The readings this week made me think of a class discussion last semester about microaggressions. Microaggression was a new term to me, but it refers to “everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” We had a list of microaggression examples to go along with the discussion. Some of the examples are clearly offensive and should be avoided in all cases. However, I was not sure if I liked the idea of a “no-no” list and found some of the microaggressions to be context-dependent or just a stretch in general. Anything can be discriminatory if said in a certain tone or context. To be fair, there is a disclaimer at the top of the document saying that you must consider the individual situation with all of the examples. But I wondered if erecting so-called “out of bounds” signs in this manner actually opposes, rather than promotes, the goals of diversity and inclusion?

For example, the first section, “Alien in One’s Own Land,” discourages asking people who appear different than the dominant group where they are from or about their ethnicity/background. It is easy to imagine how this practice can be discriminatory; for example, the teacher asks the one student of color in a large class where they are from but no one else. While we should steer clear of scenarios like this one, I feel that asking someone where they are from is an exceptionally normal activity and should not generally be considered a microaggression. Upon meeting someone, this question is usually the second one that I ask after finding out his/her name. People tie up substantial information with the surroundings they call home, and I think it is natural to want to know how others fit in with that conceptualization. As a result, people identify characteristics that differ from their own way beyond skin color, appearance, or language. I am from Georgia, and anytime I leave the South, I encounter the statement (not even a question) “you’re not from around here” based on my accent. Incidentally, I do not have a strong accent because my parents were born in the Midwest, so I actually am also told I am not from my hometown (when I was a server at a restaurant, sometimes multiple times in the same day). I do my own set of classifications: I come from a rural area, and I can classify out-of-towners by their behavior, such as people from Atlanta believing that, just because they have left the perimeter, trekking poles are needed every time you go outside.

The “where are you from?” microaggression primarily caught my attention, but there were others from the discussion that I thought were fairly context-dependent. Some people mentioned compliments that imply “it is impressive you can do this given that you are a woman/person of color/non-English speaker, etc.” Again, not hard to think of a situation where such statements are absolutely offensive. But the discussion turned to people sharing random stories along the lines of “this one time, I told someone I was doing my Ph.D., and they were impressed” (in my experience, people are usually impressed when you tell them you are doing a Ph.D.). Likewise, I assume that my advisor is not snubbing my gender when he tells me that I did a good job on my grant proposal.

I came across a few articles that also caution against too many restrictions on our interactions. One controversy last fall involved professors at Washington State University banning the use of discriminatory language in class (Washington Post article and Inside Higher Ed article). Cool, let’s not hurl racial slurs and homophobic discourse. But the syllabus prohibited terminology such as “the white man” and referring to men and women as males and females (although using “white men” and/or “white males” is okay, which I admit I don’t quite follow). I support trying to move away from this sort of language, but many people are unaware of these conventions and do not necessarily mean to cause harm when they say “white males.” Educating students on more inclusive terminology over the course of the semester seems appropriate, but the syllabus warned that such missteps could result in removal from class and a failing grade, in extreme cases. A New York Times article, “The Sheltering Campus: Why College is Not Home,” also calls for retaining “a certain degree of freedom” on college campuses. According to the authors:

While we should provide “safe spaces” within colleges for marginalized groups, we must also make it safe for all community members to express opinions and challenge majority views. Intellectual growth and flexibility are fostered by rigorous debate and questioning.

In order to embrace diversity and move towards inclusion, I think that the first step is to acknowledge that we are, indeed, different from each other! But in order to realize that diversity is not threatening or scary but actually okay (even great, essential, etc.), I feel that we have to allow an exploration of this difference. And that might include asking people where they come from. Or inquiring about their native language. I left that particular class last semester terrified to talk to anyone different from me: “well I can’t ask them about their hometown, apparently that’s bad, I also can’t compliment them on anything…I wonder if talking about the weather is a microaggression?”. Is this feeling not counterproductive to creating a more inclusive environment?

I like that the authors of the readings this week advocate an acknowledgement of diversity and courage rather than just safety. According to Shankar Vedantam in “How the Hidden Brain Does the Thinking For Us”:

The far better approach is to put race on the table, to ask [children] to unpack the associations that they are learning, to help us shape those associations in more effective ways.

Similarly, Claude Steele talks about a teacher using diversity “as a classroom resource rather than following a strict strategy of colorblindness.” While civil, considerate language is always a must (and, yes, there is some terminology and actions that we can definitively put on the “no-no” list), I fear that establishing too many “no trespassing” signs only perpetuates this fear of difference. Does this practice not create more distance and discomfort between people? How can we strike a balance between making sure everyone feels safe from harm but also safe to discuss (which might involve, like it or not, making the occasional mistake)? I guess I tend to believe that a more natural exploration of “the other” is the only way to actually understand that there is no “other.”