Microaggressions on Campus

One student’s experience of antisemitic microagressions on a college campus.

I was raised in a mixed-faith household in the heart of South Jersey, halfway between Philadelphia and a handful of blueberry farms. My home was not very Jewish, and I did not even have another Jewish friend until I reached high school. In that mixed rural and suburban environment, I grew up surrounded by people of every race, religion and orientation, and I absolutely loved it. Our little town prided itself on being a little bubble of diversity and mutual acceptance. We all respected and celebrated one another’s differences and cultures; a mindset I will carry with me throughout the rest of my life.  

It was not until at began my studies at the University of Delaware with its Jewish population of 13 percent that I was first surrounded by a Jewish community. It was there that I was inspired to take my Jewish identity a little more seriously. In the process, I learned that people harbor deep-seated prejudice, and they project those feelings in ways that are often not so obvious.

Antisemitism was a term I didn’t even know when I was graduated from high school, let alone something I ever thought I would experience. Now, when I go online or turn on the news, I see violence, bitterness and offensive slurs towards our people—things that I thought were permanently left behind in history. While I’m lucky enough never to have been a target of such heinous acts directly, I’ve pieced together the sad truth that antisemitism manifests itself in a variety of ways on college campuses, specifically through microaggressions.

Microaggressions are defined as unintentional or unconscious offensive comments or actions directed towards a minority group that reinforce a stereotype. Many minority groups experience microaggressions, but as a young Jewish college student, I will only mention those faced by Jewish students on college campuses.

Singling Out Jews

My first real experience of antisemitism came early in my freshman year of college, before I even considered myself part of the university Jewish community. Some school property was defaced with Nazi symbols and other offensive art. I was unaware that this even happened until I received an email from the university president claiming that the university did not tolerate these actions, and is an academic institution of inclusion and acceptance. “How nice of the school to acknowledge that!” I thought. I found out later from my resident assistant, a fellow Jewish student and journalism major, that only Jewish students received that email. The microaggression here was not the hateful posters plastered on school property; that was a direct act of antisemitism. The microaggression was that the university president notified only Jewish students. This gave the message, “We’re sorry this happened, but it’s probably a good idea not to flaunt your Jewishness,” rather than warning the whole student body, “This is not OK, and we as a university will not tolerate this.” It reinforced the stereotype that our large population of Jewish students had something to fear, and in a way, we were still ostracized from the student body for being different.

In the following months, I attended some of the first Shabbat dinners in my life, met a few Jewish friends, went on a Birthright trip to Israel over winter break (Newsflash: It changed my life!) and now held my first internship ever as a development intern at University of Delaware Hillel. Hillel truly became my home-away-from-home at college, despite the fact that I had stepped into very few Jewish establishments in my life prior to this. The friends I have made through Hillel, as well as its staff, are some of the greatest people I have ever met. Along with this newfound connection with Judaism came a newfound hyper-awareness of antisemitism and microaggressions. I began to realize that little comments or laughs about going to a Hillel event or having to miss a social event for Shabbat dinner were starting to sting. A year before, I wouldn’t have thought twice about some of these jokes or comments, but now I became more aware.

Holocaust Humor

The famous game Cards Against Humanity features hundreds of offensive jokes towards every group, person and place. Nothing is off-limits. The whole point of the game is to be taboo and make fun of things that are definitely not funny. An example of one of the not-funny themes that often pops up in this game is Hitler and Holocaust jokes. I’m not going to debate whether or not this game is immoral, or if it should keep its reign as one of the top party games among teenagers and young adults, but it does bring me to my next point: Holocaust and Jewish jokes are microaggressions.

College kids are sometimes insensitive and unempathetic. Many have left home for the first time and are learning, or relearning, to think for themselves. This insensitivity born out of ignorance can lead to some offensive humor, some of which I’ve heard targeted at my friends or me. Every once in a while, something provokes someone to come up to a Jewish student and drop a Holocaust joke or make a Hitler reference. Why? I have absolutely no idea. Possibly, they think the joke will be understood better by a Jewish person, or that they’ll laugh at it. There are even thousands of Holocaust-themed memes on the Internet getting circulated around the globe, making a mockery of one of the darkest events of human history. These jokes are microaggressions because they convey that the Holocaust—the mass extermination of millions of Jewish people—is something to make light of and use as entertainment.

