Choose a Better Word

The Housing & Residential Education campaign is aimed at having people avoid using words or phrases that can offend others.


The three day campaign involved using a large chalkboard where students wrote down words that can offend. Photos: Laura Kneski | USF News


By Laura Kneski

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (April 3, 2013) – If a teacher assigns more homework, “that’s so gay.” If a pencil breaks, then, “that’s so retarded.”


Phrases like these are called “microaggressions,” which are “subtle verbal and nonverbal slights, insults, or belittling messages directed toward an individual who can identify within that group. It is often used unconsciously, committed by well-intended folks who are unaware of their underlying message,” according to Housing & Residential Education at the University of South Florida.


As part of recent Choose a Better Word campaign to combat microaggressions, a large, tri-fold chalkboard was set up in several locations. Students were asked to add to the “Wall of Expression” any word that struck them as offensive. It did not matter if the word had been used to describe the student, if the student had used it before or if the person simply viewed it as commonly out-of-context.


Within hours, the boards – resembling a sort of misplaced display of graffiti – were filled with words.


Housing & Residential Education put on the campaign in order to show how impactful words can be. Andros 1 Residence Life Coordinator Eric Garrison explained that this was the second year that they have put on Choose a Better Word, and the Wall was utilized this time in order to allow for more active participation.


During the three day campaign, the Wall was displayed in front of Juniper-Poplar, Bull’s Den or Fresh Food Company. That was so that students could see that their own peers have been affected by microaggression.


The evening events held the education portion of Choose a Better Word. Housing & Residential Education staff and participants were able to share their experiences with these words, as well as the difficulty that comes with taking action. Kosove and Castor lawn was filled with participants as people took the microphone and shared quotes, poems and experiences of oppression.


It was a night of expression.


One male student shared in a discussion that he wasn’t sure how the belittling synonyms for “girl” became so common within his friend group. Another shared her experience with the term “gay.” The hall decorations that she had set up were called such, and in turn she confronted the speakers by saying, “’they are happy, but I know that that wasn’t what you meant,’” and urged them to use a word that better described how they felt about her decoration choice.


More stories were shared, including some having to do with family and fraternity brothers. The theme that came through was that it is common for people to feel uncomfortable by microaggressions, and that many terms frequently used fall into that category.


“That’s so lame,” can be just as offensive as, “that’s so retarded.”


Even the term “bromance” had been drawn on the board by a student who felt it irritating that he had to strictly label a close friendship with another male as non-homosexual. Otherwise, it seems, a hug could be misinterpreted as a more-than-friendly gesture.


Another shared consensus during a discussion was that, if the microaggression is coming from someone close enough where it is understood that no harm was intended by the word, it feels more acceptable to let it slide. Housing & Residential Education staff members agreed, but reiterated the fact that in public, you can’t be too sure of what might or might not offend someone.


“It’s being aware of who you’re around and who’s hearing you say it,” Maple Residence Life Coordinator Anthony Varner said.


One of the slides in the presentation described microaggression as “like carbon monoxide: invisible but potentially lethal.” The damage done to a person may not be seen right away.


Some microaggressions and their impacts were shared with the groups and handled individually, including:


-       That’s so ghetto,” which implies that people from urban areas or lower socioeconomic statuses are inferior because the phrase means “tasteless, whack, tacky, awkward or messed up.”


-       “Those illegal aliens,” makes it seem as though undocumented citizens do not belong or are lesser than those with documented citizenship. One student at a discussion shared that a high school friend lied about her college plans because she was ashamed of being undocumented.


-       The misuse of “rape” minimizes the acts of sexual assault, in some cases making victims feel as though they cannot talk about their experience because it has been equated to situations such as not doing well on an exam (“that exam raped me.”)


-       “Look like a terrorist” is a phrase that has become popular in recent years following the 9/11 attacks. This phrase cannot only offend people of Muslim and Arab heritage, but it is also inaccurate as terrorists can look like any type of person. The Oklahoma City Bomber was Caucasian, and may be considered a terrorist.


Juniper Hall Residence Life Coordinator Alyssa Dunlap said that working society toward using better words is difficult. “Being an ally is earned. It is not something that you label yourself.”


It is all part of the Action Continuum, or the process that people go through to realize and prevent microaggressions:

1)     Supporting Oppression

2)     Confronting Oppression

3)     Denying/Ignoring your own privilege

4)     Recognizing your privilege, but not taking action.

5)     Recognizing your privilege, and taking action.

6)     Educating yourself.

7)     Educating others.

8)     Supporting/Encouraging others to speak out.

9)     Initiating and preventing.


Standing against friends, family and society is a difficult task. It is also a tough subject to speak upon, seeing as many listeners are guilty of using microaggression themselves. To relieve some of the tension, the video, “How To Tell People They Sound Racist” was shown to distinguish the difference between the “You just sounded racist” discussion and the “You are a racist” discussion. The former is effective in the moment, while the latter is accusatory.


Being an ally takes time because microaggression may not seem like an issue to some of its users. That’s why it is a daily process, and as Castor Residence Life Coordinator David Hibbler, Jr. said, “If you say that you’ve achieved it, you haven’t achieved it.”