Colleges Are Defining ‘Microaggressions’ Really Broadly

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“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.

The range here is vast. If it’s a microaggression to tell someone “You’re a credit to your race” — an utterance that just about everyone would agree is offensive — sure, tell kids not to micro-aggress. But things get tricky when it’s also a microaggression to make broad statements about whether and to what extent America is a land of opportunity, or to display photos of professors on a wall who are white. In some cases, utterances treated as microaggressions really could simply be misunderstandings: As a student, you might ask someone where they’re from because you’re genuinely curious to learn more about them (or are looking for an in to hit on them over breakfast at the dining hall); you might say you’re surprised someone is a scientist because you met them at an artsy event. It isn’t concern trolling to highlight these examples — social misunderstandings and accidental minor offenses are endemic to human life.

To take an even more obvious example of the sort of problems that emerge if you take as broad a view of microaggressions as many campus administrators are: A freshman who is a first-generation American, whose family hails from Nigeria, may well believe that America is a land of opportunity — maybe his parents moved here in their 20s, set up shop in Queens, and were lucky and hardworking enough to send their firstborn off to college. Let’s say this kid expresses this opinion over lunch and a passing student, also black, is offended by it.

Who’s right? There’s no “correct” answer, of course, because it’s a statement that is totally subjective. It’s obviously true that America is a land of opportunity for a lot of people, and it’s obviously true that for many other people it hasn’t been. It seems impossible to come up with any actionable guideline for a statement like “America is a land of opportunity” that will both allow the Nigerian-American kid to tell his story, and totally mitigate the risk of a hypothetical passerby from being offended by it. (Presumably, the Nigerian-American kid would, by the logic of microaggressions as they are being taught, be equally entitled to complain about his classmate — his classmate’s stated belief that America isn’t a land of opportunity invalidates the immigrant experience and erases the hard work the Nigerian-American family put in to get one of their children to college in the first place. Or so he could argue and be just as “correct” as the original complainant.)

Plus, statements like “America is a land of opportunitysit so comfortably, obviously, within the bounds of protected free speech in any public setting — public universities, but not private ones, do have to heed First Amendment guidelines — that it’s probably unwise for college administrators to lump them together, in the eyes of students, with other “aggressions” that might lead to an administrative response. Because when you look at the full context of how microaggressions are being treated on many campuses, regulation and discipline of student speech is undeniably part of the story.

Yes, conservatives and anti-p.c. types tend to overstate what’s going on on the discipline front — they act as though students and faculties are constantly being dragged before Stalinist tribunals run by radical women’s-studies professors for saying they think America is a cool place, or hanging a poster of the Gipper in their dorm room. That’s not happening. But it is actually true that an increasing number of schools have set up so-called bias-response teams that allow for the anonymous reporting of offenses, as professors Jeffrey Aaron Snyder and Amna Khalid explained earlier this year in The New Republic, and that students are being explicitly told that just about anything they find offensive can qualify as an incident worth reporting to administrators. The message, at least on some campuses, is clear: If a student is offended by a statement like “America is a land of opportunity,” a rational response is to bring that statement to the attention of administrators.

In light of all this — in light of how much intellectual and administrative weight is being granted to the concept of microaggressions at the moment, and how fast the concept is knitting itself into the fabric of campus diversity and administrative policies — it might be time for proponents of microaggression education and discipline to define their terms a bit more carefully and rigorously. If not, things could get messy.