Hundreds of readers graciously responded to my articles “The Rise of Victimhood Culture” and “Why Critics of the ‘Microaggressions’ Framework Are Skeptical.” Starting today, I’ll be sharing their feedback in a series of installments. Correspondents in this first batch argue that “microaggressions culture” is beneficial. I’ve tried to engage their arguments and tease out our differences. I hope this helps to clarify both lines of disagreement and common ground. And I could always be wrong, so I encourage close attention to each reader’s argument and cognizance that other strong critiques are surely out there too.
Let’s get right to it.
My first correspondent believes that what the sociologists I quoted call “victimhood culture”––a term that many readers will intelligently critique in a subsequent batch of responses––changes the power dynamic between races and genders in a way that empowers the disempowered and gives them a fighting chance.
In any conflict, both sides have a "nuclear option", or a weapon of last resort. Since White men hold the keys to most of the major institutions in this country, the "nuclear option" of going to a more powerful ally will often benefit the male or White individual in the conflict. This "victimhood culture" as you and others have termed it, creates a nuclear option for the POC or woman: to take it to the court of public opinion.
Now this young Hispanic woman mentioned in your article, out of inexperience or just sheer stupidity, took a nuisance complaint to this court. And reasonable minded figures like yourself have denounced her and exposed her case for what it is, as you should. She is the one left with pie on her face.
The system works.
As a person of color myself, I am glad to know that the other party I'm dealing with knows that I have this option in my pocket. I won't use it unless I have a good reason to.
Most POC, I believe, are like me. I am unconnected, my parents are immigrants who were allowed to leave their native country with a few hundred dollars in their pockets. I have the privilege of what you might call "the immigrant mentality," so despite having been poor most of my childhood, I have attained some degree of professional success. However, due to my success, almost everyone I deal with professionally has more connections through their family than I do. In conflicts that arise, I need the stick as well as the carrot. Without the perceived ability to hurt someone back in a meaningful way, people like me have to suffer untold indignities on a daily basis in order to advance professionally.
This "victimhood culture" protects people like me.
It gives us a shield so that we can more confidently conduct our affairs and a sword to let others know there is a consequence to crossing certain lines. Just because some people use this recklessly (in the early days of a new order, abuses will be common), please don't seek to disarm all of us.
Call out the offender and disarm only them.
The reader makes a strong case for what he calls a “nuclear option.” And I favor many existing “nuclear options,” like housing law claims; the ability to file civil-rights lawsuits and hostile-workplace complaints against employers; and the ability to rally public support if, say, a bigot starts harassing a person with racial slurs. There’s a longstanding social stigma that’s applied to hateful racists, and I support it.
But a “nuclear option” seems most inappropriate for the non-hateful “micro” slights under discussion. A core critique of the “microaggressions” framework is that it incentivizes people to “go nuclear” in response to small, unwitting social mistakes. While I’m all for “sticks” for those suffering “untold indignities on a daily basis in order to advance professionally,” those sound like “macro” and not “micro” slights, and in one of the few realms where the law bars a pattern of race-based slights.
* * *
The next reader confesses, “I was the micro-aggressor.”
He explains, “At a college bar in Central PA, a group of people who I decided looked Hispanic were set to play us in pool. I walked up to them and asked who was playing doubles in Spanish. It turns out that they were Native American. I, having a tendency to be self-righteous, concluded that the statistical probability was in my favor of them being Hispanic. My Argentine friend, always willing to point out my insensitive flaws, put it succinctly: 9/10 times you'd be right, 1/10 times you're a racist.”
He concludes that he should’ve had more empathy:
What I did was offensive even if the intent was good. I think that is the underlying structural difference between whether white males can experience microaggressions in the same vein as others. I am not the Other and never will be. The damage done to me for assuming that I'm, say, wealthy and highly privileged for having blond hair and blue eyes may hurt me personally, but institutionally it has little effect. How I treated those Native Americans, being too indignant to apologize, is a reflection of not just my own shortcomings as a person, but involves structural concepts.
