A Survivors Triggered Response: #Trigger Warning vs Disclaimers in College & Universities

 A Survivors Triggered Response: #Trigger Warning vs Disclaimers in College & Universities

I recently found myself getting triggered by these very interesting articles about “Trigger Warnings” shared on Facebook and this blog is a triggered response by me, both a survivor and student. First I will provide you with a quick look into what is being said and done in case this is your first time hearing about this or you want to know more about the topic, then i will give you my response. “Trigger Warnings” is yet another label created to refer to talking about “the new resolution to mandate warnings for triggering content in academic settings that universities like the University of Michigan, Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, Oberlin in Ohio, Rutgers in New Jersey, Scripps in California and Wellesley in Massachusetts have started to adapt.

“Should trigger warnings be part of syllabuses and classrooms across higher education warning students about graphic violence or sensitive issues including rape, suicide, abuse, or other subjects that might undermine the mental health of students or dismiss the experience and impact of those in the room.

Filmmaker and writer Aishah Shahidah Simmons, a rape survivor who teaches at Temple University in Philadelphia, said she is careful to tell students on the first day of class and in her syllabus that “we are getting ready to delve into some really difficult, painful information here,” such as sexual violence and police brutality. Simmons also gives them lists of resources for emotional support and has arranged private viewings for students who are afraid to watch a film in class. But she worries that trigger warnings, a term she does not use, could stifle free speech, if taken too far. “Sometimes, I think you can get triggered by trigger warnings,” she said.

The mandate is one of the many debates and responses happening right now in the violence against women movement today. From the white house to grassroots organizations a lot is being done to bring awareness to sexual assault, rape, domestic violence, dating and relationship abuse in our communities, homes and institutions we work and go to school in but is it enough? Students teachers and organizers are once again attempting to bring awareness to this issue prevalent in academia for many years through articles, videos, thesis, books and sharing their personal experiences at countless speak outs, rallies and protest as well as survivors themselves doing workshops and trainings.

The link below is an examination of sexual assault at Columbia University http://theblueandwhite.org/2014/02/11/accessible-prompt-and-equitable/

In addition, published on Apr 29, 2014 President Obama, Vice President Biden, Daniel Craig, Benicio Del Toro, Dulé Hill, Seth Meyers and Steve Carell create this video for youtube on putting an end to sexual assault. http://www.whitehouse.gov/1is2many. Most recently, 55 colleges under Title IX are under investigation for the way they have handled sexual violence claims in their schools. Below you will find a list of resources of other articles and references.



I find myself getting triggered by all these trigger warning articles. When people read this they will probably say oh, triggered in a bad way, but triggers are not always bad. For me getting triggered in this case means that these articles prompted me to write from a survivor and student perspective both a student of life as well as student in an academic setting about what I think. I remember sitting in classrooms during my masters degree and being triggered by both the disclaimers that the teachers gave when we were going to have a “challenging” topic or conversation. What I quickly noticed was that the “disclaimer” was not about protecting the students in the room that may get triggered, it was almost like a statement that officially was an open season for all the white students to be racist, classist, sexist etc with no one managing the conversation. As a student of Public Health, I would say that some of the classrooms were more  a public health hazard to my mind, body and spirit than anything else as I kept finding myself more often than not surviving classrooms than actually participating as a student in healthy debate. If I did speak up or out than I was pulled out and asked “ am I okay”, or would see the impact on my grade or how the teachers and students related to me as I was quickly labeled the trouble maker or angry “black” women.

In retrospect I am not even sure what is worse, the violence that students do to each other, the violence the  teachers let happen and or engages in themselves or the content of some of classes.

As a survivor of sexual assault, gender violence, domestic violence, and xenophobia I am myself am a walking trigger both as a triggerer because of who I am, what I say and how I show up in the multiple communities I am a part of ( lesbian, girl, curly “nappy”hair, Dominican, survivor, black etc) and as someone who walks around being triggered when she least expects it. For as many warnings that there are out there, I am never sure when I make the choice to read it anyway, to look anyway, to show up anyway, I never know what will trigger me. Sometimes I am sure that I do know and then that happens and it’s the other things I never thought of that triggers me.

As I get older it’s almost like I have lost my tolerance to any type of violence, verbal, physical, emotional and spiritual. I don’t see scary movies, I don’t see slavery or rape movies or violent movies/documentaries and more and more as an activist and organizer I find myself choosing what protest I attend or what issue I can take on because I can’t manage seeing police brutality or war and the impact of some types of injustice that I witness in these events and all over the world. Leaving myself wondering what type of privileged organizer am I and am I selling out?

