Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The new college orientation: Microaggression edition

A freshman tentatively raises her hand and takes the microphone. “I’m really scared to ask this,” she begins. “When I, as a white female, listen to music that uses the N word, and I’m in the car, or, especially when I’m with all white friends, is it O.K. to sing along?”

The answer, from Sheree Marlowe, the new chief diversity officer at Clark University, is an unequivocal “no.”

The exchange was included in Ms. Marlowe’s presentation to recently arriving freshmen focusing on subtle “microaggressions,” part of a new campus vocabulary that also includes “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.”

Microaggressions, Ms. Marlowe said, are comments, snubs or insults that communicate derogatory or negative messages that might not be intended to cause harm but are targeted at people based on their membership in a marginalized group.

Among her other tips: Don’t ask an Asian student you don’t know for help on your math homework or randomly ask a black student if he plays basketball. Both questions make assumptions based on stereotypes. And don’t say “you guys.” It could be interpreted as leaving out women, said Ms. Marlowe, who realized it was offensive only when someone confronted her for saying it during a presentation. ...

“What’s an environmental microaggression?” Ms. Marlowe asked the auditorium of about 525 freshmen. She gave an example. “On your first day of class, you enter the chemistry building and all of the pictures on the wall are scientists who are white and male,” she said. “If you’re a female, or you just don’t identify as a white male, that space automatically shows that you’re not represented.” ...

Another subset of microaggression is known as the microinvalidation, which includes comments suggesting that race plays a minor role in life’s outcomes, like “Everyone can succeed in this society if they work hard enough.” ...

But some students appeared slightly confused.

“When you use the term ‘self identify’ as a white woman, are you saying that you can choose your race?” one white male student asked.

“I’ll give you an example,” Ms. Marlowe said. “I went to a conference. I was talking to this man. I thought he was black. I was talking about diversity and social justice.”

“He said, ‘I’m Cuban,’ ” Ms. Marlowe told the crowd. “I assumed he was black because he was the same skin complexion as me, and the same type of hair.”

But, Ms. Marlowe said, while it is sometimes difficult to identify a person’s racial or ethnic background based on appearance, she does not believe that gives license to people like Rachel A. Dolezal, the white woman who claimed to be African-American while working for the N.A.A.C.P. in Spokane, Wash. “You can’t say you’re black if you’re not, historically.”

The student still seemed confused.

“Maybe we can unpack it afterward,” Ms. Marlowe told the student. “You want to come see me afterward?”
--Stephanie Saul, NYT, on re-education