...Microaggressions are the emergence of the territory of the individual and the state/society colliding. It's a difficult situation to manage when the average person isn't necessarily going to trace their racism or prejudices to wherever the origins may be. That being said, the open forums being helped along by universities situate people's feelings, especially young adults who are expanding their perspectives. The fact that more people are aware and comfortable airing their grievances to me is a sign of progress, not one of exaggeration and times of "victimhood culture."
An apology in the bar was certainly appropriate.
And while I agree that college students should have a place to raise awareness when repeatedly burdened by a wrongheaded slight, or to challenge wrongheaded ideas, that can exist and has existed without the “call-out culture” and focus on establishing victimhood that is part of “microaggressions” culture as it is often practiced.
* * *
Says another reader:
The essential claim of micro-aggressions, as I always understood them, is that systems of inequality that many see as antiquated or nearly extinct still present themselves in lived experiences and day-to-day interactions.
To try and turn that claim around and say "no you're the aggressor!" is to completely ignore the basis of the claim in historical reality. While on an individual level it may seem that micro-aggressions only exist to introduce a victim/oppressor dynamic to a conflict, that interpretation demonstrates a misunderstanding (imho) of the way modern-day power operates.
Imagine that the claim that I described as underlying micro-aggressions is correct and systems such as white supremacy do still function to organize people based on race and to produce race as a social distinction. But also imagine that every member of a society in which white supremacy operates is both a recipient of the consequences of that ideology (that is, as a victim of it or a profiteer or somewhere in between) and an agent of its functioning. This is the way I choose to study micro-aggressions: they are a helpful tool to use to illustrate a less simplistic model of power that I view as worth considering, as well as the way that historical context influences seemingly innocuous interactions in the present day and politicizes their implications.
I agree with some of the assertions the reader makes—that racism still presents itself in the lived experiences of many Americans, for example, and that it’s useful to study the way that historical context influences how interactions are understood.
But I’m wary when adherents of any framework, having described how one power dynamic might work, make the leap that they now understand “the way modern-day power operates,” a phrase that implies that there is one way that power operates.
That assumption is an impediment to empathy and understanding––power dynamics change depending on the people involved in a conflict; the power structure, rules, and norms of the institution where a conflict takes place; and many other factors. Among college students, parsing who has more power is often impossible. There is, I would argue, no framework that can preemptively determine the power dynamics between any two people, wherever they are, based only on race and gender. While the most careful advocates of the “micro-aggressions” framework would agree, many who apply it either disagree or act as if they do.
* * *
On Facebook, reader Jeanne Poremba objected to my use of an anecdote from the Oberlin Microaggressions blog to illustrate the concepts of “victimhood culture” and microaggressions. “Look, this is a dramatic anecdote,” she acknowledged, “but completely fails to actually address what microaggressions are, why they matter, what their impact is or even to provide a legitimate example of one. This entire thing comes off as a straw man argument, and I'm frankly shocked that a publication as usually rigorous as The Atlantic wouldn't do a better job on this issue.”
You're being manipulated by the article and by other media essays about "victim" culture. NOTHING in this article is a genuine description of what microaggressions are, or what their impact is on the health, early mortality or mental state of those experiencing them. It's easy to scoff at this because it's set up in the article to BE easy to scoff at. It's just poor journalism, not a legitimate, objective look at what the issue is or isn't.
The anecdote was explicitly offered as an illustration of “victimhood culture,” not the quintessential example of “microaggressions.” And I want to acknowledge—as I have done already—that there are many “microaggression” accusations that describe unwitting, wrongheaded slights that impose a cumulative burden on the aggrieved party. There’s nothing wrong with educating people about those slights.
Still, it’s legitimate to discuss the Oberlin emails as one example of the “microaggression” framework. This wasn’t plucked from the ether. A group of Oberlin students started a blog dedicated to documenting microaggressions, called it “Oberlin Microaggressions,” and decided that the email in question was an appropriate example. My inbox right now contains numerous emails from people—some of them activist students and professors who champion the framework at their institutions—who argue that the Hispanic woman from the anecdote was in the right, had experienced a microaggression, and acted defensibly in the way that she called it out. Numerous other readers responded that they had witnessed or experienced similar claims of “microaggression excesses” on their own campuses. In short, the example is clearly not a “straw man.” That the framework incentivizes such excesses is precisely the argument of its critics.
