Publisher's note: This post, by Bob Luebke, was originally published in the Education section of Civitas's online edition.
- that's a fancy term many radical college students and administrators are using these days as a means to supposedly call out racism and protest unsafe and hostile environments for minorities. But what is it really all about?
You say you've never heard of the term microaggression? Don't worry, you will. While combating racism and keeping a safe environment may be laudable goals, the problem is the process for identifying microaggression essentially shuts down free speech on campus and produces individuals who are easily offended and unable to navigate environments where people are different than they are.
According to Professor Derald Wing Sue of Columbia University, one of the foremost experts on microaggression theory, microaggressions can be described as brief and commonplace verbal, behavioral and environmental indignities, whether intentional or not, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative, racial, gender, sexual orientation and religious slights and insults to the target person or group.
On a recent much-publicized post at a UNC-Chapel Hill employee web site forum (see here
), staff cautioned employees against "brief and commonplace" displays of "implicit bias." Such bias could include sex-specific dress codes, staff meetings at country clubs and religious vacations.
The post identified several examples of microaggressions. These included saying "I love your shoes!"
to a woman in a leadership position. Why is this offensive? Microaggression advocates say what you're really saying is: I notice how you look and dress more than I value your intellectual contributions. Having man/woman or male/female as options for gender on office forms is a form of microaggression because it is telling people they must fit into the gender binary among pre-selected categories.
Having celebrations, calendars or vacations centered on major religious observances (i.e., Christmas or Easter) is also a microaggression because it "further centers the Christian faith and minimizes non-Christian spiritual rituals and observances."
As you might expect, once the guidelines were made public, UNC was the recipient of a torrent of bad publicity. The post was removed and UNC-Chapel Hill officials appeared to back away from the controversy. Commenting on the blog post, Joel Curran, vice chancellor for communications and public affairs, issued a statement
- Those opinions were wrongly reported as university policy and/or guidelines; they are not. . . UNC-Chapel Hill has no policy, formal or informal, about microaggressions. The Employee Forum has since decided to remove the post because it was misconstrued as University policy.
Interestingly, UNC-Chapel Hill removed the post and password protected its microaggression guidelines after one site reported on the changes. Only UNC employees and students with a school ID and password can access the list. Of course, that makes you ask: why the need for secrecy?
While it seems UNC-Chapel Hill administrators are trying to distance themselves from the controversy, it's interesting to note that in August the campus will be hosting a Diversity Thinkposium on Microaggression
. According to the event's web site:
- The day-long program is designed for participants to explore and understand the nature and impact of microaggressions in the higher education enterprise. Participants will explore language, behaviors, policies and practices that impact the classroom, workplace and educational experiences for students, faculty/staff at Carolina. The discussions and keynote should help them reflect on their own practices, understand the concepts and behaviors that perpetuate oppression of marginalized identities; and be part of facilitated conversations to develop capacity and skill to address the issue within their own units and departments.
The fact is UNC-Chapel Hill is using microaggression training as a tool. It may not be university policy, but UNC doesn't seem to mind that a major conference on the subject will be on campus. They are doing nothing to stop it.
Some may be inclined to shake their heads and merely say, "Well, that's UNC-Chapel Hill." If only that were the case!
The Daily Caller
, a conservative national online news site, recently reported on a microaggression tool
touted by North Carolina State University faculty "ombuds" Roy Baroff. (Apparently the "man" part of ombudsman is a microaggression.) The tool informs the school's employees that phrases like "America is a land of opportunity" or "I believe the most qualified person should get the job" are microaggressions and should be eliminated.
According to Baroff, the phrase "America is a land of opportunity" is a problem because it perpetuates a myth of a meritocracy, which says everyone can succeed in America if they merely work hard enough. According to the microaggression mindset, such thinking conveys the message that people of color are lazy and/or incompetent and need to work harder.
Subscribing to the belief that the best person should get the job supposedly also furthers the myth of the meritocracy. It is a microaggression because it implies that people of color are given extra benefits because of their race.
As you might expect, the story received considerable attention from the national press, most of it unflattering. Baroff did not respond to requests for comment from reporters.
It's difficult to wrap yourself around a topic as broad and gauzy as microaggression. And that's part of the problem.
People suffer racism and all sorts of indignities daily; some intended, some not. Of course we should do all we can to minimize or eliminate these problems. The question then becomes: what is the best way?
Microaggression techniques are not the best tool to reach that goal. Those who advocate for microaggression use bias and racism in the name of eliminating bias and racism. Microagression falsely assumes racism and indignity is in every conversation and in every environment. Believing so is as bad as believing none exists.
For those concerned about eliminating implicit bias, it's hard to ignore the reality that the arrow on microaggressions always goes only one way. Aggrieved parties are always minorities, whites are always the offenders and never a class worthy of protection.
Eliminating microaggression allows advocates a platform to hammer home their real claim: the fundamental injustice of American society and the racism that permeates it at every level. But monitoring perceived transgressions on campuses and public places turns students into lifelong victims and requires an army of bureaucrats to control thought and behavior.
Colleges are supposed to be the place where differing ideas are explored and people learn to relate to and contribute to the larger society. Microaggression theory stamps that surrounding society as toxic. It finds racism and injustice behind every interaction and swings the same heavy hammer at every injustice - real or perceived. Microaggression theory destroys free speech and weakens the free exchange of ideas. It's an idea at odds with the values of college campuses in North Carolina and elsewhere.
And it's time we treat it as such.