Readers Lament the Rise of 'Victimhood Culture'

They worry that the rise of microaggressions undermines efforts to solve problems in productive ways.

Yves Herman / Reuters

In a previous item, I shared correspondence from readers who defended the rise of the “microaggressions” framework and changes in moral culture that gave rise to it. All of the emails were responses to two recent articles, “The Rise of Victimhood Culture” and “Why Critics of the ‘Microaggressions’ Framework Are Skeptical.” This batch of correspondence comes from readers who are skeptical of the “microaggressions” framework and lament the trend toward “victimhood culture.” The diversity of opposition is striking: Readers from a wide variety of backgrounds raised numerous, sometimes overlapping concerns about the cultural trend.

The most common sentiment: “I find the rise of victimhood culture alarming. It gives so little room for people to solve problems in a productive way or live in harmony.”

Says the first reader:

I am a 28-year-old college graduate, a woman of color with an Asian Indian and Puerto Rican background. I find the new identity politics problematic for many reasons, including the fact that it is actually my personal preference to not make my race, gender, or ethnicity a central part of my identity (just fine if someone else has strong cultural ties). We are now being told that this is offensive to others. Indeed, it is a micro-aggression to say that you are "colorblind." Moreover, the new identity politics seems to be built on the ad hominem fallacy. Instead of asserting that we women of color can do anything white men can (and then proving it), many prefer to define skills, intellect, and merit of all sorts as having biases. Then what are we left with aside from our grievances?

I also have a problem with the logic that because we are part of a group that historically faced (and continues to face) discrimination, then simply because someone is white and/or straight and/or male they should be prevented from sharing an idea. This logic does not follow, and the idea that, "I don't like being discriminated against so now I get to act as a discriminator," does not show good character. After I voiced these thoughts a few self-identified progressives called me names and told me that I was stupid, ignorant, and must have been brainwashed by the white patriarchy. So someone whose rights and voice these individuals are supposedly fighting for was told that she must not be able to think for herself if she does not agree with current social justice ideology.

That seems ironic.

Says the next reader:

I'm European and Native American (dad from Germany, mother with Cherokee Nation lineage ). I'm married to an immigrant, and speak two languages. Despite what I consider to be a diverse background and skill set, I'm none of those things to Millennials. I'm white. Pure and simple. Thus, when I speak, my language, demeanor, facial expressions, and tone are all rife with microaggressions based on my skin color. I can't offer advice, sympathy, or even help without encountering the "Oberlin Effect."

As a civil servant I see the effects of this manifesting itself in a generation of people who cannot handle real conflict. They've stripped down their internal defenses to the point of exposing an emotional nerve. Once they leave the college environment they flock to social media for the "third party", and if that fails they are rendered adrift in society. The only thing left for them is depression, anger, and confusion.

The notion that a whole generation is bound for “depression, anger, and confusion” is certainly wrong. So is this next reader, whose argument I take issue with below:

We're overthinking this and trying to apply rational theory to a small, irrational, obnoxious segment of our society that wakes up everyday desperately wanting to be offended. The in your face, all caps finger-pointing serves as compensation for personal failures, shortcomings, or insecurities. Of course, it doesn't help when university professors justify, encourage, and rationalize such behavior.  Most of these kids like this unwise Latina at Oberlin probably have never experienced true racism/oppression, but have been told they are victims so their bizarre reactions to everyday interactions are greatly exaggerated and overly dramatic.

Why are some young black people, who are totally free and have never experienced the extreme persecution, racism, and oppression that older black folks have, the most sensitive to racial issues today in 2015?  

They've been brainwashed.

I vehemently disagree with the reader. There’s strong evidence that nearly all black people in America experience significant racism. Any argument premised on the idea that they should be less sensitive because it isn’t as bad as Jim Crow is madness.

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.

Says the next reader:

What strikes me most forcefully is that, like honor and dignity cultures, the culture of victimhood stands in opposition to the spiritual insights of (most) major religious traditions. In the contemplative traditions – which include some of the strains of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam – the highest value is placed on the subordination of self to the Divine and the subordination of self-will to what I would call God’s will, but other traditions might label Torah, the Dharma, the Tao, etc.

In the spiritual context, the “proper” response to oppression, insult, victimization at the individual level is at least indifference, and at best, compassion for the other. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” The response these traditions make at the collective level is different (at least sometimes), and moves in the direction of what today we’d call social activism. You can’t understand the abolition movement, temperance, women’s suffrage, civil rights, or Gandhi’s movements in South Africa and India without understanding their spiritual roots.

For me, none of these “moral codes” is particularly admirable. All depend on putting the self at the center of one’s attention, and that seems to me ultimately trivial, self-defeating and a waste of or deep humanity.

