really pretty. … What are you?” and have been asked several other times, “What are you?” I have been told that I don’t “get white-people tan.” At first, I didn’t know how to respond to these questions; it sounded as if people were inquiring as to what species I was. What kind of answer could I give for that?

I am half-Moroccan — my mother was born in Rabat, Morocco’s capital, before immigrating to Canada as a child. I still have family there. Ask me about it. I like talking about it. I find my mom’s story interesting and so do a lot of people once I have the chance to explain it to them.

In nearly every case I describe, I am almost positive that no one meant to be insulting. In fact, I think that people were just being curious and wanted to know why I looked “different” or “interesting.” But to be asked, “What are you?” is insulting and racist. My friend who is half-Chinese has shared this sentiment with me: None of our other friends whose racial makeups are more “apparent” has been asked. The question makes me feel uncomfortable and singled out. I am by no means oversensitive. I dismissed the first few incidents as outliers, but for me, being asked these kinds of questions consistently and repeatedly is a red flag.

These incidents of “racial microaggression,” well-intentioned as they may be, are surprising in a community like Northwestern that is so focused on diversity and inclusion. Racial microaggressions is a term invented by Dr. Chester Pierce in the 1970s to describe slight, commonplace and often accidental instances of racism.

The idea is people subconsciously carry around racial biases and are unknowingly guilty of such infractions. I don’t think any of the people I have interacted with are racist — I am just pointing out that’s one way comments can be interpreted. Most of the time, once I explain where my family is from, I get a response along the lines of “That’s so cool!” And that’s true, it is cool. I have only met one other person at Northwestern who is of Moroccan descent and we both take pride in talking about our backgrounds. But I have also heard, “Oh you’re half black?” and “A black Jew!” (I realize my picture is at the top of this page. We can joke about it). These, along with other remarks and questions seem to only perpetuate the “microaggression.”

The story of my Moroccan heritage is very unique — my grandparents were given a special visa to move to Toronto in the 1960s by the Canadian equivalent of the UJA-Federation in order to escape shrinking Jewish communities and increasing anti-Semitism. They had to leave everything behind and were set up with new jobs and a house. My grandfather was the first to graduate high school in his family, at age 50. I am actually traveling to Morocco for the first time in March on an Alternative Student Breaks trip.

So by all means, ask where my parents are from; ask me about my background. Just hold off on the “black Jew” comments and asking if I checked “African-American” on my college application.

Leanna Smith is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you want to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].