While walking my dog not too long ago, I met a delightful middle-aged couple who spoke in a unique accent. Was it Greek? Some other Eastern European language, perhaps? I asked them: “Where are you from?” The question wasn’t judgmental or a passive-aggressive attempt to other them. I was merely curious about people who were originally “from” some other place. They didn’t seem troubled by the query, either—but, then again, this sort of thing probably still flies in places like Serbia.
What I realize now is that I was being thoughtless, or maybe worse. Because, evidently, the only thing more offensive than asking a person where they’re from is asking them where they were born. And I have Lachlan Markay to thank for alerting me to this helpful list of racial microaggressions offered by the University of Wisconsin (which seems to be the same list sent to staff members at the University of California at Berkley—erstwhile home of the free-speech movement). It offers guidance for those of us who’d like to avoid being inadvertent bigots.
Now, some of the warnings are legitimate gripes against demonstrably obnoxious language—for example, please stop treating people of other races as if they’re dumber than you. Or, for that matter, smarter than you. One suggestion the school offers is that students avoid asking Asians to help them with their math or science problems. (Then they wonder why Professor Tongtong Zhang of the mathematical sciences has so much free time. (Is it triggering to ask about someone’s sex or gender when there’s no picture available on his or her website? If so, I apologize in advance.))
Also, never ask an Asian or a Latino person: “Why are you so quiet?” or the even more intrusive, “We want to know what you think.” This would be pathologizing cultural values, and acting as if white norms were ideal. Let’s face it, we actually don’t care what you think, anyway.
It’s fair to say there has been plenty of liberal pushback to policing of speech and thought, but let’s not pretend that some of these sensitivities don’t reflect the prevailing cultural attitudes on the Left, either. There’s a section in this document titled the “myth of meritocracy,” which mirrors a favorite hobby horse of Democrats these days. “Everyone can succeed in this society, if they work hard enough” is not something we believe any more, so why subject the kids to this upsetting fantasy?
Not only will young people have to wrestle with “environmental” microaggression of having to enter college buildings named “after White heterosexual upper class males,” but they will have to deal with comments about how hard work correlates with success. The last two presidential cycles have taught us this is false. Yet how many well-heeled white men have made the obnoxious claim: “I believe the most qualified person should get the job”? This is a no-no. It insinuates that the person the comment is directed at (or, any person who happens to hear it) needs to work harder and is probably lazy.
There are numerous other ways to injure the brittle mental state of our youth.
One way is the “denial of individual racism.” So, for example, if someone asserts: “As a woman, I know what you go through as a racial minority” it would be potentially triggering content. As a cisgendered white male, I certainly can’t comprehend how racial oppression or gender oppression feels. Nor can you. Not both. Unless, I suppose, you’re both a woman and a minority. How you get through life without having your feelings constantly hurt, I’ll never know.
Other types of aggression categories, broadly put:
“Alien in own land.”
“Ascription of Intelligence.”
Color blindness? Growing up, my generation was taught that the entire purpose of 1960s was to achieve a nation where Americans could be judged by “the content of their character” rather than “the color of their skin.” Yet, nowadays, saying “There is only one race: the human race” might not only mean you’re repeating one of silliest clichés imaginable, but also that you’re demeaning the plight of entire races. So don’t ever say, “When I look at you, I don’t see color” or “America is a melting pot,” either.
Also, please note, never say:
“You people …” as a precursor to anything. Example: “You people are a bunch of absurd cultural Stalinists who can’t handle the most innocuous thoughts.”
“That’s so gay.” (Only appropriate if you’re talking about something that is actually so gay. Like marriage.)
“You are so articulate.”
There’s a lot to digest here. And it’s not just you. The University of California, one of the most progressive in the nation, had to bring together faculty to codify what unseemly lingo needed to be jettisoned from the English language. In Psychology Today, Dr. Derald Wing Sue, author of “Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation,” lays out three major types of offensive action.
Microassaults: These constitute conscious and intentional discrimination, like using racial epithets, displaying White supremacist symbols like the Confederate flag, or suggesting to “people” that the entire system isn’t rigged to keep them destitute.
Microinsults: These are verbal, nonverbal, and environmental communications “that subtly convey rudeness and insensitivity” to demean a person’s heritage. So, for instance, the Irish flag outside a pub intimates that the Irish are a bunch of alcoholic hoodlums.
Microinvalidations: These are “communications that subtly exclude negate or nullify the thoughts, feelings or experiential reality of a person of color.” Watching the Dukes of Hazzard in a non-ironic way. Asking a Mexican if he celebrates the Day of the Dead or a Jewish person if he keeps kosher, etc…
So the whole thing is basically a macroassault on your intelligence.