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June 18 2015

Microaggression U.

Charlotte Allen

There's no such thing as a microaggression that's too micro for America's largest state.

The University of California has issued a list of 28 of these teeny-weeny “brief, subtle verbal or non-verbal exchanges that send denigrating messages to the recipient because of his or her group membership (such as race, gender, age or socio-economic status).” And although these "aggressions" might be micro, they can have macro consequences for teachers and administrators in the UC system: they can create a "hostile learning environment" that, if reported to the proper university authorities, can get the "microaggessor" fired under state and federal harassment regulations--especially if the microaggressor happens to lack tenure.

For Orwellian types, one of the nifty things about microagressions is that they can be entirely unconscious:

Microaggressions are not necessarily intentional, however, and may in fact stem from unconscious bias.  For example, a teacher may tell a student, “You speak English very well” and intend it as a compliment, but to the recipient it may underscore a sense of exclusion and infers that the person isn’t a part of the mainstream culture.

Derald Wing Sue, a professor of psychology and education at Teachers College Columbia University who has written two books on the topic of MAs,  “Microaggressions in Everyday Life,” and “Microaggressions and Marginality,” says “Microaggressions may appear to be a compliment but contain a meta-communication or hidden insult towards target groups to which it is delivered, and are outside the level of conscious awareness of the perpetrator.”

And just how micro can a microaggression be? Here's how, accordiing to the UC list:

"A person asking an Asian American or Latino American to teach them words in their native language."  That supposedly means "You are a perpetual foreigner in your own country."

"Use of the pronoun 'he' to refer to all people." In other words, uttering the proverb "He travels fastest who travels alone" could get you in big trouble.

A "A person asks a woman how old she is, and on hearing she is 31, looks quickly at her ring finger." The unconscious crime here, according to UC, is the aassumption that women should be married during their child-bearing ages because that is their primary purpose.

Furthermore, as UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh has pointed out, some of the microaggressions on the list include the expression of widely held ideas that are supposedly protected by the First Amendment:

“America is the land of opportunity.”

“Everyone can succeed in this society, if they work hard enough.”

“Affirmative action is racist.”

As Volokh writes:

[T]he document that I quote isn’t about keeping classes on-topic or preventing presonal insults — it’s about suppressing particular viewpoints. And what’s tenure for, if not to resist these attempts to stop the expression of unpopular views?

But I’m afraid that many faculty members who aren’t yet tenured, many adjuncts and lecturers who aren’t on the tenure ladder, many staff members, and likely even many students — and perhaps even quite a few tenured faculty members as well — will get the message that certain viewpoints are best not expressed when you’re working for UC, whether in the classroom, in casual discussions, in scholarship, in op-eds, on blogs, or elsewhere. (Remember that when talk turns to speech that supposedly creates a “hostile learning environment,” speech off campus or among supposed friends can easily be condemned as creating such an environment, once others on campus learn about it.) A serious blow to academic freedom and to freedom of discourse more generally, courtesy of the University of California administration.

It should be noted that an apparently embarrassed UC has issued two press releases insisting that it’s not “censoring classroom discussion.”

But as Volokh says: “Really”?

 



Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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