Co-authored by Damella Dotan, Episcopal Service Corps Volunteer
As white, social-justice-oriented students, one of the spaces our white privilege allows us to enter is yours, the adults who populate our world, when you voice concerns that our focus on microaggressions constitutes a bridge too far. You might become defensive when microaggressions are discussed, but this article endeavors to explain their significance to you, baby boomers for whom remaining up to date with advocacy theories becomes understandably difficult.
Microaggressions are manifestations of our implicit bias (ubiquitous, unconscious prejudice). They can be verbal ("You speak good English"), nonverbal (clutching one's purse more tightly), or environmental (symbols like American Indian mascots). Studies reveal that microaggressions increase stereotype threat, negatively impact academic performance, and perpetuate societal devaluation of certain groups that leads to inequalities in education, employment, and healthcare. Baby boomers, we know your intentions are good; racial microaggressors are "well-intentioned White people who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated"--yet we should all strive to become aware of and reduce our unintentional slights.
Today, we see fewer examples of deliberate and explicit racism than in past decades, yet structural racism persists. As allies with racial or other kinds of privilege, being aware of our behavior is the least we can do. People of color are showing us that certain actions make their lives more difficult; ignoring requests to acknowledge that fact reinforces racial inequity. By highlighting messages that communicate bias we make ourselves aware of the unconscious behavior perpetuating discrimination, which helps us dismantle its structural pervasiveness.
You should not fear being told you have microaggressed: we all do it. We have all internalized the racist, sexist, classist, homophobic prejudices of the society in which we were raised. Acknowledging this fact constitutes a prerequisite to consciously engaging in the continuing effort to uproot our implicit bias.
To those who point at other human rights issues or different ways to combat racism as "better" foci for activists: first, social justice strategies are not mutually exclusive, and second, it is important for us to be aware of how the acts of an individual, and how interpersonal interactions in general, can reinforce internalized negative stereotypes. Microaggression theory promotes an inclusive, non-hierarchical conversation about biases, their manifestations, and their effects; it represents a move away from the colorblindness approach to racial issues in favor of multiculturalism and anti-subordination.
You may have seen articles pushing back on microaggression theory, usually targeting student-driven advocacy to acknowledge and account for trauma. Trauma recognition practices include universities making exam extensions available during cataclysmic events like those of Ferguson, Missouri, and individual professors providing in-class trigger warnings, both of which accommodate students suffering from PTSD, shock, or anxiety. Showing sensitivity around topics likely to exacerbate those conditions equalizes the classroom dynamic and shows respect for both the students and the gravity of the class content.
Those who write against trauma recognition often conflate students' desire for increased sensitivity with a desire to avoid certain topics or with outright censorship, thereby creating straw man arguments. As one professor put it, "the idea that trigger warnings are a form of censorship is fundamentally illogical: those who offer warnings, at our professional discretion, about potentially triggering material are doing so precisely because we're about to teach it!" Another professor suggests that her colleagues who target trauma recognition are (perhaps unconsciously) driven by their justifiable frustrations over decreasing job security in academia. As universities exchange tenure-track jobs for poorly paid, terminate-at-will contract positions, professors navigate increasingly treacherous and political waters. In this context, student contributions to pedagogy discussions might heighten professors' sense of losing control of their classrooms and be seen as a threat, when otherwise student involvement in their education would be welcomed as beneficial.
Baby boomers, when we become aware of the microaggressions expressed by those around us -- and ourselves -- we all move towards a more equitable future together. When considering our behavior, we can use resources that identify major microaggression themes. And if we're lucky, people will tell us when we've microaggressed so we can avoid that act in the future. Don't fear that process; rather, be glad you've taught the next generation to stand up for what's right.