Recently, a close friend who is a college professor told me about a study group she was in with some of her colleagues. The group was interested in learning about the Millennial generation, and one of the sub-topics was microaggressions.
My friend was generally familiar with the term, but not aware its genesis and fine points. Thinking it a valid question to pose to a group of fellow academics, she asked, “Does anyone know the academic definition of microaggression?” The response surprised her. Several of the professors became rigid and agitated. One suggested, by inference, that asking the definition of the word was itself a microaggression. My friend was floored, both embarrassed and also shocked that among some of her colleagues the question made her seem socially insensitive, or something worse.
Now, this friend is a feminist, someone who doesn’t doubt the existence of microaggressions, and who believes that it is the job of each member of a particular demographic group to educate themselves—as well as others who share it—about that privilege. I would say the same of myself. And yet, this event suggests some paradoxical questions: If members of a privileged group have a duty to educate themselves about their privilege (and I believe they do), how can they do so without necessarily invoking it? How can it be that our educational environment today is such that one cannot, in the spirit of genuine inquiry, admit a gap in one’s knowledge or ask for help in developing one’s own understanding without putting oneself at risk?
These are sensitive questions to ask, and as the leader of a heterogeneous educational community of people who live, work, study, and play together, it is literally my job to help figure out and address an answer. I need to make the space that we share one in which a truly diverse community can learn about microaggressions and ask questions of them safely. Smaller, tight-knit communities should be able to do this more easily than larger, more anonymous ones, and I’m glad for being a part of the former. I’ve got a few ideas on the subject; foremost among them, I believe that people need to start by giving, instead of withdrawing, the benefit of the doubt, and assume good intent on the part of the inquirer. The complex world we are making each day demands that we find ways to hold open, genuine conversations in which both parties recognize the intentions and limitations of the other.
I know there is more to do and I ask your help in that effort. Please send me suggestions and share your comments, either in the space below or with me personally at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Addendum: As I researched this term, which I assumed was relatively new since it has emerged into mainstream discourse in the past five to 10 years, I found (and here am knowingly and publicly outing myself as less than fully informed) that the term is about as old as I am, a product of the early 1970s. This is one of several things I have learned today.