Can We Talk? Seeking Individual Exchange and Avoiding Microaggressions

In a Washington Post article last week Fred Barbash discussed the “war on ‘microaggressions’” and asked: “Has it created a ‘victimhood culture’ on campuses?” He used the University of California’s current debate on whether or not it’s anti-Semitic and offensive to say that “Israel has no right to exist,” or that Israel is mostly to blame for the troubles in the region as the starting point for a larger discussion about microaggressions.

First discussed in social psychology papers as early as 2007, microaggressions are defined by Derald Wong Sue, et al. as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” For example, the phrase “everyone can succeed in this society, if they work hard enough” can convey an assumption about equality in a meritocracy that does not exist because we start with different levels of privilege and systemic oppression—if you do not succeed, the saying implies, it’s because you are not working hard enough, not because you are discriminated against. Microaggressions are offensive when they make assumptions about someone based on a supposed marker of their identity (like gender, sexuality, or race) that invalidates their individual experience. This table of some common microaggressions lists examples like: “Are you here on a basketball scholarship?” asked of an African-American student (assuming an individual’s interests and talents based on race); “Oh, you’re a bio major? Are you studying to be a nurse?” asked of a woman (suggesting an assumption that women aren’t smart enough to be doctors); and, “She’s so independent, you wouldn’t even know she’s in a wheelchair” (an assumption that wheelchair users are incapable of independence).

The public conversation on microaggressions, political correctness, and censorship on liberal campuses has been ongoing for some time. Many professors have already come out and expressed their own experiences with students who boycott some part of the curriculum because it is offensive (or potentially traumatic) to their identity, sometimes resulting in censorship or career repercussions for the instructor. Some comedians have outwardly stated they are no longer willing to perform on college campuses because of the “political correctness.”

In September, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), published a thought-provoking article in the Atlantic about “The Coddling of the American Mind.” (See our interview with Lukianoff here.) In the Atlantic piece they argued that the ways microaggressions (as well as trigger warnings) are dealt with on college campuses often encourage censorship, reduce opportunities for honest conversations, disable real and genuine self-development by creating a dichotomy of victim and aggressor, disable the potential development of coping mechanisms through cognitive behavioral therapy, and create an unrealistic environment filled with “safe spaces” with students leaving college unprepared to handle differences of opinion.

It’s an emotionally charged and difficult issue with no right or wrong side. Censorship is not the right route and neither is discrimination (or perceived discrimination and inequity that affects a person over time), even at the “micro”-level. You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. Everyone is uncomfortable.

But this is because it’s a useless discussion in the abstract. Human interactions are highly individualized experiences and each one could merit its own public forum. Intentions do count. Context and situation do count. The entirety of the interaction, who it’s between, counts. So, for example, the question “where are you from?” is listed as a microaggression that can make someone feel like an outsider. I personally find the question to be innocuous and, in the majority of situations, just an attempt to relate to me—who knows if it is the best way or not? I once spent an airport layover listening to an elderly white man from South Carolina list every single word he knew in Mandarin because he assumed that by having a Chinese heritage, I would identify much more strongly as Chinese than I do as a North American—it was misguided but so endearing that I had a lovely conversation with this man without once putting on my social justice lecture glasses. He was making earnest attempts at learning conversational Mandarin from his neighbors as his way of connecting with them because a new factory in his town brought an influx of Chinese immigrants. It was a moment to revel in connecting with another human being instead of pointing out the incorrect assumptions he had made about me.

“Where are you really from?” is a less innocuous question (here’s why), but if someone has unknowingly committed a gaffe doesn’t mean I have to be put out about it (if it was rudeness with clearly racist implications, I may act differently). I may or may not let them know how it makes me feel—partly because I no longer have a strong attachment to the idea of nationalism, so while it’s annoying that someone may not realize I grew up in a small, upper-middle-class suburb in New Jersey, I usually don’t let it challenge my identity (after all, my passport is still American), and partly because not every situation is a battle between people. It’s most often not.

In many contexts, offenders should be educated about how their statement made that one individual feel—but not necessarily publicly shamed. And people shouldn’t be threatened by feeling like they have to censor themselves. There’s a difference between being cognizant of others’ experiences (aka empathic) when we speak and deciding to never broach an uncomfortable topic ever again. If we shut down every conversation by engaging in call-out culture because someone did not use the language of social justice or accidentally commits a microaggression, isn’t that in itself elitist and un-inclusive? We are each an amalgamation of privilege and oppression. Our thoughts are mixed inextricably with truths and mistruths. Our experiences give us predispositions to be sensitive or impervious to certain messages. (That’s why I react to “where are you from?” the way I do, and others react according to their own life experiences.)

Microaggressions are not harmless—just as words are not. We’ve all felt the pain of an insult, a slight, a backhanded compliment, or some other comment that somehow disconfirms our own perceived self-identity, whether or not we call it a microaggression. But they don’t have to be disempowering and they don’t have to cause self-censorship. We have the capacity, when we hear the expression of a controversial, offensive, socially taboo opinion, to change minds, create allies, allow for stories of redemption to emerge, and to color our self-narratives with lessons learned instead of polarizing mistakes.

So instead of speech codes and debates about whether x implies y, and why that is offensive, why don’t we implement empathy codes? Commitments by student and instructors to learn from each other’s unique set of life experiences and interpretations of those experiences in good faith, to respect each other’s sensibilities, and to bolster each other. It’s time to demonstrate faith in the human struggle, to reward good but imperfect intentions, to make difficult conversations inclusive, and to let love of humanity guide our interactions with each other.

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