It’s all but certain that the Latina student at Oberlin has experienced racism. As much as I disagree with her email, it is unfair to judge a teen or young adult’s character based on one interaction. I was wrong and immature dozens of times in college. Nearly everyone else was at age 18, too. “Victimhood culture” is everywhere in American culture, not confined to “a small, irrational, obnoxious segment of our society.” Some defenders of the “microaggressions framework” would love nothing more than to not be offended. And many of those misusing the microaggressions framework are responding predictably to incentives set up by other people. Assuming “personal failures, shortcomings, or insecurities” is unwarranted.
Says a different reader:
My issue with victimhood culture, as described in your piece, is that it encourages people to take actions that can alienate potential allies, and in the same breath, be counterproductive. This is because the hostility inherent in the types of behavior embodied by the Oberlin Microaggressions necessarily puts those potential allies on the defensive. It also does nothing productive to actually create the equality it seeks.
Another reader writes:
I'm a white male, aged 34, returning to school because I was a PTSD'd, depressive mess when I was younger. Living in the SF Bay Area, I regularly run into people acting as if white males are inherently evil. I also have run into women who have told me that men are inherently evil; that we are killers because we can't bear children; and that we deserve to be treated with hostility, open aggression, and outright bullying because of our gender. Some of this has happened on-campus, and some of it off.
I grew up being bullied for being fat, nerdy, and presumably gay (because I was sensitive in rural America). I've been sexually abused by both genders, and had horrible, *evil* things done to me by my father. I've gone months without eating enough food on any single day. I still live in poverty. And I was a marine; I've worked as an EMT to help my community; I'm trying to get my master's degree so I can teach disadvantaged people, so they can have a shot at a decent life. And people still treat me like I'm inherently rotten, villainous, rapacious, and––obviously––racist.
It's tiring, and very few care. Because, as a white male, I deserve it, as I clearly have lived an abundantly advantaged life, and am inherently oppressive & viallainous - I mean (as one Latina put it), "Just look at you." I wish there was more of a movement, within minority groups and society-wide, to shed this spiritual corruption that harms innocent people.
The next reader alludes to the chilling effect on public discourse that offense-taking causes:
Social media is teeming with policing, and lives are sometimes ruined over something as simple as a joke that was told in poor taste. I have all but ceased discussing political, economic, and social issues online as a result. Based on what we have all heard, it might be shocking that a woman of color is afraid to speak, not because of the potential reactions of white conservative males, but out of fear of the progressive reaction.
Another reader writes:
My name is Pablo Sosa, and I'm emailing you from Mexico. I find your article very interesting, just as traces of this victimhood culture in my city (Mérida, Yucatán). Since I'm "latino" and "brown" I'd probably expect to be identified with this hispanic girl who wrote about being offended by the "white american fetishizer, whatever, whatever whatever".
In truth I am not, and, even more, I feel identified with the white guy. I find it curious that I've been a friend of some American guys, and none of them have actually acted in any morally offensive way. We've called each other "whitey (blanquito)" and "blacky (negrito)", and not because we hate each other and emphasize our respective ethnic races, but because we emphasize how stupid we sound when we pretend to be intolerant.
Along this time, we've all learned to be more patient with each other (since our cultures are different), because we're not free of acting in any prejudiced way, even when we don't want to. When someone has offended any of us, we prefer talking in private and discussing what happened. We (all, including american guys) find dignity culture definitely better than victimhood culture. It lets us talk and sort out our problems with no need of making them public knowledge and putting anyone in a position of victim or victimizer. We just get along and have a good time together. I hope this e-mail answers some of your questions, and sorry if my english is not good, I'm not a native speaker (I usually talk to my American friends in English when we're in private, and in Spanish when we're all together).Thank you for reading this, and have a nice day!
Says another reader:
As a Hispanic, female, Gen X college administrator, I too have seen a big increase in these types of emails across campus. My co-workers and I marvel at the exchanges we see between students and administrators. You were able to articulate what I have been struggling to explain about why I DON’T give in and try to prove others wrong or seek validation in group emails and why I still pick up the phone to resolve issues over the phone. However, disrespect me in person and it’s on! Why do you think that is?
The next correspondent writes:
I have been teaching at Columbia and Barnard for 47 years. I find the terms “safe space” and “micro-aggression” and “trigger warnings” to be idiotic.
Our students are wonderful in many ways, but they are being sensitized to the slightest of slights, and they exist now (often on mood altering substances prescribed by mental health professionals) in what they consider to be an unsafe world. This, on campuses that by most measures could be considered the safest spots on the planet. I try to give my students a sense of proportion about all these things. And in my classroom I won’t tolerate these assumptions (neither will I tolerate racism and sexism from students directed at each other) and I make it clear from day one that no one is to be flagged for “microaggressions” or any other slight/slight.
But, it’s like pissing in the wind.
