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SDSU Students Fight Microaggressions

Submitted by: Semehar Ghebrekidan
Kaylen Larson

At South Dakota State University, student group I, Too, Am SDState aspires to conquer stereotypes on campus. This fall, the group continues its mission of educating students about microaggressions.

Semehar Ghebrekidan is a junior at South Dakota State University. She is Ethiopian, tall with straight, medium-length black hair. Since she was young, Ghebrekidan says she has had unwanted attention because of the different textures of her hair. She says she never thought of herself as different from other children, but others found her hair to be fascinating.

“Well for myself personally, I always get the ‘can I touch your hair?’ microaggression, and personally that always offended me because ever since I was a kid, I felt like a show and tell project whenever my hair was done a different way,” Ghebrekidan says. “If it was straight, if it was big and curly, people would just want to stick their hands in my hair. If it was braided, people would just want to stick their hands in my scalp as well. And it was just a weird feeling for me because I was never used to that.”  

Ghebrekidan says people still want to touch her hair because it is different. She changes her hairstyles frequently from curly to straight to braided. She classifies this attention as microaggression. The dictionary defines microaggressions as derogatory statements made by a dominating social group. They can be either intentional or unintentional. They tend to be verbal but also can be behavioral such as keeping distance from someone because one isn’t fond of they way they look.

Ghebrekidan and other students began to fight microaggressions by creating the I, Too, Am SDState campaign. The idea of I, Too, Am SDState first struck Ghebrekidan when she heard about I, Too, Am Harvard, a black student alliance group at Harvard University.

"Are you from the good Korea or the bad Korea?" -- A microaggression heard at SDSU

“Well it actually started when my cousin Sarah who goes to Harvard showed me I, Too, Am Harvard. And I looked at it and I was like, ‘Wow this is an amazing movement. I would love to do something like this here but a little bit different.' So instead of having only the Black Student Alliance as Harvard did, I wanted it to be anybody who would want to do it on campus,” Ghebrekidan says. “Because I want this campus to be more inclusive because SDSU very much, you’re in this group, you’re in this group, you’re in this group and that’s it. There’s no intermixing. And that’s what my mission was to make this school a more inclusive place for students - not only minority students, but every student to come together and talk about their similar interests.”

The group gathered students from different walks of life and took photos of students holding signs written with microaggressions they’ve personally received. The comments range from “You’re the whitest black girl I know” to “Are you from the good Korea or the bad Korea?”. Photos are on display in the Union, and on the I, Too, Am SDState Facebook page.

Submitted by: Semehar Ghebrekidan
Credit Kaylen Larson
This is one of the photos that was used in the I, Too, Am SDState campaign. Each subject wrote a microaggression they received personally. Photos are displayed in the SDSU Student Union and the I, Too, Am, SDState Facebook page.

I, Too, Am SDState supporter Ronnie Warren feels that the group provides relief for students who feel the brunt of microaggressions on a daily basis.

“It let me like get to express how I feel about certain things or let me express like something that I hold in a lot,” Warren says.

Warren and Ghebrekidan feel that the group addresses microaggressions that are not just prevalent to SDSU but to any student. They feel that microaggressions are a national issue.

“It is a big issue at SDSU, but I feel like it’s a big issue nationwide,” Warren says.

“I feel like it’s a big issue all around, not just through school systems but just in general,” Ghebrekidan says. “Like everyone’s heard of Ferguson and that’s just all presumed assumptions that every black male has a gun with him and is armed, and is a drug dealer, is doing something bad, is up to some type of mischief and that’s really where microaggressions really hurt the most.”

Submitted by: Semehar Ghebrekidan
Credit Kaylen Larson
I, Too, Am SDState attracts students from different walks of life. The group discusses microaggressions they've received and how to raise awareness against them.

Ghebrekidan says she wants to end microaggressions because those who receive the comments are fine the way they are. She believes that the issue needs to be recognized.

“It’s important because we need to make light on the situation,” Ghebrekidan says. “Everybody says it’s not that big of a deal, it’s not that big of a deal, there’s more problems in the world. Yes, there is more problems in the world, but if you think about, if every time there was a problem that was more important than the other problem, how many would we have under the covers?”

After beginning the campaign against microaggressions, I, Too, Am SDState received some positive feedback. They did come across some issues.

“Actually in May someone did steal our whole entire display in the Union that was in the Union area,” Ghebrekidan says. “So it was disheartening for few, not for me, because I was like okay, ‘this is an okay thing’ and they were like ‘how’s that okay?’, and I was like 'well, because, if you guys think about it, our movement is getting to someone who really doesn’t like it and is basically proving our point on why this is really important on our campus.’"

The display was later reprinted and replaced in the Union. Ghebrekidan says that the I, Too, Am SDState movement is more powerful when all I, Too, Am chapters combine their missions. Ghebrekidan recently traveled to Boston to attend the I, Too, Am Harvard conference. She says that the conference gave her a relief from microaggressions and a good learning experience.

“We had talked and it’s the same thing, a lot of people don’t talk about race, but then they’re racial,” Ghebrekidan says.

Ghebrekidan says, in the future, the group will focus on addressing microaggressions that are submitted through social media.