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Addressing Microaggressions

and Taking Action: An Interview with

Shannon Giannitsopoulou

 

Amy Chan

Equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) and mental health are intricately linked, and various studies have demonstrated its bi-directional relationship. Particularly, microaggressions–subtle, indirection, or unintentional remarks that are discriminatory against members of marginalized groups–are commonly experienced in our environment. One study suggests that being the victim of racial microaggressions may lead to increased signs of depression and thoughts of suicide.1 Moreover, there is a correlation between experiencing microaggressions and self-reported history of heart attack, depression, and hospitalization.2

Raising awareness and advocating against racial attacks and microaggressions within our workspace, community, and academic setting may significantly benefit our health and the health of others. I spoke with Shannon Giannitsopoulou to discuss the creation of University of Toronto’s (U of T) Faculty of Medicine Office of Inclusion and Diversity's Microaggressions and Allyship Campaign (#UofTMedCARES), and her background and inspiration for this university-wide project. 

Can you please give me a brief overview of your background and how you got to where you are today? (academic background, influences etc.)

I did my BA in Philosophy, Gender Studies and English at U of T, focusing on courses that involve feminist theory and continental philosophy. I then pursued a college certificate in Corporate Communications and Public Relations at Centennial College, which provided me with an internship at a feminist anti-gender-based violence legal, counselling and interpretation clinic, where I worked for another five years. I was promoted to a Program Coordinator and had the opportunity to lead anti-oppressive projects across Ontario, reducing barriers that women from marginalized communities face when seeking supports for surviving gender-based violence. Subsequently, I received my Project Management Professional (PMP) certification, and went on to complete my MA in Social Justice Education at OISE. My thesis focused on a critical policy analysis on equity policies of Kinesiology faculties in Canadian universities. I am the first in my family to attend higher education, so I did not always see myself as belonging in academic spaces. Supportive and compassionate faculty members such as Dr. Miglena Todorova have helped me to overcome some of these barriers. 

At U of T I have worked as an Assistant Manager at the U of T Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KPE) in the aquatics department, and as a Program Coordinator at the Faculty of Medicine’s Office of Inclusion and Diversity (OID). Currently, I am back at KPE as an Equity Engagement and Student Advisor. I have also been involved in grassroots organizing, and co-founded Femifesto, a collective that works to shift rape culture to consult culture. I would say that my biggest mentors have been feminist, queer, racialized women and trans people who do life-long anti-oppression work. They have generously shared wise practices and knowledge with me. I also greatly learned from the ways in which they embody their politics through their everyday practices and relationships. I was really influenced by the works of Sara Ahmed, who applies a critical anti-racist lens to equity, diversity and inclusion work at universities.

What are some topics that you are passionate about, or you think need more awareness?

I am passionate about resisting and interrupting “white feminism” – feminism which is not intersectional. As a non-Indigenous settler, a white woman, and a first generation Canadian, I continue to unlearn colonial, patriarchal, racist ideologies. I am committed to working in solidarity with the land back movement and abolition movement. I am currently a member of the Solidarity with Land and Water Defenders collective (formerly known as the Social Justice Education Solidarity with Wet’su’wet’en collective), which was formed out of OISE. I urge all non-Indigenous Canadians to learn about and act in solidarity with Indigenous land and water defenders. State-sanctioned colonial violence, displacement of Indigenous People from their unceded lands, and environmental destruction continues to occur today. One place to start out is with the Wet’suwet’en Supporter Toolkit 2020, and the Open Statement of Solidarity with the Wet'suwet'en Land Defenders from the University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine Learners.

What is the Microaggressions campaign about, and how did it start?

As a Program Coordinator at the OID, I often heard stories from learners, staff and faculty members about microaggressions that they commonly face. For example, Black students, who are medical learners shared that patients and even colleagues often assumed that because they are Black, they could not possibly be medical learners, and instead referred to them as volunteers or caretaking staff. I also identified that microaggressions are pervasive when reviewing data from the Voice of The… (VOT) Surveys which were completed by many stakeholders across the Faculty of Medicine. I created the U of T Faculty of Medicine Office of Inclusion and Diversity's Microaggressions and Allyship Campaign (#UofTMedCARES) to increase the awareness of microaggressions and their impact, begin discussions around microaggressions and allyship, and to encourage individuals to use their privilege(s) to be allies to others. The campaign includes posters, post cards and social media images. 