The next reader writes:
I am a gay man, so I therefore fall into one of the allegedly "victimized" groups on college campuses. In spite of that, I think the form of victimhood culture exemplified in the email exchange is a very frightening trend. I believe it's necessary for straight people to talk openly about LGBT issues with LGBT people if our goal is full acceptance.
However, thanks to victimhood culture and identity politics, many straight people have become afraid of even approaching the subject with me or other gay people. Honestly, I can't blame them. I personally understand that everyone makes verbal faux pas sometimes and so I won't take offense to something unless the intent of the speaker is malicious. However, many people don't see things this way. And even if they are relatively few in number, they are loud and forceful enough to stifle open intercultural communication. After all, why risk speaking with those from a different cultural background if the result could be shame and humiliation? I think the most frightening part is that this outlook is going to force people to associate only with those in their "identity group." How can we maintain an increasingly diverse society when our subcultures are becoming so insular and intolerant to outsiders?
I hope something or someone can end victimhood culture and fast. It's not good for anyone: neither the allegedly "victimized" nor the allegedly "dominant."
The next reader writes:
No "victimization culture" could exist in a society that hadn't already made great strides in recognizing the universal right of human dignity and the need to treat everyone without prejudice. Without compassion and cultural understanding, there could be no exaltation of victimhood. And yet the first inclination of many self-appointed victims is not to see our collective need to find a better way forward, but to apply their own brand of petty tyranny to their perceived former aggressors.
Says the next reader:
As a long haul activist starting from the anti-apartheid era who has studied and seen a wide range of political movements up close and who has had a real job in the private sector, I have several thoughts about this. There has been a construction of groups by left identitarians to suit their own needs. This dehumanizes millions of people as passive objects.
I see this phenomenon in my gayness, where the identitarians assert that there is this mythical gay community and that we should all feel the same. The error is the assumption that because people with an identity are targeted for oppression based on that attribute, these people should all fall in neatly as a group above and beyond contesting narrow de jure oppressions. My activist acquaintances from the various identity groups don't all cleave to this ideology, and my acquaintances who are not in these identity groups have no clue that any of this is going on.
In the late 1980s, radical feminism hit the dead end with separatism. That approach was abandoned because it did not work, it did not unify women and it did not grow by appealing to more women. At this point, I cannot sit through a meeting with these people who perceive affronts at the slightest whim. There were women and queers who insisted on a separatist “safe space” at Occupy San Francisco as if it is unsafe for women and queers to operate in mixed groups in San Francisco, of all places.
In the academy, where people are constructing adult identities, there will be more communal support for this nonsense. In the real world, people don't have time for these shenanigans. The drive to persevere over adversity trumps wallowing in victimhood. They hate it when I tell young queers of this stripe that they would have cowered under a table at The Stonewall or Compton's had they had to take personal, physical risks against macroagressions to move forward towards freedom. The FBI could not have invented a better ideology to insulate the system from threat.
Says the next reader:
I was writing a comment to an article about racism. Since the article discussed racial discrimination against not only African Americans but also Latinos, I used the term "people of color." In a reply to my comment, another reader told me to cease and desist my use of that term "people of color" because the reader felt it was demeaning and racist.
I could have argued with the reader and have the usual verbal foodfight but I replied to say I didn't know the phrase was so insulting and from now on I would discontinue using it. Then another commenter who had read this exchange said I should have told that person to go to hell and expressed how craven and servile I was in the way I handled myself. Several days later I am reading an article in The New York Times on a speech that President Obama gave about race relations in our country. He used the phrase "people of color." But I did not send an angry e-mail to the White House's website and tell him to stop using that phrase. When did just living your life became such a social minefield?
College professor Carlos Hiraldo writes:
I appreciate your article on Victimhood Culture. Part of the problem when identity politics goes wrong (as it often does) is that one or more participants in a given incident is usually mired in an ignorant, limited perspective.
As far as I can tell by her email, the Latina student revealed a condition that is common in many of my Latino students ––overt claims of pride in their families' national backgrounds coupled with the total absence of any basic knowledge of said background. While teaching Maus in a composition class, I tried explaining to an Ecuadorian student that during different times in its history, Poland has been colonized by Germany and/or Russia, "like Ecuador was once a colony of Spain." I was astonished when he looked at me with a confused expression. His confusion became clearer to me when he shrugged his shoulder at the question, "how do you think Ecuador's language is Spanish like it is in Spain?"
My point is that often times the person claiming a grievance in Victimhood Culture is fetishizing an “object” of culture as a substitute for actual self-knowledge. The perceived endemic connection between Latinos and Spanish is one of my pet-peeves––in the end, it privileges the language of one colonial master over another. To proclaim the language of Cervantes and Franco as an emblem of being "down home" with the people of color south of the border requires historical amnesia. This is why the over-pronunciation of a name, word or phrase in Spanish in the midst of a conversation in English makes my eyes roll, especially when a non-Latino white jumps on this tired-assed gimmick. Hey, I guess me and that Latina student do have something in common after all. :)
Says another reader:
The victimhood you describe is set up around the concept that a slight must be brought to the world's attention because it brings to light a larger, but hidden system of abuses that a demographic faces. It is thus useful as long as the abuses are hidden. But as abuses come to light, the negative aspects of victimhood culture overtake its usefulness. I predict that if a system of abuses does become common knowledge, victimhood culture in that arena will fade. But that might take calendar decades.