Also on Facebook, Audrey Johnson writes:
What's happening is that minorities are done with being slighted left & right (which in and of itself adds up over time to cause some serious repercussions) and now have the language/framework to call out & discuss these slights in hopes of eradicating the deep roots of oppression that lead to more "serious" situations.
Eradicating the deep roots of oppression is an urgent goal! I don’t agree that this framework serves it, especially when it occupies the energy of student activists who might otherwise focus their social justice efforts on ending the drug war, or police reform, or an immigration amnesty, or more funding for battered women’s shelters, or mass incarceration reforms, or a guaranteed minimum income, or better mental-health services for the homeless, or school desegregation, or… you get the idea.
* * *
The next reader eloquently explains, among other things, why seemingly minor slights can hurt:
My grandfather immigrated to the US as a boy, during the Chinese Exclusion Act. That law is remembered as immoral, and Congress recently issued a formal apology.The student from Oberlin may have been overreacting to a single incident. But she lives in a nation where a major party's campaign platform is the forced removal of Hispanics. She may have snapped over a "microaggression," but there is a lot more at play here than the well-intentioned white guy who says something insensitive.
I think that the problem with the discussion of microaggressions has been that it is divorced from historical memory. Microaggressions are separate from actual aggressions, and should be considered separately. But the microaggression only gains its weight from the many real aggressions.
The mental burden of microaggressions does not come from "answering the same question over and over and over again." The mental burden comes from the fact that I must expend energy to interpret your tone. The mental burden comes from the memories of actual racial slurs. The mental burden comes from actual pain that my family has suffered. Every microaggression is a reminder that I am an "other" and that this is a dangerous position to be in.
You suggest that both supporters and critics of the term want the same end result. This is somewhat undercut by the many efforts to define microaggressions down to little nothings that we shouldn't get worked up about. Defining this as a "victimhood culture" is itself a microaggression. Actually, it's closer to a real aggression. It seeks to diminish our voices to ones without "honor" or "dignity." It suggests that the appropriate grievances are the ones judged so by our white allies, and that the appropriate recourse is the path defined by the same.
A tenuous and capricious definition.
I’d propose a different label: vigilance culture. Its a rather exhausting culture to belong to. We must be on guard for the real aggressions that come disguised as dog whistles or innuendos. And yes, we must call it out when those same innuendos are uttered without knowledge of their true meaning. I'll confess that in our exhaustion we might occasionally jump at the shadows. But it's been our experience that all the shadows belong to something.
The reader adds an important insight absent from my coverage: Some people are burdened by seemingly small slights because their experience of America is a place where the “othering” of their ancestors led to horrific abrogations of their liberty.
I actually think that’s the most important category of small slights to highlight and police. I’ve tried to do so with regard to Muslim Americans, who’ve been subject to both low-grade prejudice and major rights violations since the September 11 attacks. For others, however, according to their self-described grievances, answering the same wrongheaded question again and again (for example) is what bothers them, not concern that the state will one day target people like them.
Applying this diversity of aggrieved parties to the Oberlin example, if the upset student was motivated, in part, by the xenophobic streak in the GOP frontrunner’s campaign and a fear of mass roundups, the “microaggressions” framework has served her very poorly, insofar as she chose, in a public forum, to focus on a perceived slight from a classmate in a manner so alienating that even lots of proponents of the “microaggressions” framework are distancing themselves from her. If our presumption is that many Hispanics are in a degree of real danger here—I agree that they are—wouldn’t those acting in response to that danger be better served by a framework that encouraged confronting it directly, focusing on the “macroaggression,” rather than in a way so indirect and tenuously connected that observers can only guess as to whether it motivated their complaint?
* * *
Says another reader:
I have read your last two articles on the topic of new college cultures. I was sincerely hoping for some reasoned critique and commentary, but they are filled with misunderstandings, scare quotes, and logical fallacies. A person having white privilege means they live life without having to deal with structural racism. They may experience oppression on other axes (living in poverty, survivor of abuse, early parental loss, etc.,) which all deserve compassion and sensitivity. Of course that deserves compassion and sympathy. That does not take away the privileged existence regarding race. This concept is called "intersections of oppression". Oppression on one axis does not cancel out privilege along another, and vice versa. Social structures are many, varied, and interwoven. I lead a privileged existence as a white person while also dealing with being on the other end of various systemic power inequalities.