Most recently, I have thought about how trauma and internalized oppression change over time with the amount of violence one experiences or witnesses and the healing that one has personally done. The problem is that it is never one size fits all. For 100 people witnessing and experiencing the same thing, you will get 100 more different stories, reactions and ways of being and surviving the impact. So when I critique films and classrooms and books. when I do workshops and training, telling my story all over the world, I think to myself who is critiquing or talking right now, the young person who went through this, the adult who is surviving this, the person in deep healing, my internalized oppression, the person who thinks this part of my life is complete, the one who doesn’t care or its protecting and defending herself, the little girl without a voice or the adult who found it?. From where am I going to speak right now and how will that speaking , this disclaimer or trigger warning coming from, who am I trying to protect? me or you or both? So the warning in my workshops, the disclaimer i put out is that I do not create safe space as a facilitator or teacher. Safe space instead is created by those participating in my work by keeping their word to the agreements they create about what they need to maximize their learning and who they are going to show up as in the process. We also talk about what self care and self accountability practices are people coming in with and that the group can count on to be used if there is any trigger or conflict or mis-communication or when trauma and internalized/interpersonal oppression show up . As a facilitator or teacher I can only manage peoples word. What happens often is that the teacher or facilitator is looked upon to manage a room of people in trauma who are getting triggered or triggering each other and when this doesn’t happen then the facilitator is blamed for not keeping safe space. The most empowering thing one can do for a survivor is create a space to hold accountability for how they show up, to bring awareness to their ways of being that are not aligned to who they are in the world instead is committed to continue to feed off the trauma.

Trigger warnings vs Disclaimers:

I think that this conversation is great, at least we are having it as we move into a more trauma informed world that is constantly creating models and theories for the very crimes, injustices and violence’s it produces day in and out. However, I find myself not concerned so much with whether there are warning that serve more as disclaimers for people to still show up however way they want to . Instead I want to know how people are holding themselves to account for what they continue to say and do and their impact on others?. I want to know what schools have in place to decrease sexual violence, rape, sexual assault, DV on their campuses?. How are teachers managing their classrooms or continuing to breed students that have no awareness and can talk out of their mouth totally self expressed without knowing who is in the room or frankly not caring what they say?. How are we managing conflict between ourselves? How are we managing communication and telling each other truths with compassion and love? What systems of accountability are their in place for teachers and students when they show up racist and violent? How can I hold myself accountable when I get triggered? How can I hold others accountable when I am not just getting triggered but when they are out right just being oppressive without the fear of getting punished?

Trigger Warnings vs Disclaimers :

I am not sure that they are any different. I have more questions than ever. Who decides what is a trigger warning? Does providing trigger warning deal with the sexist, racist and classist shit that is being said in the classrooms by both teachers and students?
What are students really asking when they are requesting trigger warnings ? I think we are finally trying to say see me , hear me I am in your classroom, I am here, I have right that you take me into consideration.
Survivors are everywhere, we are teachers, mothers, social workers, providers, advocates, activist, organizers, students, counselors and humans. We go to the very institutions that oppress us, research us, gentrify our communities, keep many of us out, that we will owe for the rest of our lives, racist, kicking our families out of their homes and disappearing mom and pop stores. That some of us will never attend or fight and loose our souls to graduate from in some of the most violent institutions ever made!

I think colleges need to have a trigger warning alright. A trigger warning for the institutional oppression and violence you will experience from some of its staff and its bureaucracy.


1. 1 is 2 Many PSA: 60 Second http://www.whitehouse.gov/1is2many

2.“Accessible, Prompt and Equitable”? An examination of sexual assault at Columbia By Anna Bahr http://theblueandwhite.org/2014/02/11/accessible-prompt-and-equitable/

3. 55 colleges under Title IX inquiry for their handling of sex violence claims http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/federal-government-releases-list-of-55-colleges-universities-under-title-ix-investigations-over-handling-of-sexual-violence/2014/05/01/e0a74810-d13b-11e3-937f-d3026234b51c_story.html

4. Trigger Warnings Become A Source of Conflict in Higher Education http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/26/trigger-warnings-higher-ed_n_5218838.html?utm_hp_ref=college

5. A.S Senate Passes Proposal to Label Trauma Provoking Academic Content http://dailynexus.com/2014-02-27/a-s-senate-passes-proposal-to-label-trauma-provoking-academic-content/

6. Trauma warnings move from Internet to Ivory Tower by Lisa Leff, Associated Press


7. On Trigger Warnings, Part I: In the Creative Writing Classroom | ENTROPY http://entropymag.org/on-trigger-warnings-part-i-in-the…/ 8. Fight Against Sexual Assault Holds Colleges to Account http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/04/us/fight-against-sex-crimes-holds-colleges-to-account.html?hp


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