Friday, September 9, 2016

On Teaching Microaggressions

So at some point in time, the mainstream culture figured out that overt racism, homophobia, transphobia, and body-shaming were wrong. That meant you didn't use terms like "tranny" or "fatass." It meant that you didn't make fun of gay people for having a lisp. It meant you didn't tell asshole jokes, even in a meta way, in which you asked your black friends if they could read. So far, so good.

There was always another side, though, the non-bigot who was so non-bigoted that his non-bigotry turned into a condescending fascination with [particular group], that he became his own kind of bigot. "I looooovvvvveeeee my gays!" "I think you are sooooo braaavvveee to be proud of your body!" That voice always coincided with the hateful bigotry. It was the voice that loved the respectable Negroes, and the voice that thought there was something to admire in the primitive, sage-like Indians. Someone once said of the fundamentalist Christians who developed a fascination with Jews, "What do you call a philo-Semite? An anti-Semite who likes Jews." So this lesson about non-bigotry might be a little hard for some people to get, but it's not impossible. So far, so good.

Well, now we have the seminars on microaggressions.  I've written before on micro-aggressions. Summary: 1. They're real. 2. Not only is everyone capable of a micro-aggression, by definition, everyone has committed one. And if you don't think you've committed one, you are claiming moral superiority and you might be a jerk. Which leads us to 3. You don't get to penalize people for being human.

I'm cool with encouraging the discussion of microaggressions, but we better be very careful of the kind of seminar described in this story. This is seminar held at Clark College in Massachusetts. A woman is explaining the concept of microaggressions to incoming freshmen. (Apparently the Times style guide doesn't recognize the phrase "first-year." That's what we had when I was an undergrad back in 1999. It avoided the gendering in the term "freshman.") The tell in the piece, the part where the author seems to suggest her skepticism, comes when the leader of the seminar tells students to avoid the phrase "you guys" because it might make the women in the class feel excluded. The seminar leader learned about this microaggression because she had used the phrase in a previous seminar and it had upset a woman in the audience. An audience member, a latino woman, found this revelatory. She learned that she too had been guilty of a microaggression.

Well, here's the problem. I've used the phrase many times, and at 35, as much as I can try, I doubt it will drop from my lexicon. As a teacher, you have to be able to use words very carefully. You also have to be able to speak in your human voice from time to time. And if I'm used to walking up to a group of friends and saying "hey guys," like, well, many of the women I've known in my life, I might really start tripping over my words when I avoid it when I walk into class and say hello to a group of students. Not assuming that the tall black student in your class is there on a basketball scholarship seems easy. Erasing all colloquialisms is hard.

Is this the pathetic whine of a white male? Maybe. But I don't fear for myself. Tell me I've committed a microaggression and I'll live. I don't suffer from what someone has called "white fragility." I've learned to forgive the people who said dick-ish things to me throughout my life by forgiving myself for doing the same to others. Call me on what you want to call me on. I can take it.

I do fear for various groups who could be affected by this kind of education, the groups this kind of education is designed to help. So to go back. There's a history of non-bigots who so overcompensated in order to remain non-bigots that they became bigots themselves. Well, what do we do about the woke person who is so aggressive in avoiding microaggressions that s/he ends up committing them. I do not think this is a hypothetical question. I think this is a real danger.

So what happens when the white student so fears offending an Asian student s/he has never met, s/he avoids talking to him/her? Or the the white student who sees the Asian student doing math homework from the same class s/he is taking and wants to know if s/he has figured out the hardest problem in the assignment, but avoids asking the question or engaging at all for fear of insulting his/her classmate?

Here's my story. I once walked into a library cafe, where I was to meet with a students over a two-hour period. There were no completely empty tables. But I saw two pressed together. An Indian student was sitting at one of them. I pulled the other table aside to wait for my students to arrive. The Indian student wrote a message to me asking me if I was nervous about sitting with a student of color. I went over to him and explained my reasons. And he nodded in a way that I wasn't sure if he believed me or not. I could understand where he was coming from. But the truth is that experience will never change how I behave in a future situation. I can't take the time out to tell the future hypothetical Indian student in the same situation that I need to separate the tables and explain why. Wouldn't that be a little condescending? That could be an anti-microaggression, for lack of a better word, that becomes a microaggression.

It's fine to encourage awareness. Hyper-awareness is dangerous.

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