These topics are extremely important to talk about, I agree. Your writing does not show an honest attempt at understanding the culture of working to give the historically voiceless a chance to be heard, but an attempt to form it in such a was as to continue making life easy for those who are already comfortable so they don't have to examine the effects of their own actions and words… Microaggressions are real things and not deserving of scare quotes every single time you use them.
...the point of listing microaggressions is not to give people a list of things to be mad about but to ask the people saying them to really think about the implications and assumptions behind their words. Microaggressions are the #1 reason women leave STEM fields. A lot of men also face them if they are single dads or teach elementary school, as many people work under the assumption that women are caregivers and men are predators.
Just two clarifications. 1) I agree that there are wrongheaded slights that put an unfair cumulative burden on individuals. By putting quotes around “microaggression” I do not intend to suggest the phenomenon I just described is not real or worth addressing. I intend to suggest that “microaggression” is an inaccurate word to describe the phenomenon. Even adherents of the underlying framework agree that many of the examples are innocent, unwitting, and well-intentioned, not “aggressive.” It seems to me that smuggling “aggression” into the term is an illegitimate attempt to give it unearned rhetorical heft by misleadingly equating it with violence. 2) When the reader says that men who are single dads or teach elementary school experience “microaggressions,” she is making an assertion that many who implement the framework in the real world dispute. As they see it, straight white males cannot experience microaggressions by definition.
The reader continues:
…it's not the place of a privileged person to tell a person dealing with systemic oppression what is best for them or how to feel or define a reasonable reaction vs an over-reaction.
Although there is an important truth lurking there, it proves far too much as phrased. First, there are many different kinds of privilege, not just the racial variety, and everyone at Oberlin is a “privileged person” on many important axes. Second, we all agree, for example, that it would be wrong for an oppressed Hispanic person to feel anger at their black neighbors as a class, and that it would be unreasonable for them to react to their feelings of oppression by assaulting those neighbors. No one would complain if a privileged person preemptively condemned such a reaction as unreasonable. There are, I think, a range of feelings that are not legitimately policed. But actions, such as publicly shaming someone in a small college community, surely have to be evaluated by all who see the shaming attempt.
As well, aren’t white advocates of the “microaggressions” framework themselves telling people dealing with systemic racial oppression that the framework’s normalization is best for them? My black, Hispanic and Asian readers are deeply divided about the framework, as you’ll see in the roundup of reader critiques of it. If privileged voices cannot legitimately disagree with those who lack racial privilege, that has to be a general rule. Some in the social-justice community seem to think privileged people are perfectly entitled to assert what is best if and only if they agree with the conclusions of the ideologically progressive part of the social justice community.
Another reader writes:
The virtue of sensitivity to microaggressions entails being on the lookout for the indirect ways one’s behavior could negatively impact others or perpetuate macroscale patterns of injustice, and correcting such behavior as best as one can.
If we want to take the dignity of persons seriously, then we *should* be sensitive to the ways that small beliefs and actions - not odious in any one instance - can be amplified when repeated over and over again from every corner of society. We should cultivate this kind of sensitivity but be careful not to let it carry us away. We can be *over*sensitive. Too little sensitivity and we play a role in perpetuating real inequality of dignity. Too much sensitivity and we erect another kind of oppression, where we must all be paranoid a thoughtless remark will unleash the Twitter tempest or worse.
I concur with all of that.
* * *
Says our next correspondent:
The problem with the article is that you view the “victimhood culture” as a negative thing, that our society would be better off if we return to the old days of honor or dignity culture. But I honestly don’t think it is. The victimhood culture that exists in today’s universities (as a junior at Duke University, I’m aware of it) is far from the culture you characterize it as. I rarely see posts about injustices caused by a specific person, and if I do, it’s because those injustices are egregious (such as the noose that was left out on Duke’s campus). And I wouldn’t characterize posts such as the one described in your article as appealing to a third party.
