|Editor’s Note: This piece is one of a pair of articles representing a debate between two faculty members, Randal Parker and Steve Bie, within GCC’s Philosophy Club, about the concept of “microaggressions” and how they should be addressed in an academic setting. Chaparral would like to acknowledge that these papers are the result of a philosophical debate and do not cite specific sources. For alternative definitions of this term than those used by the authors of these pieces, see this 2009 APA piece which includes a then emerging taxonomy of microaggresion, http://www.apa.org/monitor/2009/02/microaggression.aspx, as well as this Oxford Dictionaries definition: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/microaggression. Randal Parker and Steve Bie both welcome your comments.|
Social Sciences Division
A microaggression, for our purposes, occurs if a professor says something which is judged to be an unintentional slight of students of “marginalized identities.” But, who is to judge? Mr. Bie’s answer is that if it is to be the offended student, then this might be unhealthy for both the student and the college. If a student feels offended about being made to feel unsafe , and, if psychological safety for him means the absence of people or ideas he doesn’t like, then we do him a disservice to acquiesce to the idea that the college needs to serve him better and instead we should advise him to look “at the man in the mirror.”
But I think we can set aside this kind of case. I say a microaggression, (or better, a micro-oppression) occurs only if my comment is judged offensive by a reasonable student. Clearly anyone at all reasonable would now find it horrific to ‘compliment’ a student by saying, “You are a credit to your race.” And this method for detecting offense can be made more sensitive to less obvious slights. Surely an offense could go undetected some reasonable people, and yet be easily felt by sensitized students with “marginalized identities”?
Notice that, however subjective this new standard is, it could still fail to blame me for offending an unreasonable student who feels offended by my comments about her “Penmanship.” Why is this not a microaggression if her discomfort is real? Because this student’s peers, even supposing them to be sensitized feminists, won’t feel as she does: the struggle with ‘rape culture’ has so far safely ignored the word ‘penmanship’-- even though key skirmishes about the sexist assumption of maleness as linguistic default are still being fought and mostly won about words like “chairman.”
So if I rightly dismiss a student member of a protected class as hypersensitive, then mustn’t I also admit another professor might justifiably dismiss the entire bunch of them as also hypersensitive? I don’t think this follows. If a protected class of people with marginalized identities are feeling disparaged by unreflective remarks of mine, then my classroom climate is hardly maximally conducive to learning! Ideally, I want each of my students to feel that the form and content of my course is tailored perfectly, and, obviously, students won't feel this if randomly strafed with microaggressions. It is my job to recognize the increasingly intersectional tapestry of ways my students can be oppressed within this or that grouping, and to respond when such a group finds itself offended.
Still, as Mr. Bie correctly notes, all this puts the onus for preventing such offences solely on the professor. But isn’t that where it belongs? Nor do I agree that a student who complains of microaggressions is being passive, for using this term can help students better spot and explain their sense of being made to feel that they don’t belong—so they raise group consciousness, and help create the solidarity necessary for change. Indeed, doesn't history show that the creation and use of the terms such as “sexual harassment” had just this sort of effect?
Last week, then, I committed a microaggression. Minutes before class started, a bunch of students who were chatting with me came to learn I was married to a woman who chaired a philosophy department and, because they think philosophers are odd ducks even when single, they asked what we did at home after our grading was finished. I replied, meaning to underline our normalcy, “Oh, you know, Netflix and chill”. A strained silence fell over this group, who happened to consist entirely of women, but I ignored it and flipped through my notes as the rest of the students drifted in and then began class.
Yes, yes; so I am clueless—apparently, I alone am ignorant that the phrase ‘Netflix and Chill” is code for a single minded plan for casual sex. What had I said? “Sexist male prof. proclaims female philosophers are only good for sex” maybe, or, if not that bad, it was still reasonably perceived by this protected group as dismissively sexist. This offensive remark wasn’t an expression of my unconscious sexism, but these women were reasonable to think it was; my linguistic misfire did chill the classroom climate, but because it was reasonable for members of this protected group to find it offensive, I committed a microaggression.
Now it was nice for one of my students to press me after class on my remark, but it was supererogatory: I control grades, I’m paid to establish a good learning environment for very diverse students and, like many people, I'm likely to be defensive about being offensive.
But, more importantly, what do I say to Mr. Bie’s polarizing example? Isn’t it presumptuous, dismissive or even preposterous to take a recently minted PhD. Lecturer’s saying that “America is the land of opportunity” as a microaggression? I’d say it was a microaggression. If we imagine this fellow teaching a class of blacks at Howard, of women at Smith, or of the imprisoned in a jail, isn’t it then easy for us to see, even if we are not members of either sensitized or protected class, that this is thoughtless? It is easy enough, then, to imagine the offended student’s marginalized peers would also judge it offensive and offer the same analysis? “America is the land of opportunity” can be heard as a timeless axiom, or heard instead as a bit of propaganda for a myth that colonized the unconscious minds of the entire world.
That makes it sound as if we are trying to decide if a certain sentence or word is a microaggression, but that is a mistake. If we put the sentence in context, say, by imagining, “America is the land of opportunity” is said by a settler looking out over land recently "cleansed" of Indians, we immediately see that it is the political context of the utterance that matters. And our context is the diverse students at GCC.
Obviously, professors need to be free to argue that America has ALWAYS offered more opportunity than other countries or even, I suppose, that it always will. Argue what you will. But being oblivious to just how contentious the students may find your premises isn’t good teaching. The classroom context is always evolving and a professor’s good intentions aren’t sufficient to prevent him or her from being left behind. It is no longer the powerful who decide how we shall name this or that group nowadays, and if the professor doesn’t keep up, then microaggression will result. These groups who get to name themselves, also get to say that tiny, tiny slights can aggregate into something systematic, something worthy of being named a microaggression. As I get older, I find I am complimented for doing rather ordinary things on a motorcycle racecourse, or in a gym, and I try to grin and bear it--even though such remarks reveal the speaker is unconsciously surprised to find I can still move and am not yet dead. But context is everything, and I wouldn’t be so forgiving about being called ‘gramps’ in a job interview.
But is it a microaggression for me to assume, here and now at GCC, that if you look like me--bearded and 200 pounds - then your preferred pronoun is “he”? Such casual remarks do reveal that I’m making unconscious cisgendered inferences, no doubt, but I don’t think such remarks are at present microaggressions, but the time is probably coming when they will be.
We are always unconsciously forming hypotheses about people we group together in unconscious ways—nothing evil or avoidable about that. But the pervasiveness of the unconscious viewpoints of the powerful, even when it only results in the less powerful feeling tiny slights, can have awful effects.
Colleges will always want to teach courses that are transformative and can thus make learners uncomfortable with their previous selves. And we all want our student body to be diverse, so that means some students may find the sheer existence of a course an awful macroaggression. But if such radical or macroaggressive classes are taught without mircoaggressions, we are doing our jobs. A student may feel indignant to discover an argument for or against, say, the equality of ‘deaf culture’ or the propriety of men writing in a women’s voice, but these are mere growing pains. But if I make remarks found hurtful by the sensitized members of the marginalized, however these groups are being presently grouped, then I commit a microaggression, And that’s not cool, even I do it only because I’m not hip.