Recognizing microaggression doesn’t police free speech

Hearing someone say America is the land of opportunity or America is a melting pot, attributions the country is prided for, usually doesn’t spark a debate.

However, as reported by the Huffington Post, a seminar on inclusivity at the University of California considers those statements microaggressions, which are snarky, yet subtle comments showing bias against another’s race or identity. 

After UC presented a set of examples of microaggressions, created by a Columbia University researcher, with similar lists being used at schools such as the University of Missouri and Texas A&M University, critics began arguing that it limits free speech and the discussion of controversial topics in a place where they should be most protected.

While statements such as “gender plays no part in who we hire” and “affirmative action is racist” might not seem ill-intentioned, especially depending on the context, a large part of the list addresses everyday microaggressions whose messages are less ambiguous.

Instead of worrying that an awareness of microaggressions threatens free speech, universities should accept that this awareness is what makes people more mindful of their comments. They should encourage faculty and students to be self-critical of what they say, and that doesn’t harm open discussions.

For example, as the list mentions, things that appear harmless, such as asking a Latino or Asian American person to say something in their native language or a professor continually mispronouncing a student’s name, have the potential to leave the impression that the student is exotic or that the professor isn’t willing to learn a foreign name.

Yet, one L.A. Times op-ed denounced the restriction of other, politically-charged examples since the U.S. Department of Education declares a “hostile learning environment” can lead to legal liability, and UC deems microaggressions hostile. 

But, what those worried about microaggressions becoming the new trigger warnings forget is that context is everything. 

Saying “I believe the most qualified person should get the job” can be said without referring to race or gender. Yet, when it’s said after a person belonging to a minority earns a position, the message then becomes that minorities are unfairly benefitting from their race. 

As the creator of the list told the Huffington Post, microaggressions are often unknown to the speaker as offensive, while those who receive these comments are seen as oversensitive when bothered by them. A Time Magazine column went as far as to say that being white in and of itself is a microaggression. 

Still, telling someone they are “interesting looking” or offering mirrors and nail files to students at a women’s engineering conference, which occurred at a Women Engineers Code Conference at Harvard, isn’t always complimentary.  

Microaggression has moved from being discussed in the academic sphere to the public sphere, which allows people to be more conscious of them. Being affected by them doesn’t mean one is being too sensitive. 

If anything, universities should embrace the notion of creating a more inclusive, progressive environment by being self-critical instead of being fearful their
liberties are at stake.

Isabelle Cavazos is a senior majoring in English and Spanish.