She didn’t complain to the president of the school akin to a tattle-telling 8 year old. She sent a message on an outlet that she wouldn’t tolerate the kinds of microaggressions that are rooted in today’s culture. She let the white student know, as well as other white students, that using the Hispanic language as a joke about her identity is offensive. Yeah, some of the response was a gross characterization of the white student, and how the style of playing soccer relate to this I have no idea, but it absolutely was an insulting email, and it deserved a response. By responding on a public space instead of simply replying to the email, she courageously called out a cultural system that continues to oppress minority students.
I don’t think solving this in a dignity or honor culture would have produced a better response. So-called dignity and honor cultures that you described keep the issues contained within the two people. When you do that, sure you let the offender know they did something wrong, but you don’t do anything to fight against the culture that spawned the microagression in the first place.
As a general matter, I agree that dignity cultures should have mechanisms for reaching third parties, and that insofar as they don’t, improvements would be appropriate.
* * *
Says another reader:
The sociologists you cite say dignity cultures are fine with appealing to third parties, but not when the offense is verbal. The most egregious forms of interpersonal racism (lynchings, the use of racial epithets) are socially unacceptable now, but microaggressions live on. The dignity frame is thus ill-suited to explain how people of color can respond to these kinds of verbal offenses.
If I understand the sociologists correctly, responding directly to an offender or talking publicly in general terms about why a given verbal statement is wrong both fall within what they call dignity culture, whereas turning to third parties to publicly shame or punish an offender would be what they call “victimhood culture.”
The reader goes on to object to that “victimhood” label:
What irks me about this label is that it treats victimhood as a performance, as a costume we can put on to make ourselves a spectacle and garner sympathy. You make turning to third parties sound like little more than glorified tattling. What about the possibility that our use of the blogosphere and other third parties has less to do with garnering sympathy and more to do with raising awareness. I first learned about microaggressions through Facebook, when an angry friend posted about something that had happened to her. And it was only then that I learned that there was a name for the myriad uncomfortably race-based, yet not overtly racist, encounters I'd had over the years.
(And by the way, that fútbol example is just awful. Spelling mistakes aside, both sides just seem like shrill parodies of the two sides in a real-life instance of microagression. Here are some much better examples of microagressions: 1) I'm on Grindr. (I'm black, by the way.) White man asks if I'm a top or a bottom. I say I'm a bottom. Dude says "What a waste. You black guys are supposed to make great tops." I told him why his statement was offensive, and in subsequent discussions with friends, I used this story as an example of how sexual racism is much more than one person saying "I don't date black people." I wasn't performing victimhood so much as I was explaining how race works to people who didn't really get it. And I certainly wasn't after anyone's sympathy.
Again, if I understand the sociologists correctly, this would not fall under what they call “victim culture.” At least for my part, I applaud the reader’s direct objection to what the guy on Grindr said; telling him why he took offense to his statement; and using the story to educate or persuade others rather than to shame or gain status through victimhood. What he describe strikes me as a model of “dignity culture” in action.
It’s basically how I think conflicts should be resolved.
He wrote, “What about the possibility that our use of the blogosphere and other third parties has less to do with garnering sympathy and more to do with raising awareness.” I’m not sure if “our” means “black people” or adherents of microaggression theory. Either way, I think their use of the blogosphere often does raise awareness in ways that are laudable, not objectionable. I’ve been trying to argue that raising awareness is the superior alternative to call outs, but that bad incentives will push people toward call-outs so long as what the culture rewards is victim status.
That’s a core objection to “victimhood culture.”
I also want to make clear—and I’ll return to this in a later installment—that in my view “victimhood culture” isn’t something black, Asian, and Hispanic people do on college campuses. It’s something all categories of Americans engage in, on and off campus.
The reader wrote, “What irks me about this label is that it treats victimhood as a performance, as a costume we can put on to make ourselves a spectacle and garner sympathy.” Neither I nor the sociologists believe that all victimhood is a performance. Rather, part of the culture they are describing is characterized by instances when victimhood is performed. Because look, victimhood just is a costume that people can put on to garner sympathy—such performances are everywhere.
