Microaggressions and university life – doing nothing is sometimes easier than doing something

Today I want to talk about something called a ‘microaggression’. I hadn’t heard of this term until a friend posted a link to an article in The Atlantic about the extent to which US Colleges are increasingly exposed to criticism from students who are offended by words, statements, interactions and implications.  According to the article, microaggressions are “small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless”.

A number of examples were given of seemingly inoffensive and benign questions being interpreted as offensive. For example, asking a non-Anglo Saxon-looking student where they were born implied that the questioner did not deem them to be a ‘real’ American.  The University of California schools system created a list of such microaggressive statements, which included ‘America is the land of opportunity’ and ‘I believe the most qualified person should get the job’.

The article, which is worth reading in its entirety, suggests that this is admittedly political correctness gone mad, but more importantly it does not prepare university students for life after college.  Most students will enter professional fields where there is no overt incentive for a workplace to respond to all workers’ potential interpretations of statements and whether or not they cause offence.

I had a strong response to this article given it was the first time I could put a name to something that I had experienced while acting on the Postgraduate Students’ Association in 2015.

I was Media Officer on the Postgraduate Students’ Association Committee and it was part of my role to coordinate the website, write social media posts and draft newsletter content for the President.  Early in my tenure one of the issues I was trying to address was the number of unfilled positions on the Committee, which included the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) position.  I had had reasonable success with filling the other remaining positions, but had not had a single enquiry about the ATSI position.

On the existing Association website I found a statement that read:

“It is desirable that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Officer identifies as an Indigenous person, however, given the low levels of Indigenous postgraduate students enrolled at UWA it is not mandatory.”

While I was surprised at this I also thought it made sense.  A UWA news article from earlier this year indicates that 350 Indigenous students have graduated from UWA since 1988.  Based on this figure it’s possible that there might be a very small number of Indigenous postgraduate students at any one time, and they might already be representing Indigenous students on other committees and so have limited resources available.  It seemed to me that a non-Indigenous student who was undertaking research in an Indigenous field could act as a useful conduit between the Postgraduate Students’ Association and the School of Indigenous Studies, seeking to represent the views and opinions of the School and Indigenous students on the Committee.  Based on this thought process I then advertised the position with this statement included.

All hell broke loose.  After the email was released (unedited by the President of the Committee) other Committee members told me that it was akin to the recently elected male Prime Minister appointing himself as Minister for Women.  (I didn’t think it was considering there were female parliamentarians who would have been willing to be made Minister for Women, which isn’t the same as having a position open for several months with no one nominating themselves).  There were emails of opposition sent to the Committee and formal complaints made.  The President felt it necessary to tell me that he would ‘shield me’ from the outcomes of these complaints. The School of Indigenous Studies also made a complaint, suggested some potential representatives and indicated they did not believe the position should have been available to non-ATSI students.  Again and again, I was told that what I had written was ‘offensive’.

I wrote a formal apology in the following newsletter and an apology was sent to all students via email.  In the end one of the students recommended by the School of Indigenous Studies accepted the position on the Committee.

This, to me, felt like a microaggression.  I wholeheartedly respect that people believed the position should be available only to ATSI students.  I would even support the inclusion of this requirement in the Committee Regulations.  I was happy to write an apology to those that were offended, as it was never (obviously) my intention to do so.

But what bothered me was the way the situation was handled, primarily in that I was blamed for the poor publicity the Committee received.  This was in spite of the fact that: (1) I was merely performing my position duties, (2) there was already a precedent set for this statement existing, and (3) no one else (including the President who had the opportunity to vet the email before it was sent out, or the past President and Media Officer who previously oversaw the website) opposed the statement before there was backlash.

I had included the statement because I thought it was important that the position be filled.  That is to say, I personally believe that it is important that Indigenous students and Indigenous issues are appropriately represented on university committees.  I believe this represents a microaggression; there was no ‘malicious intent’ but it was certainly perceived as ‘a kind of violence’.

Although the experience left me upset, I thought the outcome was positive.  A decision had been made as to who could nominate in the future and we had a person identifying as Indigenous in the ATSI position.  Following this nomination, however, my sense of unease grew.  The person nominated to the position did not attend a single meeting.  I was not an office bearer and so it was outside my duties to investigate why this was the case (and I wasn’t particularly keen on getting involved in the issue again).  I wasn’t sure whether the student had no real interest in being on the committee, or whether they were offended by my/the Committee’s previous conduct, or even whether sufficient attempts had been made to engage them. But I was concerned that there was, in effect, no representation for Indigenous students.   The NAIDOC (National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee) Week event was therefore organised by non-Indigenous students, with no Indigenous student representation.  And following this there was no-one nominated to this position in the 2016 Committee, meaning, yet again, no representation for Indigenous students or promotion of linkages between the Association and the School of Indigenous Studies.

And then I think about my own experience in this situation. I had been condemned by multiple parties and received no support for merely trying to do my (voluntary and time-consuming) job.  I was left lying awake at night wondering what kind of social media posts or emails I might receive the next day which might condemn me further.  My own intentions to promote interaction between the Committee and the School of Indigenous Studies (and therefore Indigenous students) was overlooked and in its place was the presumption of guilt that I was offensive.  The context of the statement was overlooked, and I was made a scapegoat for the university community’s displeasure at existing processes.  And, frankly, the experience taught me a valuable lesson about getting involved. It taught me that where there is any chance of causing distress to people it’s safer to ignore an issue and cause no offence than to be proactive and try to find a solution.

But am I creating a microaggression for myself? Was the response from community members purely a well-intentioned (and therefore non-malicious) attempt to ensure that representation was afforded to Indigenous students?  Was I perceiving violence where there was none? I have noticed that since starting my PhD, being holed up in an office and seeking feedback from people like me I have become less resilient in the face of criticism.  In reality, I agree with the opposition to the opening of the ATSI position to non-Indigenous students. So why did I find myself so offended? And what does it mean about my potential vulnerability in the workplace?

It’s worth noting that I got off incredibly lightlyAnother article in The Atlantic describes the experience of two resident faculty members at Yale and their response to students’ confusion around appropriate Halloween costumes. Yale administrators had sent out an email outlining potentially offensive costume choices that students should avoid and students in a College sent an email to their resident faculty members asking for more advice on what they should wear. The reply email was a carefully constructed, eloquent and respectful response that demonstrated that the faculty member did not believe she was in a position to be telling young adults what they should and should not wear, and that perhaps instead of being guided by rules the students should have conversations with each other about when and why a costume might or might not be offensive.  The email turned out to be one long microaggression, with a number of students in the College interpreting the email as encouraging students to cause offence and enter offensive debate.  They called for the resignation of the two faculty members.  While the couple remained on as professors at Yale, they did step down from their positions as residential faculty members.

To be honest, it’s hard to know where to go from here. I respect every individual’s right to free speech. And I also respect every individual’s right to be offended. I even respect every individual’s right to tell someone else that what they have done has caused offence. But what I do reject is the idea that an apology is the first response; that on the opposite side of ‘offence’ is ‘fault’; and that context can be overlooked. I think, together, these reflect a changing attitude towards appropriate responses to ‘the things we don’t like’ that will further see reactive, unconsidered and politically polarising anger the new norm.

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