Discussing Microaggressions

There are problems at play beneath the surface of our society and a microaggression is only a common way for these problems to be expressed.

There are problems at play beneath the surface of our society and a microaggression is only a common way for these problems to be expressed.

Editors Note: The following is a discussion of the microaggressions, their origins, and their impact on the rhetoric of the recent the protests. It is modeled on the policy debate-style articles that our esteemed peers at The Economist frequently run.

On March 21st, The New York Times reported on a play performed at Harvard University that was put together in an effort to confront the problem of microaggressions on campus called “I, Too, Am Harvard.” The students participating performed a series of different monologues highlighting their respective experiences with microaggressions on campus. In one instance, a black student described being dressed in a tuxedo at a formal Harvard function and being mistaken for a waiter. Other students recited things that had been said to them over the course of their time at Harvard and beyond, including “You only got in because you’re black” and “The government feels bad for you.”

According to Freedom Budgeters, these microaggressions are a common manifestation of injustice that can be found here on Dartmouth’s campus as well, and play a major role in defining the climate on campus. A tumblr site created by Dartmouth students called BigGreenMicroAggressions, defines a micro-aggression as such, “… a brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignity, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicates a hostile, derogatory, or negative slight or insult toward people of non-dominant identities.”

There is no doubt that these microaggressions exist on campus; they exist everywhere. Racist, sexist, classist, hetero-sexist and ableist language has no doubt seeped its way into daily verbal and behavioral interaction. Furthermore, it has done so by way of the stereotypical classifications of people that have developed over time as a product of just growing up in America—meaning America has its own specific set of classifications and stereotypes separate from other places, not that places outside of America do not have similar classifications.

The Dartmouth social scene, as everyone is well aware, is dominated by a “mainstream” Greek—largely fraternity—culture. Now, while none of these houses are explicitly racist, sexist, classist, hetero-sexist or ableist—as far as I know nobody is going to be rejected from a house based on race, sexual orientation, gender, class or ability—these microaggressions, that are such a key part in creating the unstable climate on campus, are also important in that they are a contributing factor in the separation of social groups along identifying lines.

If there is a commonplace of engrained hostility towards other groups of people through stereotyping and misunderstanding, then naturally groups of people who identify in a certain way will gravitate towards each other.The inequity here then lies in the fact that the “mainstream” fraternities on campus consist of almost entirely white men (because they have been white historically and that is how the social groups have arranged themselves on campus).

I’d like to argue that this language and behavior of microaggression plays a significant role in sculpting the real, tangible opportunities that are afforded to students at Dartmouth, and it does so along largely racial lines. All the opportunities and connections to alumni networks that are afforded by these fraternities are distributed almost entirely to the white majority on campus. This is a clear representation of not only the importance of paying attention to microaggressions as they are pointed out on campus, but also it shows the inherent benefit that comes with being a white male at Dartmouth. After all, campus culture not only provides its participants with a social space where they can have complete control by the rights of being a member, but also with extremely exclusive opportunities outside of Dartmouth through a network of fraternity or sorority alumni.

These opportunities and alumni networks provided by the Greek house, in many cases, can contribute hugely to a student’s success in his or her endeavors after college.

As we root out codified racism and discrimination in our institutions, we no longer benefit from having clear problems with obvious solutions, to the extent that reasonable people can have arguments about what exactly constitutes discrimination and what doesn’t.

From the start, there are several areas where the concept of “microaggression” suffers from ambiguity and general murkiness. It’s odd that the definition lumps in “intentional or unintentional” into the same classification, though it seems intuitively true that microaggressions are typically unintentional. A person can still be unintentionally hostile.

Consider the case of a child playing with fire as her parents sleep upstairs: to the child’s mind, striking matches is innocuous – hell it’s even fun – but the lack of intent to harm makes us, fairly, view the case in a special light. Few would be tempted to call the child an arsonist. By extension, the temptation arises to avoid calling the unintentional microaggressor a racist; the first instinct is to characterize the Harvardite who mistook a black student in a tuxedo for a waiter as committing a cringe-worthy, nails-on-the-chalkboard faux pas, but not as a white supremacist.

Still, there seems some legitimate claim to truly finding offense in a microaggression. The objects microaggressions target are the stuff of identity. These are the inalienable facts that people go to bed with every night and wake up every morning with, knowing it constitutes themselves, so these kinds of attacks are bound to be not just offensive, but existentially offensive. Yet from the perspective of solutions, how are we supposed to give the racially tone-deaf perfect pitch? In the language of the Freedom Budget’s supporters, how are we supposed to hold the unintentional microaggressor accountable?

This seems especially problematic given that microaggressions are totally definable by the receiver.  The same comment that could register as hostile and indignant could read differently to another, throwing away any possibility of a kind of uniform standard.

Whether or not these microaggressions have contributed to a hostile environment on campus so much so that it has alienated populations on campus from entering the Greek system is not for me to say, though. Dartmouth fraternities have had a history of breaking from national organizations for the very reason of including minority groups, and also enjoy minority membership that have had positive experiences. I have to agree with Eliot in that the dominant social system on campus also has a powerful interest in being inclusive as possible, and while Dartmouth’s is more inclusive than most, it is by no means a rainbow coalition that equally shares the opportunities for advancement and future success equally for minority groups as it does for white brothers and sisters.

At the end of the day, all this focus on the individual microaggression, seems to me, backwards in the sense that each microaggression is only representative. Because microaggressions are almost all the time unintentional, they’re more important in the way they demonstrate our social climate as opposed to the individual microaggressor’s personality.

Whether microaggressions are the attributable source for the current racial divide in our Greek system or not, the problem of dominant, largely white culture in college directly leading into an unequal distribution of resources for employment after college still remains. If we treasure the claim that our Greek system is truly inclusive, efforts ought to be made to make that true to life.

Right, so I think we’d both agree that policy options that address individual microaggression are just as out of place. In terms of regulating speech and behavior on a college campus, the definitional ambiguity of microaggression makes the “receivers” become sole arbiters of whether or not a comment, intent ,and severity aside, merits a microaggression worthy of punishment. These tools are likely to be just as divisive as members of the College constantly feel the need to tow their language for fear of offense or punishment.

This isn’t to say, though, that we shouldn’t fear offending in our daily lives. The way microaggressions sneak into speech require constant consideration, as topics of identity are sensitive issues that require handling as such.