Micro-Aggressions: Useful Characterisation or Unproductive Tag-Line?

These days it appears that speech is on precarious terrain.  The words offensive and aggressive come to mind; but are these characterizations a consequence of experience or cultural micro-aggression? 

I have a long list of what offends and how to offend.  For example, I am offended when a friend says, “Just a minute,” and that phrase morphes into a fond memory as time slips away.  My time is worth at least 82 cents in relation to the guy next to me, but pennies on the dollar are something.

And I can offend as well.  My staccato speech and frequent references to a sex act, offends folks from Nebraska or anyone west of the Hudson.  My speech isn’t crafted to offend, it just is what it is.

So when I read about “micro-aggressions” and  cultural “triggers,” I am somewhat unnerved.  Triggers in NYC, the land of my birth and my home,  occur at least every 60 seconds especially if you’re stuck on the F train.  As a law school professor, I am invited into the world of the law student where everything is at once insulting, offensive and disconcerting.  Indeed, asking a student to comment on how he or she feels about a specific case can cause apoplexy if not down-right heart seizures.  Such a request is treated as if one invaded a micro force field which shields from having to interact with other humans during the course of a day.

Yet, the current state of sensitivity on campus is marked by minefields that are not always recognised or seen through cultural lenses.  Indeed, one can wander into such a minefield unaware of the damage which can result to both speaker and listener.  Yet, sensitivity or cultural offence is at best a two way street if not a six lane highway.

Let me share a personal experience.

A few years ago we were in the market for a new Dean.  The faculty hallway is a repository for opinions, lobbying and general kvetching.  

One day a group of young professors gathered to swap stories about our latest victim in the roulette game that is Deanship candidacies in American Law Schools.  He was a Jew from THE City, and for the uninitiated I am referring to NYC.  He had spent the last five years deaning in a state to the extreme mid-west of the Hudson River.  

Whilst discussing this fellow,the conversation overheated.  Apparently, at the law school where he currently was Dean, he noticed how the black students congregated on one side of the hallway whilst the white students positioned themselves directly opposite with no group members interacting or engaging with members of the other group.  Each was a self contained and isolated entity.

Upon viewing this scene, the Dean Candidate, commented, “What is this a ghetto?”  
One of my colleagues claimed his comment demonstrated “cultural insensitivity and inexcusable ignorance” because he failed to account for African-American students’ cultural  understanding of the term ghetto” and what it telegraphs or conveys.  

What she failed to understand however was the term “ghetto,” has more than one meaning and once unpacked is grounded in differing cultural experiences. 

In New York City, the word ” ghetto ” is synonymous with “neighborhood.”  Indeed my parents referred to where they grew up, 187 Street & Belmont Avenue, as the Italian Ghetto, whilst the Grand Concourse in the Bronx or Williamsburg Brooklyn were tagged as the Jewish and the Hassidic Ghetto, respectively.  

For Jews, however, the word holds additional memories.  It is a reminder of Warsaw and Lodtz during the Holocaust and the Ghettos of Christian anti-Semitic Europe.  The word holds dual meaning –a cultural preserve that conjures up remembrances of Nonna, Nanna, cannoli and kugel.  Yet it also brings up memories of segregated genocidal killing fields marked by the bones of murdered relatives and friends.  It is the nexus of these two experiences or memories that framed the Candidate’s response to what he observed. 

When reminded that speech is grounded in experience, another young colleague remarked, “Oh he’s just a 60’s liberal,” dismissing the political struggles that now allowed us to stand in this hallway as tenured professors  at a law school.  The doors of law schools, medical schools, police and military academies were no longer blocked by racial, sexual, or homophobic barriers because of not in spite of  the work by the Candidate and his comrades.

My question?  Was his comment a micro aggression and were the comments of my colleagues cut from the same cloth?  I think not.  As to the Dean Candidate; insensitive and offensive  to African-American students? Yes indeed!  My colleagues statements; were they offensive-consequences of limited experience and myopic political experience and knowledge? Absolutely!  But a micro-aggression?

As Patricia Williams reminds, we are the sum of our parts.  And those parts are constituted by myriad experiences. Recognition of and understanding difference is not a consequence of silencing speech and marginalisation of experience; rather it is a consequence of debate & discourse. 

Being kind, respectful and gracious are important; censoring speech that violates these values is dangerous however.  And while freedom of speech is essential, it requires accountability.  Censorship however produces a self imposed silence that inhibits individual and collective growth and, in an academic environment, it stunts the ability to think critically and to act compassionately. 

What are your thoughts?

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