When I did an environmental scan, I found that many images and campaigns about microaggressions mainly focus on the harmful impact that microaggressions have on marginalized communities. One powerful message that I learned from Una Lee, a design justice advocate, is that we need to create images of the world we want to see. In that sense, social justice work must involve the practice of imagining new transformative worlds and ways of relating to one another. The CARES Microaggressions and Allyship campaign therefore aims to create imagery of and roadmaps to the kind of spaces we want to create in health services, research and education–where a supportive community intervenes when a microaggression occurs. It provides examples of ally responses to microaggressions, based on the CARES acronym: 

  • C: Ask that the person who enacted the microaggression to Consider the harm that it caused.
  • A: Take Accountability if you yourself enact a microaggression by apologizing and changing your behaviour.
  • R: Invite the person who enacted the microaggression to Rethink the harmful ideology or stereotype underlying their statement or action.
  • E: Empathize with the person who received the microaggression.
  • S: Support the person who received the microaggression by offering resources and asking how you can help.

The CARES model aims to be trauma-informed by including empathizing and supportive responses to those who receive microaggressions, including in the moment, afterwards, or when disclosures happen. It also recognizes the policy and reporting structure as a response to microaggressions by naming that support can include connecting people to equity offices and discrimination policies of the university.

I am excited to expand the campaign in collaboration with Amy, an amazing graphic designer and current student at the Faculty of Medicine.

What are some ways that you think students, staff and community members can support EDI in their environment?

  • Ensure that everyone gets training on anti-oppression, including staff, faculty, students and leadership. This is so important to achieve a culture shift. Microaggressions is one topic, and there are many others. Training should include a focus on the different layers of oppression–interpersonal, systemic and structural–and the various systems of oppression–transphobia, sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. Learning must be ongoing as these are long-term, complex conversations.
  • Everyone should have training on how to receive and make disclosures and reports of discrimination and harassment in a way that is trauma-informed and accountable. 
  • Think about what actions can be taken, and how current problems and progress can be measured. Then, report back on both the problems and the progress to all key stakeholders to ensure accountability.
  • Make equity and anti-oppression central and embedded in everything. For example, how is anti-oppression woven throughout the entire curriculum? How is an equity lens applied to resource allocation and policy creation? How is anti-oppression as a key competency embedded directly in job descriptions and admissions?
  • Understand that the university and health care services and research are not neutral spaces. Leverage institutional power to work in solidarity with grassroots movements of marginalized communities. Continue to learn, unpack, and resist the ways in which the university and health care services and research have historically been complicit in and active arms of systems of oppression, such as settler colonialism in Canada.

What should students and staff do if they witness or are the recipient of a microaggression?

The CARES model provides ways to respond to microaggressions both in the moment and afterwards if you want to engage in allyship. When you witness a microaggression occurring, there are ways to interrupt and help someone think about what they said. The way you respond may be dependent on the situation and whether you feel safe and comfortable doing so. Sometimes you may not feel safe because there is an unequal power dynamic at play (e.g., a teacher and learner scenario). If this happens, attempt to “call in” the person rather than “call them out”. “Calling in” means taking an inquiring approach in which the main focus is to seek mutual understanding and reflection. “Calling someone out” is a more direct approach of interrupting the microaggression.

You may also not respond because you do not feel safe in the moment. This does not mean there is nothing you can do. I encourage you to check in, empathize and support the individual who experienced the microaggression. You may want to access disclosure and reporting pathways, such as an Equity Office, to disclose what you witnessed or experienced. Some offices, such as OID, may allow for anonymous reporting for individuals who do not feel safe enough to do so. You may want to reach out to trusted friends or Faculty Members for support, and to find ways to address this through training/programs that can be offered to students and staff.  

Experiencing microaggressions can be scary, hurtful, and can bring upon feelings of alienation and invalidation. Interrupting and stopping microaggressions from occurring can prevent the perpetuation of racism and discrimination within our academic and work environments. To learn more about this initiative and how to practice the CARES model, visit the University of Toronto’s Microaggressions and Allyship Campaign page.

Edited by Emily Vecchiarelli & Curtis D'Hollander

References

1. Hollingsworth DW, Cole AB, O'Keefe VM, Tucker RP, Story CR, Wingate LR. Experiencing racial microaggressions influences suicide ideation through perceived burdensomeness in African Americans. J Couns Psychol. 2017 Jan; 64(1):104-111.

2. Walls ML, Gonzalez J, Gladney T, Onello E. Unconscious biases: racial microaggressions in American Indian health care. J Am Board Fam Med. 2015;28(2):231-239.

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