By Guest Contributor Theresa Mensinger
I started my academic adventure after leaving a nine-year active duty career with the military. Born and raised in Minnesota, the military provided a reprieve from this ultimately undiversified state. Then graduate school brought me back to Minnesota reality. I was back to being one of the few persons of color in classrooms, and group work proved to be particularly challenging.
One group with which I struggled was comprised of two Caucasian women and me, a Latina woman. I tried to give input and my partners would look at me like I was speaking another language. When we brainstormed and someone recorded those ideas, many times my suggestions would not be entered. Another time we were given a break in class, and when I left to use the restroom several decisions were made regarding the group project. These combinations of actions made me think I was going crazy.
Even more unfortunate is that I practiced negative self-talk. I believed that everyone was smarter and more capable than I perceived myself to be. I internalized the messages my group members were sending me, and began to doubt my place in higher education. I had one saving grace that gave me the strength to continue on: my internship at the Women’s Center.
I finally told my supervisor at the Women’s Center what I was experiencing. She noted that it sounded like microagressions. Chester M. Pierce (1977) notes that microagressions are, “the chief vehicle for proracist behaviors…[which] are subtle, stunning, and often automatic, and nonverbal exchanges with are ‘put downs’ of [people of color],” (p. 65).* This definition described many of situations I faced during group work. While I choose to believe that my group partners’ actions were unintentional, they nonetheless reinforced that my contributions were subpar.
Alternatively, the Women’s Center staff promoted positive thinking, daily affirmations, and appreciated my contributions. My experiences at the Women’s Center were as empowering to me as graduate school was debasing. Ultimately I had to choose how I wanted to perceive myself. I started using positive thinking. I forced myself to accept compliments at face value, take pride in what I was achieving, and talk about my accomplishments.
My learning environment was comprised of a majority of middle class Caucasian women in an educational system produced primarily by Caucasian men, and as a Latina woman it was difficult to conform. The Women’s Center’s support and my choice to use positive thinking have allowed me to comprehend that though my thoughts and speech might differ institutional education’s culture, that my voice is still valuable. I believe I work towards social justice when I overcome microaggressions and force my voice to be heard.
*Pierce, C. M., Carew, J. V., Pierce-Gonzalez & Wills, D. (1977). An Experiment in Racism: TV Commercials. Education and Urban Society, 10(1), 61–87.
Theresa Mensinger is a former Women’s Center Master of Social Work intern. In her own words: “I’m a Latina feminist veteran who is committed to environmental and social justice. I believe that the livelihood of the people and the earth are intricately linked together, and hope to work in a way that acknowledges this connection. I believe that positive change can start anywhere including right here and right now. Carpe diem.”