Why microaggressions are not so silly

Phillip Roth’s “The Human Stain” begins with a college professor making an innocent remark that is construed as racist by an overly sensitive university community. Though most of the higher-ups realize that the professor did no wrong, they still want him to apologize. He refuses even though it costs him his job.   The start of this excellent book is meant to highlight the occasional absurdity that comes with being on a college campus. The recent Atlantic article on microaggressions, which is getting a whole lot of attention, similarly focuses on the unique sensitivities present on a college campus.

Some of the anecdotes in the article do paint a ridiculous picture of the steps taken in the name of not offending someone. However, I think the article, and some of those applauding it, are missing the point. One argument I have heard is that whether or not an action or statement is offensive can be objectively determined, so an approach that relies on someone’s emotional response to an action or statement is illegitimate. While I do agree that there is an objective way to determine if something is offensive or threatening, that fact does not negate the importance of being sensitive to one’s emotional response.

For example, in one of my classes we discuss the run-up to, execution of, and legacy of the Iraq War. It is a topic that is 100% legitimate to discuss in a public administration course. It is objectively not offensive. However, I have had veterans in my class who, for very personal reasons, find the unit hard to deal with. They let me know this, and I gave them an alternative assignment that exposed them to the same concepts in a way in which they were comfortable. I had no problem with this. College is supposed to be a place where learning occurs in a diverse environment, and if someone is feeling threatened or uncomfortable, they probably are not learning.

I think it comes down to fostering an open environment where students are comfortable telling professors (and other students) if something is bothering them, and professors and students are receptive to one another’s concerns and intentions. One of the great pleasures of teaching is seeing how a classroom culture develops, and finding ways to transfer knowledge and foster learning through that unique culture. Frankly, I do not find microaggressions all that silly, because if someone is offended or threatened, no matter the reason, learning is not happening. And making learning happen is the whole point of universities.

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