Several days ago, a group of students staged a demonstration in the class of UCLA Professor Val Rust. The students complained about the “toxic” racial climate in his classroom and accused him of “micro-aggressions.” As the Daily Bruin reported,
In a letter sent to colleagues in the department after the sit-in, Rust said students in the demonstration described grammar and spelling corrections he made on their dissertation proposals as a form of “micro-aggression.”
“I have attempted to be rather thorough on the papers and am particularly concerned that they do a good job with their bibliographies and citations, and these students apparently don’t feel that is appropriate,” Rust said in the letter.
The student demonstrators were responding to a recent report that investigated acts of discrimination toward minority faculty members at UCLA. That report noted the difficulty in defining “microaggression”:
Several faculty members referenced the notion of “microaggressions,” which researchers have defined as “subtle verbal and nonverbal insults directed toward non-Whites, often done automatically and unconsciously. They are layered insults based on one’s race, gender, class, sexuality, language, immigration status, phenotype, accent, or surname. It is not clear to us whether any workable definition of discriminatory conduct is capable of capturing every such microaggression experienced by a minority facutly member.
Because it is so difficult to define “microaggressions,” it is difficult for a university to prescribe them as violations of university policy. Nevertheless, as the report implies, that if a university merely investigates a microaggression (even if no one precisely knows what one is), then this will serve as a punishment the microaggressor. Further, as the report notes, the threat of investigations can serve as a deterrent to microagressions:
[F]inally, investigations might deter those who would engage in such conduct, even if their actions would likely not constitute a violation of university policy.
Although I’m not certain, I’m pretty sure that by writing this blog post I have engaged in a microaggression. We’ll see.