UN/FREEZE is a durational interactive performance piece and installation performed by Artist in Residence of the P. Lantz Initiative for Excellence in Education and the Arts, Kama La Mackerel, on Nov 23, 2017. UN/FREEZE is an engagement with the embodied reaction characteristic of marginalized experiences when facing micro-aggressions.

The term “racial microaggression” was first coined by psychiatrist, Chester Pierce, in the 1970s, and the notion was later further developed by Columbia University Psychology Professor, Derald Wing Sue, author of Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestation, Dynamics, and Impact (2010), Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation (2010), and Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race (2016). 

Microaggressions refer to commonplace, everyday verbal, behavioural or environmental slights, insults, indignities and denigrating hidden messages sent to certain individuals, typically marginalized people, because of their group membership (gender, race, dis/ability, class, body type etc.). Sue describes microaggressions as generally happening below the level of awareness of well-intentioned members of the dominant culture, as opposed to overt acts of bigotry and prejudice. Microaggressions include, amongst others, statements and actions that: 

— repeat or re-affirm stereotypes;
— subtly demean and/or humiliate and/or invalidate someone’s experience based identity; 
— position a dominant culture as “normal” and a minority one as aberrant or pathological; 
— express disapproval or discomfort with a minority group; 
— assume all minority group members are the same; 
— minimize the existence of discrimination against the minority group; 
— seek to deny the perpetrator’s own bias etc.

Whether intentional or not, microaggressions communicate hostile, degrading, humiliating, stressful and mentally demanding responses for people who experience them. Despite ongoing effort (such as McGill University’s Principal’s Task Force on Diversity, Excellence and Community Engagement) to render research and educational institutions safer for people with marginalized experiences, microaggressions still permeate academic institutions and McGill is no exception. The Deputy Provost Student Life and Learning’s Demographic Survey (2011) demonstrated that a significant number of students at McGill reported having experienced “discrimination by McGill students (or people who work at McGill) with respect to the following: language, disability, gender, sexual orientation, country of origin, ethnic/cultural background, religion).” 

In UN/FREEZE, I explore the embodied and emotional impacts of microaggressions through performance and installation. There are numerous studies that demonstrate the negative and chronic impacts of microaggressions on the mental health of people who experience them on an ongoing basis (there is a resource list below!), including PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), depression, isolation, lowered confidence and high levels of distress. The immediate reactions to microaggressions can be varied, ranging from anger to shaking, from shame to feeling silenced and disempowered, from surprise to denial. 

In this performance, I explore the embodied and emotional reaction of “freezing” when experiencing a microaggression: 

that moment when somebody 
whom you’re supposed to trust 
instrumentalizes your race 
so they can collect liberal points
feel good about themselves
or that meeting in a room of feminists
when you get misgendered 5 times
and nobody seems to notice
or care

so you look down
you dissociate
you run away from the crime scene
so you don’t have to see 
your body traced on the ground
with a taut neck hard like rubber
two knots lodged in your shoulder blades
needles in each of your ligaments

you freeze.
you freeze.

no matter how many times
you have shouted angry slogans 
at anti-racist demos and rallies all over the city
no matter how many times
you have eloquently explained “intersectionality”
to an auditorium of 350 millennials 
no matter all the 101s, 201s, 301s you have facilitated
your tongue twists itself like a snake
clogged in your throat
your body grasps for air

you freeze.

Freezing is a very common reaction to microaggressions; one may freeze from the combination of many reasons such as: shock, surprise, feeling disempowered, feeling silenced, as a coping mechanism, and/or because one is in a power dynamic with the person who perpetrates the microaggression and responding would feel too risky. 

UN/FREEZE is an interactive performance and installation that seeks to explore the embodied and emotional reaction of freezing. In this durational piece, I occupy and move through a space that is also an installation made of cages constructed out of “chicken wires.” I wear chicken wires around my body to restrict my movement, I move extremely slowly, slowing down time to instil the discomfort of freezing. This durational piece seeks to explore and translate the hardness, pain and discomfort of the marginalized body in spaces that are not safe. As I move slowly through the constraint of the wires, I position my body in postures of discomfort. I mould my body to represent the weight and exhaustion that one needs to carry when their marginalized and already hurting bodies enter elitist spaces rooted in ableist, imperialist, white supremacist, misogynist legacies. 

The body-in-installation creates an ongoing interaction between my body and the metal cages and thick black layers that layer and structure my body. The thick layers I carry seek to honour ancestral strength and resilience and the contemporary resistance of marginalized people who build thick skins to be able to survive. This performance-in-installation allows me to use the multiple textures of hair, skin, fabric and metal to capture the complexity of distress one can experience when dealing with microaggressions (which is why they are not so “micro”). The performance-in-installation takes place between two sets of doors, in a liminal space, at the cusp of the entrance/exit of the Faculty of Education at McGill University. 

The audience is invited to participate in the performance by writing an anecdote, a story, a testimony of a time when they experienced a microaggression within an institution. They are then invited to roll their testimony, to tie it with a black piece of fabric and a piece of chicken coop wire, and to come into the performance space. Once in the performance space, they are invited to think of the narrative that they wrote, to take a deep breath and then breathe out and let go of everything which they need to let go. They then let go of their written testimony by leaving it in the installation. As the performance happens, the installation evolves and grows heavier as each of the participant lets go of their testimonies and feelings. 

After the two hours of the durational piece, I leave the performance space, but the material (cages, layers, testimonies etc.) stay behind as an installation. In the same ways that the impacts of microaggressions can be long-lasting and have negative long-term health repercussions, the installation stays as a trace, representing the marginalized body, marking a site where violence happened, asking us not to forget, reminding us of our duty to care, to heal, to repair, to do better in holding ourselves accountable.

My hope, in doing this performance, is to engage the audiences of faculty, staff and students at McGill with the embodied and emotional impacts of microaggressions in everyday life; so that every one of us pays more attention to each other, and so that we can start putting in the work of being more caring and supportive towards each other, to make sure that we can all feel as safe as possible. 

More reading on micro-aggressions:

Micro-aggression and Insidious Trauma: https://evolutioncounseling.com/micro-aggression-and-insidious-trauma/

The Impact of Racial Microaggressions on Mental Health: Counseling Implications for Clients of Color: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/j.1556-6676.2014.00130.x/full 

Microaggressions and the Enduring Mental Health Disparity: Black Americans at Risk for Institutional Betrayal: http://dynamic.uoregon.edu/jjf/institutionalbetrayal/gomez2015.pdf 

21 Racial Microaggressions You Hear On A Daily Basis: https://www.buzzfeed.com/hnigatu/racial-microagressions-you-hear-on-a-daily-basis?utm_term=.hila8qPgr1#.leZEbyJBKM 

No, You’re Not Imagining It: 3 Ways Racial Microaggressions Sneak into Our Lives: http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/02/ways-racial-microaggressions-sneak-in/

Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/microaggressions-in-everyday-life/201010/racial-microaggressions-in-everyday-life 

Is It You or Is It Racist? The Insidious Impact of Microaggressions on Mental Health: https://psychologybenefits.org/2013/07/31/is-it-you-or-is-it-racist-the-insidious-impact-of-microaggressions-on-mental-health/ 

What Goes Through Your Mind: On Nice Parties and Casual Racism:http://the-toast.net/2016/01/05/what-goes-through-your-mind-casual-racism/