IM T-shirts are a misogynistic microaggression
This past fall, I began my first semester at MIT as a PhD candidate in the Chemical Engineering Department. I joined the department’s C level intramural basketball team and looked forward to returning to a sport I loved in a fun, low-pressure environment. One game, we arrived and met our opponents: a team of undergraduates — all men — called the Burton Third Bombers, all wearing matching orange shirts. On the back of each shirt, each player had their own nickname. Almost all were vulgar. Some were mostly inoffensive, though gross and unnecessary: “Autofellatio,” “Fuck o’ the Irish,” and “FLPenis.” But some were downright disgusting and misogynistic, such as “Pig Fucker” and “Alyssa Blows Me.” We have since seen more around campus: “Blackout Blowjob” and “Pussy Paranoia.”
When I first saw the shirts, I was shocked and infuriated. I expressed my feelings to my teammates and waited until the end of the game to approach the other team. After we finished playing, I pulled one of the opposing players aside, and a few of his teammates lingered around us to listen. I told them the shirts were offensive and unwarranted, and while they seemed like decent people, it was not reflected in these shirts. They never said “sorry,” but rather mumbled some “ok’s” and walked away. After the game, a group of them were exiting the building and did not realize I was walking behind them. I overheard them laughing about how funny the shirts were and how much they loved wearing them.
Our team reported the incident to Title IX. We then received an apology email from their team. They said they were “…deeply apologetic” and acknowledged that they previously had not considered “…how [the shirts] might make others feel.” But they also said, “From now on we're going to encourage all members of the floor to think critically about wearing their shirts out in public.” They obviously missed the point of our complaint entirely. The shirts should be thrown out; there is no appropriate situation in which they are acceptable to wear. I was then extremely angry to see that the floor continued to wear the shirts during the intramural three-on-three league during IAP and around the MIT campus.
These students were given ample opportunities to learn from the experience and to eradicate the problem. First, when I spoke to them; then, when they apologized; and finally, in their future games. In all three instances, they failed to properly apologize, did not attempt to even remotely understand the issue and the consequences of their actions, and chose not to end the behavior moving forward.
While the word has been twisted by some due to its copious use over recent years, this is a prime example of a microaggresion. I came to have fun while playing a meaningless basketball game, but instead, I had to play side-by-side with these boys wearing misogynistic T-shirts, all while they laugh about it. Imagine how a person who has been a victim of sexual misconduct might react in the presence of a person wearing these T-shirts. More specifically, what about the impact on this hypothetical person’s performance on an exam after having just seen the T-shirts? We must recognize the fundamental power play these men are using by wearing these shirts, a power play for which I cannot think of an equivalent that women could wield if they even wanted to.
I am disappointed in the GRTs, professors, and peers of these students who have allowed these shirts to be worn for months, if not longer. There have been many initiatives and much work done on an administrative level at MIT to foster an atmosphere of diversity and inclusion, but instances like these threaten the progress that has been made. Such microaggressions are not unique to MIT. Issues relating to misogyny, patriarchal power structures, heteronormativity, and sexism are all on the forefront of international conversation. Instances like these — while they may seem minor or harmless — are both products and foundations of larger actions and overall societal problems of this nature.
MIT is obviously a very stressful environment for its entire community, and I believe that the extremely demanding nature of the academics and work prevents many of us from deeply engaging in extracurriculars devoted to topics such as race, gender, or socioeconomic equality. I urge students to think critically about their environment and the world at large, and hopefully conclude that many of these issues deserve their attention despite their busy lives. Starting clubs (and supporting those that exist), bringing in speakers, and just having more conversations about these difficult topics can do a lot. And while it is a whole topic of its own, I urge the administration to think deeply about what kind of people — not just students or researchers — they want their institution to produce and how the environment they have created is supporting or hindering holistic qualities and advances beyond STEM.