Triggers

An offhand comment in a class discussion or a university policy that seems inoffensive to many people can cause an individual to feel diminished, threatened, discounted, attacked, or stereotype. This "trigger" is an emotional response; while the individual does not feel personally threatened, an aspect of the person's social identity (or the social identity of members of another social group) feels violated.

Triggers are not generic; a statement that elicits no emotional response in some people may produce strong emotions in others. Examples of statements that can trigger emotional responses for some individuals are:

  • "I don't see differences; people are just people to me."
  • "If everyone just worked hard, they could achieve."
  • "I think people of color are just blowing things out of proportion."

One's emotional response can include anger, confusion, hurt, fear, surprise, and embarrassment. Some responses are more effective than others (and some may be more effective or appropriate in some situations than others). Students can be introduced to the concept of triggers, prompted to identify their reactions to triggers, and encouraged to choose responses that are most useful to them. Responses to triggers include:

  • Avoidance- Avoiding future encounters and withdrawing emotionally from people or situations that trigger us.
  • Silence- Not responding to the situation although it is upsetting, not saying or doing anything.
  • Misinterpreting- Feeling on guard and expecting to be triggered, we misinterpret something said and are triggered by our misinterpretation, not the words.
  • Attacking- Responding with the intent to lash back or hurt whoever has triggered us.
  • Internalization- Taking in the trigger, believing it to be true.
  • Confusion- Feeling angry, hurt, or offended, but not sure why we feel that way or what to do about it.
  • Naming- Identifying what is upsetting us to the triggering person or organization.
  • Confronting- Naming what is upsetting us to the triggering person or organization and demanding that the behavior or policy be changed.
  • Surprise- Responding to the trigger in an unexpected way, such as reacting with constructive humor that names the trigger and makes people laugh.
  • Discretion- Because of the dynamics of the situation (power imbalances, fear of physical retribution), deciding not to address the trigger at this time but at some way at some other time.

Adapted from Griffin , Pat (1997). Introductory module for the single issue courses. In Teaching for diversity and social justice: A sourcebook , Adams, Maurianne, Bell , Lee Ann, and Griffin , Pat, eds. New York : Routledge, pp. 78-79.