Social Justice Series: Recognizing Microaggressions at Camp

Janessa Schilmoeller
September 2017
Social Just Series - artwork

This article is part of Camping Magazine’s series on social justice, exploring social issues in the context of individual camps and the camp community as a whole as a way to spark further conversation and inspire positive change.
Contact Ann Gillard (anngillard@gmail.com) if you would like to participate or contribute to this series.

Summer camp is supposed to be a place where kids make lifelong friendships, explore new ideas, and build up their self-confidence in a supportive environment removed from the pressures of everyday life. Every child should feel supported, appreciated, and inspired by their counselors.

In reality, however, even the most well-intentioned of counselors can let their own biases affect how they interact with campers. And when our biases dictate the way we talk to and about campers, sometimes without even realizing it, the impact can be detrimental to the campers’ entire experience.

Psychologist Derald Wing Sue, PhD (2010), describes these everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages, as microaggressions. Microaggressions can be intentional or unintentional, and target persons based solely upon their marginalized group identity, such as gender, race, religion, ability, or sexuality. The best way to avoid the negative impact of microaggressions at camp is to train your staff to identify and address them throughout the summer.

In 2016, I became the camp director of an international, full-scholarship leadership program committed to helping young people grow intellectually, ethically, and globally, specifically through the appreciation of diversity, expansion of intellectual horizons, and leadership in the service of others. To ensure that all 120 of our campers from over 25 countries and ten US states feel welcome at our camp, I try my best to hire a diverse staff team and equip that team with the tools to effectively support our culturally and linguistically diverse campers.

It would be naive to assume that a diverse team alone is intrinsically capable of effectively mentoring youth from every cultural background. As a white, heterosexual, cisgender female, I am not going to be exclusively interacting with other white, heterosexual, gender-conforming female campers. Similarly, I cannot assume a black counselor from South Carolina will easily relate to a Muslim camper from Ghana based solely on race, any more than I can assume I will get along with a female camper from my own state simply because we are the same gender. Given the many intricate layers of our identities, it is important that even camps that are affiliated with a single religion, gender, or cultural group still provide multicultural training for their staff.

It would be impossible to train an entire staff team to be culturally competent in all the cultures represented in our program in just one week. In fact, it may be impossible to train anyone to be fully competent in another culture. However, I can train my counselors to be culturally responsive to the needs of campers, starting by identifying the subtle insults based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, gender, or other marginalized status that are most likely to occur during everyday camp life.

Outlined here are steps we take in our training session that might help you create one of your own.

Creating Space for the Conversation

Before diving into an in-depth workshop on microaggressions, ground rules must be set. In our camp, we devote one evening to setting ground rules and group expectations for the summer. The session consists of three key questions:

  1. What do counselors expect of each other?
  2. What do counselors expect from the leadership team?
  3. What does the leadership team expect from the counselors?

What do we need from each other for each of us to be successful? These questions are posted around the room and we rotate stations, filling in expectations on each appropriate poster. The responses to these questions symbolize a contract between counselors to uphold these expectations throughout the summer. The purpose of the activity is to create group norms that will facilitate a safe space for open dialogue and feedback among staff.

If the concept of safe space is new to your counselors, try leading a more explicit session around the topic, as we do with our campers during the first few days of camp using the following questions as a guide:

  1. What is a safe space? What does it look like? Smell like? Sound like? Feel like? Taste like?
  2. What are the signs of a safe space? What are everyday indicators that we have created a safe space at camp?
  3. How do we get there? How do we actively create safe space at camp?

Safe space is not always comfortable. In fact, the environment you create should allow participants to step well out of their comfort zones, knowing that they can trust in the community enough to share personally and challenge perspectives about important issues. Counselors and campers should actively remind each other of the group norms throughout the summer to ensure the safe space continues to evolve.

The Activity

With our group contract posted on the walls behind us, I start the session with two great videos from the She Knows Media workshop guide on microaggressions. We begin with the YouTube video I, too, am Harvard, a campaign highlighting microaggressions experienced on campus and sharing the voices of marginalized black students. This video is a good fit because most of our counselors are college students, and they are better able to connect with the examples of microaggressions in a setting they understand.

Next, we watch a few short clips from the Australian campaign, The Invisible Discriminator, which highlights the negative mental health impact of microaggressions toward marginalized populations. As roughly half of our campers and staff come from outside the United States, I want to emphasize that microaggressions are an international problem. The Invisible Discriminator series also provides examples of several nonverbal microaggressions, which transcend language barriers and linguistic nuances of some verbal examples in the other videos.

After the videos, we define microaggressions as a group and provide a handout with a written definition of microaggressions and several examples. Based on this definition, using sticky notes, everyone is asked to write down a microaggression that has personally happened to them, they have witnessed happen to someone else, or they have directed at someone themselves. The responses are anonymous and are written on a poster by the leader to protect that anonymity.

We break into small groups to discuss these questions:

  1. Were you surprised by any of the statements on the walls? Why or why not?
  2. Where have you heard these microaggressions before? If you feel comfortable, share your experience with one of the listed microaggressions or others.
  3. What impact do you think microaggressions have on individuals?
  4. Discuss the interaction between intent and impact when it comes to microaggressions — does one outweigh the other?

After discussing the questions, each group sorts the statements and their underlying assumption or message in a t-chart. We use the Underlying Assumptions of Microaggressions Chart provided by the Anti-Defamation League, but you can easily make your own table on poster board. Counselors are encouraged to add microaggressions to the chart that they might see at camp, either between staff, campers, or both.