Says another reader:

There is a strong economic argument against victimhood culture. Dignity culture, by forsaking the involvement of the authorities in many cases, reduces the administrative costs of the state. Victimhood culture uses a police state requested by the public to act as the broker of social behavior. Even discounting the value of liberty, this police state is very expensive. I was taught that the Achilles heel of police states is that they run out of money necessary to pay the salaries of the security forces. It is revealing that colleges, where victimhood culture is strongest, have seen an explosion in administrative costs. Everyone knows these costs are unsustainable in academe, let alone society at large.

Another reader writes:

I call this issue the 'Race to the Bottom' where people try to gain more social points or righteousness by claiming the worst, or least desirable, status. One danger of this attitude is that it fails to recognize a lot of hardships and anguish people go through that has nothing to do with race or social status.

I was visiting a friend in New Orleans and we went to a party. One woman there was outspoken about the way New Orleans was changing after Hurricane Katrina. At one point, she said something along the lines of 'white people who don't know what problems are.' I got defensive immediately and asked her what she meant by that. She further stated that she simply doesn't think white people have any reason to complain and said that therapy for them is 'always self indulgent, because what tragedy have they faced?' At that point, I told her that I was in therapy because a few months prior, I delivered a stillborn son. The trauma of that landed me and my husband in therapy.

The conversation dissolved from there. I wish I never engaged with her at all and just ignored her comments. I'm a little embarrassed that I even participated in a Race to the Bottom conversation. But I was just so angry that she could claim to know about the experience of all white people.

Said the next correspondent:

As a Latina woman who runs her own tech company, I'm painfully aware of the kinds of oppression brown people are subject to on a regular basis. Racism has blown up since Obama was elected, and the racism that had been operating behind the scenes stepped out and got a million times worse.

I'm embarrassed for people like this Oberlin student who, rather than reaching out to the person with whom she disagrees to come to some mutually-satisfactory understanding, hold up their perceived antagonizers to public ridicule. No one's mind has ever been changed by a full frontal assault. To take a 26-word email and interpret each word at its most offensive feels exactly the same as the exercise that happened during the Rodney King beating trials, when the defense team for the police officers took the video footage and showed it to the jury frame by frame, giving each individual still picture an interpretation that allowed the jury to say that the four policemen beating and kicking a single unarmed man were justified. It takes some sustained commitment to proving a point that can't be made any other way.

Another reader writes:

In college, I was a student staffer for the freshmen summer orientation program. A good deal of the training for the program was devoted to learning about microaggressions concerning race, gender, sexuality, etc., how to identify them and how to avoid them. I was amazed by how rooted social identities have become in language rather than action. The use of the correct word in reference to a person takes greater weight than the actions that govern the use of that word. This victimhood culture is governed by language that is losing its tie to a structural foundation.

Said one reader: “Advocates of microaggressions purport to prioritize empathy, but this culture is hugely alienating, both emotionally and intellectually.” Another wrote: “I believe victimhood ultimately hurts the self-styled victim the most.”

Another reader writes:

Some families have not been to church or received formal religious or ethical training in generations. They haven't been taught how to love people who are different from them.  They haven't learned how to be gracious by giving people the benefit of the doubt (I'm sure he meant well).  

Instead of being Peacemakers as Jesus admonished, they are flamethrowers and rabble rousers who get kudos from their social gang for stirring up the drama.  How can we blame people for knowing what is going to offend us if it wasn't done to upset us?   

There is a a saying: "He who takes offense when no offense is intended is a fool. He who takes offense when offense IS intended, is an even bigger fool."

This is what Jesus meant when he said to Turn the other Cheek. Unity in victimization is a creepy trend designed to keep people divided into factions, and dependent on a a separate source for their peace of mind and emotional stability. No wonder those under 30 are hardly marrying. They've been taught to despise each other, and attack at the slightest provocation.  

We need to teach, model and project Love and Grace, the opposite of victimization.

In my experience, church attendees are just as prone to participating in victimhood culture as anyone else, and people under 30 do not, generally speaking, despise one another, nor do they attack one another at the slightest provocation. And the age at which they marry is almost certainly explained by other factors.

Says another reader:

The solution is to bring back the school yard fight (honor culture), re-teach kids "sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me," and stop teaching kids to report bullying. Teach kids to jump up and kick the shit out of the bully, and teach them America is awesome, not perfect, but awesome in its ability to recognize its own faults and fix them... and we'll maybe move past this self-destructive idiocy.

Won’t school-aged kids be confused if we teach them, “sticks and stones may break your bones...” and then send them out to the stick-and-stone filled schoolyard to fight?

Says another reader:

There is another option:  I-don't-give-a-fuck-if-you-are-offended culture. This culture doesn't care if someone is treated with dignity.  In fact, this culture values straight talk--not dignity, not feelings, not victimhood. This culture doesn't care if someone is: 1)  a victim; 2) wants to be treated like a victim. Hard to believe dinosaurs like me still exist.  

But we are still here! And having FUN every day.

I propose that we call this “anti-social culture,” and I’m feeling generous.

