Microaggressions Project, Prison Costumes Spark Discussion

Kaizad Irani ’22

Staff Writer

Maurice Norman ‘20, Michi LaCorte ‘22, Jaelyn Taylor ‘22, and Juan Diaz Mercado ‘22 reciting submissions to the Davidson Microaggressions Project. Photo by John Crawford ‘20

When the Davidson Microaggressions Project (DMP) were planning their first annual “Campus Takeover Week,” they didn’t expect a campus-wide controversy to amplify the message of their flyers and educational events.

The Saturday before Halloween, an Instagram post featuring four members of the women’s lacrosse team in orange prison jumpsuits, including some wearing cornrows and gold jewelry, faced backlash. Many students called out the individuals for racial insensitivity and committing a microaggression.

“The costumes included aspects such as gold chains, cornrows, and sagging pants. Those are all things that are stereotyped typically towards black and brown male prisoners. There is already a fine line between imitating prison culture, but then to racialize it in a clear way was wrong,” expressed Jaelyn Taylor ‘22, a DMP student collaborator and one of the first to repost the picture of those players dressed up in their costumes on Instagram. 

“In wanting to stick up for the DMP, I decided to call them out on my personal social media. There were questions coming into our Campus Takeover Week regarding the purpose of it and why we felt the need to have one. This event answered it.”

As students walked to class on Monday, October 28th, it was hard for them to avoid the hundreds of red flyers posted all over Davidson’s campus posted by the DMP. These flyers included short quotes and stories from students and faculty about various microaggressions they have experienced or have perpetuated. The posters marked the start of the DMP’s Campus Takeover Week, with the goal of raising more awareness to their past work and increasing visibility towards microaggressions in general. 

According to the DMP website, a microaggression can be defined as the “derogatory (non)verbal, behavioral, and environmental messages and experiences by members of marginalized groups.” Microaggressions are usually unintentional and the website states that “perpetrators are usually unaware that they have engaged in an exchange that demeans the recipient of the communication.”

The DMP was created in 2017 by Associate Professor of Communication Studies and Sociology, Dr. Amanda Martinez, along with Isabel Ballester ‘18, Itziri Gonzalez-Barcenas ‘19, and Jacob Hege ‘18. Along with Taylor, this year’s student collaboration team consists of Maurice Norman ‘20, Michi LaCorte ‘22, and Juan Diaz Mercado ‘22. According to its statement of purpose, the DMP aims to raise awareness about how microaggressions take place on Davidson’s campus, adding to the broader national discourse on the issue. The group also focuses on providing educational resources on how to address microaggressions. 

“At Davidson, I found myself doing a lot of emotional labor,” said Dr. Martinez, “whether it be regarding campus climate issues, diversification, inclusion, etc. However, this was all behind closed doors. I wanted the invisible labor of dealing and coping with exclusionary practices to be brought to the front stage. Keeping it behind closed doors leaves us complicit and lets people off the hook.” 

Some of the DMP events that took place during their Campus Takeover Week included an educational workshop where they discussed what microaggressions are and related scholarly work, as well as a spoken-word showcase where they shared anonymous stories that were submitted through their website. 

“This past week went great because we received a lot of outreach from different student organizations. Moving forward, we hope to collaborate with these groups, whether they need a platform to simply share their opinions about microaggressions or a more formal education setting,” said Tayor.

The DMP team also met some resistance by the college administration. According to the student collaborators, they violated regulations regarding where flyers can be posted around campus, such as on sculptures. However, once they were informed by the college, they removed those flyers on the same day. 

“In addition to that, we received some negative responses from people in positions of power at Davidson. There were calls for punitive measures to be taken against us as students because we disrupted the so-called ‘learning environment,’” shared Taylor. “This made us question, what is the learning environment? At the end of the day, all it is are white letters on red papers with a website and project name on it. How is that disruptive? Did we make you uncomfortable? If so, we did our job.”

Dr. Martinez added: “The point of this past week was to be immersive and make it such that it was hard to look and easily avoid it. We wanted it to be unmistakably in your face and I would say that we have succeeded because there are a fair amount of people talking about our work.” 

The DMP gained more attention during their Campus Takeover Week when Taylor reposted an Instagram post on her personal account on Monday, October 28, calling out certain players on Davidson’s women’s lacrosse team for their prison jumpsuit Halloween costumes.

“The disproportionate impact that mass incarceration has on communities of color is an undeniable, systemic issue in this country,” explained Dr. Martinez. “The costumes crossed a line, especially with the racialized appropriation of black hairstyles with their cornrows and the nonverbal communication through their poses.”

Following Taylor’s repost, some Davidson students and organizations responded through social media with their opinions and ways to address the problem. The president of the Black Student Coalition (BSC), Bry Reed ‘20, released a statement explaining how the costumes were “painful reminders of the prison industrial complex and the ongoing harm facing marginalized people.” 

Reed added, “treating this as a costume does a disservice to our Davidson community and perpetuates egregious stereotypes of what incarceration looks like.” She also called upon students to think about how to “create institutional responses” to keep those students accountable. Davidson’s Organization of Latinx American Students (OLAS) published a guide on their Instagram to non-problematic Halloween costumes that received over 300 likes. 

The incident culminated in an open forum on incidents of microaggression hosted by the Common Ground Initiative and Student Government Association (SGA) on Wednesday, October 30th. To a standing-room-only crowd in Hance Auditorium, students presented the history of the prison industrial complex and microaggressions, elaborated on the OLAS guide for Halloween costumes, and engaged in an open dialogue about microaggressions. This included talks about the role that all students have in calling out racism and a need for more hires in offices such as the Center for Diversity & Inclusion and Africana Studies. 

During the meeting, Taylor “called out” the lacrosse team, who were in attendance, and asked them to publicly apologize. After two team members stood up and spoke, the entire team rose as well, and collectively pledged to work to educate themselves in the future. 

There was also discussion about those who were complacent in not addressing the costumes and could be viewed as support towards the aggressor. A more detailed summary of the event can be read via the email sent out to all Davidson students from SGA. 

When contacted by The Davidsonian for a statement regarding the Instagram post and subsequent events, the four lacrosse players featured in the reposted picture declined to comment. 

The DMP hopes that their work done during their Campus Takeover Week will leave a lasting impact on the Davidson community. Additionally, they call upon Davidson students and faculty to continue to learn about microaggressions and how to better avoid them.

 “A lot of students hide behind this ‘check the box’ mentality. They will go to an event hosted by a marginalized group just to fulfill some requirements and move on,” expressed Diaz Mercado. “They need to actually consider the value in them and incorporate them into their life. It’s time for the campus to reach out and do the work.”

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