Microaggressions in the Magnet Bubble

by Sasha Vesensky and Doris Wang for Silver Chips

Since its inception in 1985, marginalized students in Blair’s Magnet program have faced discriminatory comments from their peers. The program was created as a separate academic space for students, but because of that isolation, discrimination can be perpetuated.

As a student in the Magnet during the 1990s, Acting Assistant Principal Rahman Culver experienced an entrenched system that alienated students of color, with offensive behaviors passed off as jokes. “A lot of times, alienation presented itself under the guise of humor,” Culver said. “There was a lot of satire at the expense of Black and brown students.”

Today, similar issues persist—minority students in the program often deal with microaggressions and outright bigotry from their fellow students. Magnet alumna Anika reflected on her time at Blair, where she was targeted by misogynistic comments from several other students. “There were always a lot of comments made toward me, specifically [about] how I only got into certain [colleges] because I was a woman,” she said, adding that minority students endured similar behavior. “In my year, there were very few Black and Hispanic students in our program, and they did not feel like they had a space in the program or were allowed to kind of speak on these issues, because other people would comment on them only getting into the program because of their race,” she said.

Openly hostile comments are not the only issue. Much more common are microaggressions, which take place regularly and have a fair amount of plausible deniability, making them more difficult to combat. Blair Magnet junior Quinn, among other female Magnet students, feels as though many boys in the program treat girls as less competent. “The two of us [girls were] working on our role in a project. And [our male partner] was trying to micromanage [us],” she said. “It kind of felt like we were being pushed out of our roles because he didn’t think we were capable.”

The code of conduct cannot effectively deal with microaggressions like these, and according to Blair Magnet coordinator Peter Ostrander, it is up to teachers to manage instances of microaggressions that arise in the classroom. “We have to deal with those sorts of things and it’s really [about] making sure that the teachers in the classroom are aware that those things go on, and are looking for it,” he said. But teachers cannot always be aware of everything that every student says in their classroom. If the code of conduct cannot handle the microaggressions students frequently experience, administration must find an alternate method of resolution. 

Ostrander explained that the current code of conduct emphasizes educating when an incident arises. But when most students are already aware that their behavior is problematic, simply telling them that their actions are wrong is not enough. Blair Magnet senior Natalia has overheard outright misogynistic comments from boys in the Magnet who actually acknowledged the sexist nature of their remarks. “They were like, ‘we’re so tired of this women are better than men propaganda,’” Natalia alleged. “They were [also] like, ‘I’m gonna be a little misogynistic right now and say it: men are better than women. They’re smarter, and this and that.’”

Art by Chikara Yamagishi for Silver Chips

Of course, issues of discrimination at Blair are not limited to the Magnet. But due to the isolated nature of the program, in which students share most courses up to junior year, problematic behavior is normalized within an echo chamber. “I think when you have a group of people together for any reason ... [it’s] kind of like a bubble, so I think certain behaviors can become normalized,” Blair junior Mary said.

This insularity not only perpetuates existing issues but because of the small community, students may feel reluctant to report their peers for harmful comments and microaggressions. “A lot of people recognize that [offensive behavior is] a bad thing and are very uncomfortable with it,” Quinn said. “But because of the fact that we have to see these people for four years ... none of us want to say anything and burn bridges.”

Blair administration and teachers in the program have started making an effort to combat these issues. Magnet teacher Elizabeth Glenn created the Analysis of Equity and Identity in STEM class with Culver to offer an elective that discusses inclusion in STEM. They decided not to make the course mandatory, as Glenn believes that while a mandatory class could inform students about the impact of their comments, the course currently provides a safe space for students who choose to take it. “Is it better to provide the space for students that need [it] or force the space to everybody?” Glenn said.

Lessons like these could open up more conversation about this topic and educate students about the impact of their remarks beyond the surface level. While it is encouraged by administration, there is no requirement for Magnet teachers to include lessons on inclusivity in class, and it is up to teachers how to include it in their curriculums. “Mr. Ostrander ... [is] working with teachers to try to promote inclusivity in [Magnet] classes,” Blair Diversity and Inclusion Instructional Coordinator Neha Singhal explained. “But I don’t think it’s a set rule fo all teachers.”

Moving forward, the administration should work on developing accessible reporting channels—such as an online resource with access posted in every classroom and guaranteed anonymity—that respect and protect students’ social dynamics. Additionally, incorporating lessons on equity in STEM would open up conversations about challenges that different students face within the Magnet program. A well-rounded education includes more than data sets, coding, and experimental labs—it must involve understanding the value of other people and their unique experiences.

Published in Silver Chips January 2024, Page B3 (issuu)