Says the next reader:

I grew up in a physically abusive household. My parents separated when I was ten. My meek, timid behavior, a product of my abuse, made me an easy target for bullies. I find it hard to enjoy the privileges of being straight, white, and male when my own victimization still presents itself to me in the form of anxiety, depression, and worthlessness.

Victimization is not exclusive to race, gender, culture, or sexuality. It isn't a trophy that should be used proclaim superiority, and it isn't a divider to arbitrarily exclude others who may not have experienced the collective suffering of an entire people. The survival of victimization is a sign of strength, and there is nothing wrong with being proud of one's culture for doing so, but to use that pride as a club to arbitrarily denigrate another because they, being an outsider, don't understand what is or isn't a loaded statement is frankly ignorant, intolerant, and unbecoming. More importantly, it stymies any chance of an honest, open discussion that could have given both parties insight into each others' culture.

The next correspondent writes:

At Lawrence University, trigger warning is king. As a student in basic biology, we received trigger warnings before discussing the psychoactive effects of drugs. Also, when discussing genetics and trait assignment in humans, anything regarding genetic differences among humans that result in physical ethnic traits was contested as offensive by at least one student. This ended up having class time devoted to deciding which pronouns and nouns the professor should use for race. That’s not biology.

In Social Psychology, the same situations occurred. Effectively, a class which studied the way people act in society was scared from discussing the way people act in society because the professor didn’t want to accidentally offend, and the students didn’t want to accidentally offend.  

Another student writes:

I graduated from Oberlin, and some of the conversations were there (although a little less intense) when I graduated in 1991. There is a sense that victimhood could become a badge, a sense of affirmation. I think that's true. I wonder if in honor and victimization culture, the need to win, to be publicly vindicated, takes a higher priority than in a dignity culture. The urge to emotionally conquer, to be visibly and publicly correct over another person is prior to the habit or practice of seeking private resolutions. The latter is, I think, a little harder and demonstrates weakness to some; but sometimes this seems like "tone-policing" or policing overall.

What is also interesting to me is how the philosopher Rene Girard actually handles this. He notes, as you do, that greater equality leads to more rivalry; and that we tend to escalate conflict to the point where we demonize each other, even though we are generally interchangeable. Though I am a progressive, I admit I am the sort who thinks we must learn to be responsible for our own emotions; so I distrust the easily offended. I also think that we need to better align such outrage with a little more strategy if we are to change the institutions that implement policy.

We need all the energy we can for that.

Says another alum, the last correspondent in this batch:

I am an Asian American female.  During my four years at Oberlin, I spent most of my time in the classroom or on the volleyball court as a starter for the varsity team.  I found myself relating to both ‘the minority’ and the ‘jock’.

I grew up in a biracial home.  I was teased and ridiculed by my classmates because my eyes were different than theirs.  I was aware that I looked different from my siblings, but my mother made sure to instill in me that my heart beat the same way and my lungs breathed in the same air.   

I grew up in a home where it was encouraged to be colorblind, to see the world as one giant opportunity. I played the victim once in my life. I was five. I blamed my mother for keeping me in the dark about the taboo rainbow that is all around us.  Growing up half Chinese and half Irish wasn’t a walk in the park. I was in Kindergarten when the comments and humiliation began.  My mother had worked so hard to protect me from the ignorance of the world and yet, it began to deteriorate the force field she had built to shield me from the hate the world possesses.  The taboo rainbow began to seep into my eyes like poison, allowing me to see the differences in others, both physically and otherwise.  In a world with such emphasis on being “original” we are so keen on tarnishing the beautiful differences that make us just authentic.

My freshman year I asked many questions of LGBTQ members, mostly friends of mine. I asked bluntly to understand things that I couldn’t wrap my mind around.  I was given candid answers and each person appreciated that I had the courage to ask.  My sophomore year I was privileged to attend a People of Color Leadership Conference.  I do not see myself as a person of “color”, however I was intrigued by what this conference would teach me.  I asked questions to many people of many different races, genders, sexual orientation, etc.  Many of my questions were far from politically correct. I used derogatory language unintentionally.  I asked offensive questions.  However, I managed to offend no one. It seems that had I been talking to the Hispanic student from your article, I would have been ridiculed publicly.  However, it is simply because I was clear to say ‘Please don’t mistake my naivety for ignorance’. As my questions were answered, my mind became even more open.  

I’ve been put into a box my entire life and it’s exhausting to have to explain myself to others because they some preconceived notion of what an Asian American should be. We are all just people. It is important to educate the ignorant people of the world because they simply do not know better.  The majority of the time, they were brought up that way and no one should be faulted for being raised in the dark.  There are some people that will intentionally hurt us with their words.  And then there are people like the naïve student who says ‘futbol’ to the Hispanic, who do not need us to use our voices to shame him. Life is too short to be angry, but it is never to short to educate, to have a discussion, and open the minds of our co-inhabitants of the world.