Colleges Are Defining ‘Microaggressions’ Really Broadly

“Microaggressions,” usually defined as inadvertently offensive things members of majority groups say or do to members of marginalized groups in everyday life, are popping up increasingly

“Now, at the most basic level, microaggressions certainly exist and can certainly be hurtful — especially, it seems, for students of color on predominantly or traditionally white campuses. Students, particularly those for whom the diversity of their college campus is novel, really do say dumb things to one another.”

 

“Microaggressions,” usually defined as inadvertently offensive things members of majority groups say or do to members of marginalized groups in everyday life, are popping up increasingly as people debate campus free speech, political correctness, and so on. But because the national conversation on these subjects is so overheated and dumb, it’s been difficult to discuss microaggressions as a concept unto themselves rather than as a prop or a cudgel in the broader culture wars.

That’s why a front-page article in Wednesday’s New York Times was so helpful: Rather than the speculative bloviating that has been par for the course in this discussion, it offers some actual reporting on how microaggresions are being used to teach college students about diversity and tolerance. The story, by Stephanie Saul, centers on her reporting trip to Clark University, a progressive liberal-arts school in Worcester, Massachusetts, that has embraced microaggressions as a pedagogical tool for incoming freshmen. And if what’s going on there is any indication, microaggressions are being defined so broadly and so subjectively that students who are exposed to them are likely to come away very, very confused about what constitutes acceptable speech on campus — and campus disciplinary systems could get seriously gummed up in the years to come.

Now, at the most basic level, microaggressions certainly exist and can certainly be hurtful — especially, it seems, for students of color on predominantly or traditionally white campuses. Students, particularly those for whom the diversity of their college campus is novel, really do say dumb things to one another. So if the concept of microaggression merely pointed to these sorts of ignorant remarks, it probably wouldn’t have kicked up so much controversy. That is, few but the staunchest and whiniest anti-p.c. crusaders would devote much ink to arguing against universities inculcating in their students with general decency norms like “White students, don’t tell your black classmates they must be good at basketball because they’re black.”

But at this point, the concept has expanded outward considerably. Saul runs down many examples of statements and acts that could be considered microaggressions by administrators and trainers. Some are adapted from Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation, by Derald Wing Sue, which is more or less the bible of microaggression studies:

“Of course he’ll get tenure, even though he hasn’t published much — he’s black.”

“What are you? You are so interesting looking.”

Telling a nonwhite woman, “I would have never guessed that you were a scientist.”

When a nonwhite faculty member is mistaken for a service worker.

Showing surprise when a “feminine” woman says she is a lesbian.

“You are a credit to your race.”
It can also be a microaggression to state that “Everyone can succeed in this society if they work hard enough,” or “America is the land of opportunity,” because these statements could be construed as offensive to members of marginalized groups who feel that America has denied them, or marginalized people in general, opportunities (that second example is from Reason, not the Times article, but has been adapted by campus administrators and trainers at various schools). In addition, according to one of the trainings attended by Saul, it would be a microaggression if a chemistry building on campus hung photos of only white male scientists. “If you’re a female, or you just don’t identify as a white male, that space automatically shows that you’re not represented,” explained Clark’s chief diversity officers to students there.

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