Antisemitic Stereotypes

Another common form of microaggression is subtle Jewish references and comparisons used for non-Jewish things. Have you ever heard someone refer to themselves as “looking like a Holocaust victim” or comparing a politician or leader to Hitler? Even when not intended to be offensive, these references can be painful. They diminish the suffering that occurred only decades ago by millions of people. Dropping a couple of pounds does not make you “look like” a Holocaust victim; you probably cannot imagine the physical, emotional and psychological trauma an actual Holocaust victim might have experienced. And when the mayor of your local town bans single-use plastic, it cannot be compared to massacring millions of people. These comparisons are disrespectful. They diminish the agony with which we are still burdened. I’ve even heard comments from my own friends as simple as “My nose is so big, I look Jewish!” While I trust that I surround myself with wonderful people and none of them would ever intentionally say something offensive, it’s eye-opening to see how uneducated people are when it comes to microaggressions against all minorities; they do not filter their thoughts and voices out of consideration for others.

Speaking of noses, I’ve been told time and time again that I have a Jewish nose. I’m not embarrassed by my nose, and I think it’s cool that I have the same nose as my parents, my brothers and my grandparents, but what does a Jewish nose even mean? Do a lot of Jews have big noses? Yes, maybe. But why is that a trait that people automatically tie back to Judaism? What does it even mean to look Jewish? While I usually wear a hamsa necklace and sometimes my Hillel gear, I don’t think my physical anatomy looks like a religion. Does a Jew with North African descent resemble a Jew with Polish ancestry? Probably not. College kids are usually visual learners and to be a visual learner means to have the urge to classify things into certain categories. Unfortunately, this categorizing can be a microaggression forged around stereotyping based on appearance.

One of my most astonishing realizations on Birthright was how diverse everyone was in Israel. In America, most Jewish people I knew were white and pale. As someone who absolutely treasures diversity and being in varied places, I remember being so pleasantly surprised and excited to see so many different faces and cultures coming together into one people. It reminded me that you cannot look Jewish because Jewish people vary so widely across the globe.  

Another common term that circulates among my social circle on campus is the JAP (Jewish American Princess). This refers to a young Jewish girl with all the latest and trendiest clothes and accessories. Accompanying this are often the questions, “Are your parents lawyers or doctors?” and “Are you from New York?” Not all Jewish students are wealthy and materialistic, and not all wealthy, materialistic students are Jewish. Stereotyping Jews—as rich or poor, as politically left-wing or right-wing—is a microaggression.

Ignorance About Judaism

The more I learn and understand about Judaism, the more sensitive I become to comments that reflect misunderstandings about Judaism. When my Jewish identity comes up in conversation, more often than not, I am asked, “Oh, so it’s like Christianity but without the New Testament, right?” or “Oh, so it’s the same thing but without Jesus?” No. No. No. Our religions may have similarities, but do not diminish my religion by trying to fit it into yours. We can all live in peace with our own beliefs without trying to fit other groups or religions into our categories.

Clearly, my growing Jewish identity has resulted in an increased awareness of stereotyping and microaggressions. It has been worth sacrificing my rose-colored glasses, however. As I become increasingly comfortable with my Jewish identity, I have more power. I have a newfound passion to help the Jewish community and battle against microaggressions—not just for us Jews, but for other minority communities who face them as well.

While frustrating at times, I do not necessarily blame anyone, whether strangers or friends, for their microaggressions towards me or our people since they are bred out of ignorance and are mostly unintentional. The best cure for ignorance is education, and I believe education is the key to cooperation. While microaggressions are annoying and upsetting, we need to smile, and spread the love and education that we have to offer and encourage others to do the same

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