Column: Don't institute punishment for microaggressions

As I write this article, the state of race relations in our country is as bad as most people can remember. The Washington Post reported this July that “Pessimism about race relations in America is higher than it has been in nearly a generation.” The Post’s survey found that 63 percent of respondents think race relations are generally bad. The highly publicized deaths of African American men in questionable police shootings have led to widespread protests and major polarization. On college campuses these trends have created various ripple effects.

The one I’d like to address here is that of microaggressions, which dictionary.com defines as “a subtle but offensive comment or action directed at a minority or other non-dominant group that is often unintentional or unconsciously reinforces a stereotype.” This article is not primarily about how to avoid microaggressions, so I won’t include an extensive list, but here are a few compiled by the University of Minnesota School of Public Health: “You are so articulate,” “I’m not a racist. I have several Black friends,” clutching your purse as a black man walks toward you, or asking someone of Asian heritage to help you with a math or science problem.

College administrations have pushed to increase awareness of microaggressions, generally taking the approach of educating students about potentially offensive remarks or assumptions, but at some schools, students are calling for disciplinary action against those who transgress.

I think to effectively deal with the problem we need to acknowledge that most offending incidents are unintentional or merely ignorant, not actively bigoted or intended to assert cultural dominance. It is probably true that these cases are perceived in much the same way by those offended by them, but if all are punished, or at least publicly aired to shame the perpetrator, in the same fashion, then the diversity acclaimed by university administrators and students alike will actually be reduced.

According to an article in the Atlantic Monthly, academic institutions are applying the Department of Justice’s 2013 definition change for sexual harassment ‘to include verbal conduct that is simply “unwelcome’”’ to “race, religion, and veteran status as well.” If it becomes acceptable to socially shame or punish people for microaggressions, what outcome can we predict? Would we observe closer interracial connections? I think not. It is more likely that we would see fewer white people running the increased risk of befriending racial minorities given that accidental offenses could earn them disciplinary action. If universities are really committed to healing the divisions between races, they should resist calls to institute punishments for these social infractions.

I acknowledge that microaggressions are offensive and hurtful to those on the receiving end. But if the authorities decide they can step in every time a person feels offended, racial rifts will widen, not shrink. A top-down approach, while well-intentioned, will have negative effects. So what do I propose? An approach that is relational rather than structural, bottom-up rather than top-down.

I would say that most white people aren’t out to slight minority groups and at least try to treat others the same regardless of race. When we are insensitive, it is usually unintentional or an attempt at humor. In the relational approach, I envision the person affected by a microaggression explaining to the friend, classmate, or colleague responsible how it made them feel and why the slight was offensive. The civil explanation of offended feelings within the context of a relationship can bring about behavioral change without making white people apprehensive about interacting with other races for fear of racial missteps. When missteps occur, they should be viewed not primarily as deliberate attacks to be punished but as learning experiences. This has the potential to elevate the mindset of minority groups from victimization to instruction. Instead of a member of a minority group scrutinizing social interactions for evidence of bias, they can look for opportunities to gently correct harmful stereotypes and negative views on race.

Will perpetrators of microaggressions actually listen to correction? Common sense tells us that the better we know a person and the more highly we value their opinion of us, the more likely we will be to listen to them when they have an objection. Likewise, the closer the relationship between the offender and the offended, the more weight a rebuke will carry. Effective addressing of racial insensitivity on college campuses will grow from the bottom up, between friends and classmates, not trickle down from administrative measures.

The quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi encouraging people to “be the change you want to see in the world” holds true to this aspect of race relations. The solution to microaggressions is not complaining or blaming but proactively engaging with people who still hold to hurtful stereotypes about race.


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