Microaggressions and Academic Freedom

Microaggressions and Academic Freedom


Any characterization of the United States as “a melting pot,” for example, is classified in widely used training materials as a microaggression signaling a refusal to acknowledge the role that race plays in American society. The same goes for saying “Everyone can succeed in this society if they work hard enough” or “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.” 

That is from, “Campaigns Against Microaggressions Prompt Big Concerns About Free Speech” in the Chronicle of Higher Education this morning (currently paywalled). The article provides some of the reasons for taking microaggressions seriously, describes how some institutions are treating microaggressions, and shares the concerns of critics of such policies.

So far, it is unclear whether the concerns are overblown. The Chronicle’s only examples are training programs that teach faculty, staff, and students about microaggressions, an online system at one college by which students can anonymously report microaggressions, and one contract at the University of Washington, described as follows:

Under the terms of a new collective-bargaining agreement between the public university’s administration and its graduate researchers and teaching assistants, such employees’ work environments should “be free from everyday exchanges — including words and actions” that denigrate or exclude them as members of some group or class. If they encounter subtle racism or sexism on the job, they can file a grievance potentially leading to third-party arbitration. 

Readers, if you know of any additional examples of policies or practices regarding microaggressions that might be worrisome, please share them in the comments here.

Derald Wing Sue, a professor of psychology who works on microaggressions, was interviewed for the article, which reports him holding the view that “some of the worst perpetrators of microaggressions are well-intentioned faculty members who do not realize how their statements or actions hurt students and undermine academic achievement.” The article adds:

[Professor Sue] characterizes his work as driven by a desire to help people who suffer psychological damage from repeatedly putting up with slights and snubs that might look harmless in isolation. He is unapologetic about treating as microaggressions many commonly held views — that we live in a meritocracy, for example — because he believes they truly hurt many people who hear them.

There is ambiguity as to what counts as a microaggression, and there is some concern among critics that academic debate over some issues—such as affirmative action—might be “chilled” because people fear making statements that could be seen as racist microaggressions. It seems there is also concern about what could be called “micoaggression creep,” where comments that aren’t themselves harmful, but imply or suggest views the expression of which might be, are lumped in as microaggressions themselves (see the examples at the top of the post).

For his part, Professor Sue says he is interested in merely educating people about microaggressions. “In his training sessions, he says, he seeks to provide a setting where people can discuss microaggressions ‘without being punished or blamed.'”

(image: detail of “Beach at Gravelines” by Georges Seurat)

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