Frankly, I don't want to wait decades for this new cultural perspective to work itself out. I want it to collapse, and in its demise, for the young people powering its momentum to learn new approaches to resolving conflict.
My interest is selfish: I don't want to be caught in an escalation like what you described. The consequences are too great. At best, I could be publicly shamed. At worst, I could lose my livelihood to an inordinate cultural sensitivity movement. My interest is also for others engaged in these escalations. Escalating minor infractions in the larger world can lead to social change, but it can also lead to escalatory retaliation, as you imagined, as well as social exclusion or larger forms of self-damage.
Better for young people to try this in the realm of universities, to experience its effects, and to be driven to create new methods of conflict resolution. Perhaps understanding that all peoples can find grievances against all other peoples will reduce the interest in endless yelling, and perhaps increase interest in finite discussion. Perhaps that understanding can only be developed through experience. I wish all involved the best.
The next reader writes:
I am a woman of color who moved to New Jersey at age 10. I have a lot of family members who live in India (including my father and sister), and I visit often. I've always felt torn when it comes to microaggressions. On the one hand, as a person of color, I find things like casual watermelon jokes, the lightening of colored women's skin on magazine covers, and the way writers of color tend to be talked down to in MFA programs deplorable. But as a liberal arts-educated person who has distinct class privilege––especially in India, where maids, drivers, and private clubs (designed to keep poorer, darker people out) are ubiquitous––I know I am likely to accidentally say things that might offend somebody who is less so-called "model minority" than me.
To put things succinctly: in India I belong to a "dignity culture" and in the US I belong to "victimhood culture." Both have its problems. In dignity culture, I witness inequality all the time and I've given up on vocalizing my concerns. I know they will fall on deaf ears, or worse, I'd be rendered cute. American idealism just does not work in India. You can't rescue every stray dog, feed every beggar, or convince your maid to sit with you at the table, instead of cross-legged on the floor after everyone else is finished. To put it bluntly, the underprivileged in India have bigger fish to fry than rhetorical slights or appropriation. But the dignity culture they live in is too proud / jaded / unwilling to change for their concerns, and their occasional uprisings, to be effective. I can never spend too much time in India. All this powerlessness makes me sick.
As for victimhood culture, many valid points about racial privilege are lost in pseudo-academic assertions of "rhetorical genocide" or "appropriation." I don't like that offended individuals need the backing of hoards of people to prove that the certain incident was really an offense. It dulls the complexities of individual human reactions; and it assumes all people of color will be indignant in solidarity (and shames the ones who aren't).
I'm more optimistic now about things changing for the better, but I do think "victimhood culture" allows for something as deplorable as everyone just looking for things to be offended by. The so-called rage machine. I hope that the culture of victimhood stops being so reaction-based. I don't think we should be telling people how to feel ("you shouldn't be offended"), but we should be willing to hear people out and mull over why they would act that way. I don't know if that is possible in a hostile environment that relies on validation from others and ignores nuance.
Another reader writes:
I've placed myself in self-imposed exile in Korea and refuse to study at any places of "higher" learning in the west. I'm an Aboriginal Canadian/Jewish/my step dad is Latino. Being fed up with identity politics and wanting to talk about real topics I decided to study in Asia. I lost it when another First Nations student during my undergrad at Dalhousie told me I had to "de-colonialize" myself. I thought university was supposed to be a place where you got insulted, offended and challenged. It's hard to reason with a person who has made themselves out to be a victim. My uncle told me once "You're only a victim if you choose to be."
He's a nuclear physicist so I tend to listen to what he has to say. As I see it, I'll stick it out here in the Han-Guk until the west gets its shit together. If leading comedians won't step foot on a campus that says a lot about the culture that exists there today. Where did all the funny people go?
Another reader writes:
In my view, Victimhood culture is a pernicious form of Narcissism that cloaks itself behind respectable causes, such as the promotion of gender and racial equality. By identifying oneself as a member of an oppressed group, one can don the halo of "the moral superiority of the victim" and therefore feel entitled to accuse anyone foolish enough to criticize you as a racist, sexist, homophobe, antisemite... the list goes on and will inevitably get longer. Everyone is entitled to consideration and respect, however, the professional Victims demand more than others and thereby alienate themselves from those in more privileged sections of society who would otherwise be supportive of the disenfranchised.
In my view, the “privileged sections of society” don’t have a very good track record of supporting the disenfranchised, and I would be very surprised if the behavior of “professional victims,” however construed, was the determinative factor.