At the college I attended, a white professor on a neighboring campus faked a hate crime against herself. Sarah Palin’s entire 2008 campaign was an extended exercise in gaining status by exaggerating “microaggressions” directed against her and her tribe. Pro soccer and basketball are full of grown men committing obvious fouls and pantomiming outrage as if they’ve been wronged when carded or whistled. Ferris Bueller is a stand-in for every kid who has performed victimhood to avoid school or homework. I don’t mean to suggest there are no real victims. Quite the contrary. The argument is that huge percentages of the population will, if given the opportunity, exaggerate their victimhood in order to get the gains that come with it. Many people will even fall for their own act to a degree. None of us are immune. I’m often tempted to view myself as an aggrieved party in some dispute.
This aspect of the culture isn’t a race thing, it’s a human nature thing. You can’t set up a system where status accrues to victims and then let people determine their own victim status. Insofar as this is true of black and brown people on college campuses, it’s only because they’re no different from white people on college campuses, who participate just as much in victim culture, and many people off campus. Every human is vulnerable to the perverse incentives of “victimhood culture.”
* * *
The next reader writes:
Calling valid and empowering assertions “victimhood culture” and stating that it exists due to its social conduciveness is essentially the next item in a long lineage of attempts by those who are dominant within social/political/organizational/etc cultures trying to appropriate or choke the efforts towards resistance and articulation of those who are oppressed. Talking about microaggressions is explicitly in opposition to power structures that create environments conducive to their perpetration.
It's actually not socially conducive or even safe to talk about experiencing them in most environments (i.e. at one's profession) so I'm not sure why college environments, which are supposed to empower their students and contain enough freedom to allow for each individual's ethical and political development, should be criticized for being one of the only places oppressed groups can advocate for themselves.
“Talking about microaggressions” is not “explicitly in opposition to power structures.” It is explicitly in opposition to small, individual slights. It tends to focus on those slights instead of larger power structures, as if the former is a way of dismantling the latter, even though there are, as best I can tell, zero examples of that trajectory.
And colleges are not “one of the only places oppressed groups can advocate for themselves.” I’ve covered immigrant laborers who’ve fought to unionize; Black Lives Matter protestors who’ve taken to the streets to draw attention to police abuses across the country; and undocumented immigrants who’ve rallied for an amnesty, among many others. College students often have more power than those people, but I’d argue that they are less empowered insofar as they focus on “microaggressions.”
The next reader writes:
Being a person of color, an lgbtq person, a woman or more likely multiple intersecting identities, simple tasks and daily activities become arduous as we are constantly reminded of difference in the subtlest of ways. It's not "victim culture" to ask others to do their own learning, to interact with our communities like we are equitable or at least respectable, it should be and is hopefully becoming simply common courtesy.
No argument here. The reader continues:
I get that for many people it seems like everything is changing, like they can't get their bearings. A good example is this. I was doing a training in a college classroom for their block on lgbtq communities and identities. There was a young, white appearing man who had seemed jumpy the whole presentation. When I asked for questions and comments he fling his hand in the air and blurted what was obviously fit to burst from him the whole class "I'm straight, I don't get it, doesn't all this being a gender queer gay homosexual person of color stuff just make your life complicated and stupid?! Why are you making it so complicated".
The class went silent and I could tell people expected anger and even the instructor went to motion for something like "oh shit", but I told him the truth.
"When I can speak to my identity as freely and naturally as you speak to yours it will get a lot less complicated, but I'm not the one who makes me identify as multiracial, it's white communities who read my last name. I'm not the one who identifies myself as queer, it's the people who hear me say “my boyfriend” and stop me to make inquiries about my orientation. I didn't identify myself by these things until I was made too".
And that's the crux of it, it's not always ill intent that wounds. If you are walking down a hallway and person after person runs into your shoulder and mutters "sorry", initially you are gracious enough,but after so many constant little bumps to the shoulder (looks of surprise, assumptions about your relationship, dress, intelligence, entire life, inappropriately intimate questions, even guised as compliments or praise "omg you're gay? Let's go shopping") you will reasonably bite someone's head off and say "fucking fuck you" or in your example "get off my concha".
