Your student protest dictionary

Microaggressions, safe spaces, and trigger warnings are key facets of campus protests

A wave of student protests on college campuses has spurred a slate of new language centered on diversity and inclusion, Teddy Amenabar reports for the Washington Post

The Post asked student leaders and activists from local universities to define the following terms and discuss how the language of campus protests has touched their own lives. 

Cultural appropriation: the adoption of one culture's dress, speech, or other behaviors by another, generally dominant group in an offensive fashion.

"I see cultural appropriation as kind of taking different aspects of certain people's culture without proper respect," says American University (AU) student Naomi Zeigler.

Another AU student, Roquel Crutcher, says she has dealt with cultural appropriation in terms of popular hairstyles.

"Recently, braids are a thing, and that to me is cultural appropriation because I spent my entire life wanting to look like a white person," she says. "Then the one moment where I do decide that I actually like the way that I look, it was kind of taken away from me."

Microaggression: a subtle comment or action that serves to degrade members of a community.

Microaggressions are not as visible as physical violence or racial slurs, but their effects can run deep. Even one thoughtless remark has the power to bring a person down.

"One microaggression is like one paper cut, so it's something small but it hurts the person at the core of their identity level," says Liam Baronofsky, a student at the University of Maryland at College Park. "But it happens so often, you come home every day with like 15 paper cuts … and it really hurts."

Safe space: a physical or abstract space where marginalized individuals can express themselves freely and discuss sensitive issues without feeling self-conscious.

Safe spaces have been criticized for coddling students while preventing others' voices from being heard.

"Sometimes I feel the white population can be left out of these conversations," says George Mason University (GMU) student Nick Webb. "You can't build and create equality without having everyone involved in the conversation."

But proponents of safe spaces believe that they offer disadvantaged groups a crucial outlet for coming together in the face of adversity.

See more resources on preventing and responding to sexual violence

"You're trying to create an environment which promotes people to feel comfortable enough to talk about things that typically won't be spoken about … where people can speak up, where they feel like nothing that's going to be said is going to be taken out and used against them," says GMU student Zanib Cheema.

Trigger warning: an alert preceding potentially upsetting speech or content.

Like safe spaces, trigger warnings have also been chastised for creating environments that stifle free speech.

But "it's not a form of censorship," says Zeigler. "It's just kind of a heads-up." Zeigler says she doesn't shy from controversial discussions or free speech, but also thinks that empathy is important.

More than half of professors believe trigger warnings damage academic freedom

AU student Sasha Gilthorpe agrees.

"Our generation hasn't invented triggers, we are working to address the fact that there are people whose experiences exclude them from parts of our conversation," she says. "You have to do something to be make sure that everybody can be educated; they can't do the work and they can't participate if you don't create the conditions where everybody can participate" (Amenabar, Washington Post, 5/19).

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