Examples of Microaggressions

Microaggression

Underlying Assumption / 
Hidden Meaning

Being mistaken for another person in the same racial group
  • Example: A counselor calls a camper from Korea by the name of a camper from Japan and shrugs it off saying, “I always get them confused. They just all look the same!”
  • People of the same race are all the same
  • Your culture is not valued
  • Denial of ethnic differences
One camper asks a camper from another country or a US camper of color, 
  • “Where were you born? You speak English really well!”
  • You are a foreigner
  • You don’t belong here
  • You are not US American
Campers give compliments based on a camper’s surprisingly high intellect
Examples:
  • “I didn’t expect you to be so skilled at _______."
  • “Wow, you are really articulate!” is said to a person of color.
  • It is unusual for someone of your race or nationality to be intelligent or skilled in that subject
  • Most people of color are not as well-spoken

We then come back together as a large group to brainstorm strategies to address microaggressions during the summer. In an international camp like ours, many campers are meeting individuals who are black, white, Muslim, Jewish, etc., for the first time. Out of a genuine desire to learn about the different cultures represented at camp, it wouldn’t be unheard of for a 15-year-old to ask, “Is Palestine a state in Israel?” or to say, “I didn’t know there were black people in Sweden.”

I would argue that almost all the microaggressions that happen at camp are done unintentionally and unbeknownst to the aggressor. However, these repetitive slights can have a very real and painful impact on the mental health and well-being of the camper at the receiving end of the aggressions (Nadal, Griffin, Wong, Hamit, & Rasmus, 2014).

Countering Microaggressions

At a camp that emphasizes cultural exchange, there may be a fine line between what one camper views as a genuine question about another culture and another camper experiences as an attack on their identity. When these microaggressions occur, counselors are put in the tough place of both validating and standing up for marginalized campers while simultaneously providing a learning opportunity for the “aggressor.” Rather than calling out campers in a shameful manner, we want to utilize safe space and call campers in to a discussion about the impact of their statements by asking for clarification of intent, posing questions to help the campers identify the problematic impact of the statement, and rephrasing the question in a more constructive way.

Dr. Sue (2010), author of Microaggressions in Everyday Life, recommends five actions we can take to counteract microaggressions at the individual level:

  1. Learn from constant vigilance of your own biases and fears.
  2. Experiential reality is important in interacting with people different than you in terms of race, culture, and ethnicity.
  3. Don’t be defensive.
  4. Be open to discussing your own attitudes and biases and how they may have hurt others or revealed bias on your part.
  5. Be an ally: Stand personally against all forms of bias and discrimination.

Lessons Learned

For many of my counselors, this is their first time confronting their role in everyday discrimination.

To connect with a broader audience, especially counselors who are skeptical of the activity, try to guide the small groups to start with examples close to home. Former program coordinator, Yena Purmasir, suggests that gender microaggressions seem to be a relatable topic because sexism is a form of discrimination that is more easily explained across cultures. You could also start by examining privilege and discrimination based on nationality, sexual orientation, ability, or socioeconomic status. Once counselors can find an example of a microaggression that clicks with experiences in their personal lives, it is easier to make connections with examples that affect individuals of other identities.

Despite the challenges, the microaggressions training serves as a foundation for staff throughout the summer. After ten weeks at camp, many counselors still reference the trainings on microaggressions, among other multicultural-focused sessions, as one of the most useful parts of staff training.

Our staff training session on microaggressions is only the beginning of a series of both camper- and counselor-led activities that happen over the course of the summer around safe space, LGBT rights around the world, racial justice, human rights, privilege and allyship, intercultural communication, and other social justice topics. The microaggression training sets the stage for the level of cultural sensitivity brought to these activities throughout the season.

There is still much work to be done to build upon our foundation and discover new ways to reach staff who are unfamiliar and/or disengaged from social justice, but as Purmasir reiterated to me at the end of the summer, “the content at the core of these sessions is deeply important and should not be eschewed just because not everyone will ‘get it.’”

Tips for Training a Culturally Responsive Staff Team

  1. Establish a community conducive to dialogue and feedback.
  2. Don’t go it alone. Reach out to organizations or universities in the local area who do this work professionally and ask them to lead a session for you. Do you have counselors who are engaged in social justice work at their university? Ask them to help. If not, go out and start recruiting them.
  3. Lean in to the conversation. If counselors are engaged and following the group norms (again, it might not be comfortable), let the conversation flow where it needs to go to get to the root of these tough conversations.
  4. Acknowledge your mistakes and ask for feedback.
  5. Give it time. Not everyone is going to “get it” the first time, or the second time, or maybe even the third time. Remember, it only takes one counselor at a time to make a lasting impact on the development of a camper.

References

Colgan-Snyder, G. (2011, September/October). Attracting diverse staff and campers. Camping Magazine. Retrieved from ACAcamps.org/resource-library/camping-magazine/attracting-diverse-staff-campers

Nadal, K.L., Griffin, K.E., Wong, Y., Hamit, S., & Rasmus, M. (2014). The impact of racial microaggressions on mental health: Counseling implications for patients of color. Journal of Counseling and Development, 92, 57–66.

Sue, D.W. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, gender, and sexual orientation. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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Janessa Schilmoeller is the director of Camp Rising Sun, an international, full-scholarship leadership program operated by the Louis August Jonas Foundation. She is a professional educator, holding an MS from the multicultural education program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Her research interests include multicultural service-learning, intercultural and experiential learning, and critical pedagogy. Janessa has spent over six summers working at camps serving students from ages four to 17. Questions can be directed to janessa.schilmoeller@gmail.com.