There are all sorts of possible backstories that would make me sympathetic to the student, understand why she lashed out, and lament injustices she has faced. But concluding, “that’s an understandable reaction” is different from “that’s a fair reaction” or more to the point, “that’s the kind of reaction we should incentivize.”
The next reader writes:
As a person who is addressing "campus climate issues" at UC Berkeley through the lens of the Restorative Justice Center, and who taught at Cal for 7 years, my main problem with your work and the work of Haidt and co-authors is that you are not taking the time to ask the students themselves about what their thinking and doing, but rather theorizing about them.
In that sense, you're going to be accused of silencing and speaking for them, which would be a valid accusation. Why not call the young woman from Oberlin and ask her: what were you feeling and thinking when you wrote those emails? I had the same problem with the folks who wrote "Coddling"––they do not interview a single person who was part of any of the movements on college campuses to, in their own views, hold people from older generations accountable for engaging in irresponsible and sometimes reprehensible behavior (by commission or omission) on issues of race and gender.
It is a very interesting moment (I believe) in which young people are taking a zero-tolerance stance on behavior that people from my generation might have considered obnoxious, unfortunate. Young people are saying: I'm not going to accept your pandering, your disrespect, your lack of understanding, your assaults and your power plays. And now, more so, they are also demanding to be given a voice and not spoken for.
What we are trying to do through the RJ Center is train students to help each other to work through problems in communication in a less punitive way than the Oberlin example, a more supportive way, by "calling in" rather than "calling out." It's true that students can be quite harsh with each other--perhaps because that they grew up in a zero-tolerance world, an extremely punitive time, and they are modeling the behaviors of the institutions they've been involved with. But they are also "too through" with bad behavior and refuse to accept it. That to me is a healthy development and I support the goals, even if the strategies are at this time a bit rough.
If you did interview the young woman, you might find that the sociologists' theory that this kind of behavior occurs among people who are "almost equal" will not be borne out. Even if you tried to calculate equality among Oberlin students on some kind of abstract scale (that disregards the past three months of Donald Trump hatred, and the kinds of disrespectful behavior that occurs on college campuses around "Drinko de Mayo" etc.,) the young woman would most likely assure you that she does not feel "almost equal." And I would suspect from the work I've done with Chicano-Latino students that the perception of inequality will make people experience each perceived sleight or micro-aggression as greater than the sum of parts, that is, as yet another sign of systemic racism and exclusion. Each sleight thus takes on greater significance.
Those are real feelings, perceptions and analyses and you could do them greater justice if you engaged in actual dialog with the people you're discussing. My advice for you and your colleagues at the Atlantic is to include the voices of the young folks when you write about them. Not just what they write on social media, but give them a chance to explain themselves in terms of the deeper context of their reactions to answer the question of "why" on their own terms.
With regard to the woman at Oberlin, I wish I could have reached her, but I also felt that her ideas about “microaggressions” came across very clearly in her published words. As a general matter, I am all for talking to actual collegians about their thoughts, and in coming days, you’ll hear from lots more of them in this space.
Says another reader:
I'd love to share with you how I perceive the new focus on microaggressions. I'm 33, and I grew up in a small town in Alabama. When I came out as gay at 16, many people were wonderfully supportive, but I got prayed for by name during public school classes, called on the phone late at night to tell my parents I would burn in hell, excluded from bringing dates to prom, etc. Now I'm 33, and I teach public school in Tennessee, and kids who belong to marginalized groups (GLBT, racial/ethnic minority, non-Christian, etc.) have a language for talking back to injustice that I didn't have. Can those kids be annoying in how they talk back? Sure. They're kids; it's their job to be annoying to adults. Does the existence of "microaggressions" empower them to speak truth to authority figures who'd rather not hear it? I think so. This isn't a wholly academic debate; these cultural memes have real-life consequences for young people who choose to embrace them as they seek self-actualization. In my role, abstract concerns about the existence of a "victimhood culture" have to be seen in light of that.
I hope this reader is right—and that any pushback against “victimhood culture” is careful to preserve the ability of kids like this to be empowered in speaking up for themselves.
Says another reader:
Emphasizing one's "victimization" is also not always a bad thing in the context of higher education. I was one of the few Latinos in many classes and an undergrad and probably the only while in graduate school. My ability to understand and exert my "victimization" has actually been beneficial to every institution I have been affiliated with. I don't like being the one brown dude to speak for an entire segment of the population, but on many occasions my voice is the only one in the room.
Says one final reader, last but certainly not least:
I did not attend college. I don't know what it is like in a campus, or how race issues play out in their halls and fields. I do however know what being Latino (please don't refer to me as Hispanic) in a White American world is. My parents were born in the Dominican Republic and I was born in Manhattan. I am American. This answer is usually not enough for white people when they as me "what I am". I totally appreciate the scientific approach, but you are forgetting an important factor in your analysis. Bias.
You like everyone else approaches the current issues with your own personal biases, whether they be conscious or subconscious, they are unavoidable. This is true in all of us. So what you call "victimhood" is directly influenced by these biases. People feel victimized because they perceive that they are being slighted by a power that has been slighting them for a long time. You touch on this briefly but you don't go into the roots of the problems.
People of color are victims of what Ta-Nehisi Coates refers to as "the dreamers." The architects of the "American Dream" worked very hard to keep us all segregated. We have more than enough evidence to show that the systemic segregation of these United States of America was planned and executed by both sides of the Isle. George W. Romney foretold the future of the union if segregation was upheld. This is the problem we face today, especially in colleges. There are a great number of White people who are coming from extremely segregated upbringings, and who are used to speaking in a certain way, where they don't have to worry about the feelings of someone of a different ethnicity.
So far, I absolutely agree.
This is where these "microaggressions" live. But how Micro are they?
Sure for the White student who comes from a nice white community, and went to a predominately white school, whose only experience with people of color is from pop cultural portrayals, and the few people they may have come in contact with in their upbringing, sure, to them these aggressions might seem micro. They may not know what the big deal is. Surely they aren't racist. And racist is the word that white people seem to fear.
Now what you may perceive as micro is definitely not micro for people who endure it on a regular basis. Even micro things, when added to one another, certainly compound. When enough people use your language as a joke or a naive attempt to relate to you, that adds up. Little comments are not little when said all the time. You didn't take this into consideration in your analysis.
Just to interject briefly, “micro” isn’t my term for all grievances expressed by minorities. It’s baked into the flawed term that proponents of this framework created to describe a particular sorts of grievance or slight. The reader is suggesting that this could trivialize some slights that are not minor, and I actually agree.
You did however talked about social conditions in which "victimhood" was more prevalent: "victimhood culture is likeliest to arise in settings where there is some diversity and inequality, but whose members are almost equal." I would like to understand what this "almost equal" actually means. Is three quarters of a man almost equal to a man? I mean there is only a quarter missing right? This is where this all becomes especially problematic. Who dictates and decides what almost equal is? It is quite absurd to measure almost equality in a scholarly paper.
Is it almost equal because people of color can use the same bathrooms on campus? Do the police tend to harass them any less (per-capita) than in other places? Are these specific school where it is almost equal free of student black face parties? The idea that a place can be almost equal is offensive to the ones on the short end of the stick. These aggressive aggressions have always existed. Mostly because of a form of Stockholm syndrome that has been ingrained in White America by the Ruling White America for so long. Segregation has always been the tool.
Segregation is still real, de facto is it may be, still very real. This study is purely minimizing the experience of people of color in an America that is still White ruled. If we get angry about anything, there is always a new term for it. We can't just be humans being wronged. Examples that seem small to people without the shared experiences are just minimizing the actual victims, and not acknowledging the weight that a person of color carries.
While I don’t agree that it is inherently offensive to measure degrees of inequality, I do agree that segregation is still with us, and I’ll close by taking the opportunity to plug two exceptional episodes that This American Life recently did on the subject.
My sincere gratitude to all of the correspondents who offered their thoughts, and to the readers following this conversation. Stay tuned for future installments of reader responses that tackle different aspects of these subjects, including a critique of the terminology that the sociologists chose to use in their academic paper.
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