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Finding Value in Diversity Training: the Case of Microaggressions

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“That is why in my work with schools and non-governmental organizations I try to model an open and judicious approach to CSJ orthodoxies, one that sifts through the kooky stuff in order to highlight the important parts.”

For all of its insistence on allyship, Critical Social Justice (CSJ) activism creates a lot of enemies. Its stridency, dogmatism, and dystopian excesses practically beg critics to respond with wholesale dismissals or mockery, allowing CSJ’s most extreme, incoherent, or idiotic assertions to stand synecdochally for the whole.

Yet most of us agree with the underlying premise that our diverse society, communities, workplaces, and schools should be fair and inclusive places, where everyone feels welcome.

That is why in my work with schools and non-governmental organizations I try to model an open and judicious approach to CSJ orthodoxies, one that sifts through the kooky stuff in order to highlight the important parts. It takes some mettle. The open part is difficult because, as CSJ activists love to remind us, reckoning honestly with prejudice and patterned unfairness is uncomfortable. The judicious part is even harder because the activists brook no dissent and have a well-developed arsenal of shaming tactics with which to shut it down.

But it can be done. Allow me to illustrate using a microaggressions recognition tool developed by CSJ scholar-activists that is commonly used in school and workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) trainings.

A microaggression, according to the tool’s creators, is “any brief and commonplace daily verbal or behavioral indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative attitudes toward stigmatized or culturally marginalized groups.” If one finds the notion of an unintentional aggression incoherent (or detects some intellectual chicanery in the assertion that only those deemed stigmatized or marginalized can experience one), then he or she has met the first barrier to open engagement. My advice: Suspend judgment for now. Hear them out.

Microaggressions: A Line-by-Line Appraisal

The microaggressions tool I want to introduce consists of 52 sample microaggressions, grouped under ten headings or Themes, with thumbnail explanations of the hostile and derogatory messages they are alleged to contain. Skimming the Themes, one might be tempted to start quibbling. What is wrong with color-blindness? Who says meritocracy is a myth? Hang tight. We will get to that. Let me point out for now that messages that make someone feel like a second-class citizen or an alien in one’s own land are bad. If one can distinguish the dubious assertion that aspiring to color-blindness makes one a racist from the genuine cruelty in making someone feel like a second-class citizen, he or she has limbered up for the exercise ahead.

Now, let us examine the 52 examples. Tossing out the tool’s ten themes, I have regrouped and reclassified them into ten themes of my own invention, based on a considered judgment of each example’s credibility. Because I assume most of my readers are critical of CSJ, I will begin with the most risible examples—the ones we can all have a good laugh at—and work towards the most deplorable—those that no decent person should ever say or do.

Theme 1: Dogmatic, Lazy, or Simply Dumb

  • “Wow! How did you become so good in math?”
  • To an of-color person: “Are you sure you were being followed? I can’t believe it.”
  • Use of the pronoun he to refer to all people
  • Being forced to choose male or female when completing basic forms
  • Two options for relationship status: married or single
  • Labeling an assertive female committee member a “b—,” while describing a male
    counterpart as a “forceful leader.”
  • When a female student asks a male professor for extra help on an engineering
    assignment, he asks “What do you need to work on this for anyway?”

These examples highlight a brute fact about the tool overall: It is sloppy. Read the entire list through attentively, and one will see that the examples lack parallelism, some contradict others, and a couple simply do not make sense. There is no plausibly offensive way to interpret “How did you become so good in math?” unless the speaker lays exaggerated emphasis on you. Even if one presumes, as the tool does, that the addressee is Asian, it makes no racialized assumptions. It is an open-ended question addressed to a person who has displayed a facility with computation. I think we are supposed to interpret the “I don’t believe it!” in the second example as callous disregard of the of-color person’s lived experience, but it reads more naturally like an ally’s expression of outrage. Nobody in the history of the English language has ever used the pronoun he to refer to all people; I think the word they were looking for there was men or mankind. The carelessness of these examples tips one off to the fact that this tool is far from scientific or rigorous.

The third and fourth examples reflect the echo chambers of the tool’s creators. To members of the avant-garde subcultures represented by the + after LGBT, the binary options male/female, married/single may feel stigmatizing or derogatory. However, to the other 99.9+ percent of us, they are natural, straightforward, and unproblematic. The tool avers that these binaries exclude or degrade women and LGBT persons. Where same-sex marriage is legal, the choice between married and single excludes no one and makes no judgment. I suppose “unmarried” might be more nuanced and inclusive than “single,” but whatever. Male/Female might upset some transgendered people since it forces them to confront the conflict they feel between their anatomy and their identity. But gay and lesbian people are as in synch with their genitals as any straight person. And the idea that either binary somehow excludes or derogates women is just goofy.

Finally, why would a male professor question the need for a student, male or female, to work on an assignment that he himself assigned? And while I get the point about gendered behavioral expectations in the workplace, the male counterpart to b— is not forceful leader; it’s ass—.

Theme 2: You Can’t Be Serious

  • “You are a credit to your race.”
  • Not wanting to sit by someone because of his/her color
  • A heterosexual man who often hangs out with his female friends more often than his
    male friends is labeled as gay
  • Being constantly reminded by a colleague that “we are only women”
  • “You’re a girl, you don’t have to be good at math.”

I confess that I did not know what to do with these examples. I collected them here because each strikes me as too stupid to be believable. Does anyone say or do them in real life anymore without irony? Maybe it happens all the time, and my incredulity reflects the liberal-progressive bubbles I live and work in. If so, show me, and I will cheerfully admit my naïveté and reclassify them. If not, these examples suggest the tool is overdue for an update.

Theme 3: Learned Hypersensitivity, Weaponized

  • “Where are you from?/Where were you born?”
  • “You speak English very well”
  • Asking an Asian or Hispanic to teach them words in their own language

My work with CSJ in schools has taught me that many microaggressions are learned. It would not occur to most people to be offended by certain questions and comments without being taught to. The examples here range from friendly to complimentary to impertinent, but no reasonable person would perceive them as hostile, derogatory, or othering, as the tool avers, unless conditioned to by teachers, professors, and peers. Making people believe that trivial verbal exchanges traumatize them is an extremely effective tactical weapon in the culture wars. It instantly escalates casual interactions into assault, wherein the hearer (female and/or BIPOC) is the victim, and the speaker (male and/or white) is the villain. But I side with critics who argue that teaching people to be that pathologically thin-skinned is what is harmful—not innocuous small talk. I consider it morally repugnant, a form of psychological abuse.

I do recommend you avoid saying these things, however, just to stay out of trouble.

Theme 4: Gotcha!

  • Shows surprise when a feminine woman turns out to be lesbian
  • An advisor assigns a black post-doctoral student to escort a visiting scientist of the same race even though there are other non-black scientists in this person’s specific area of research

The first example here does reflect a stereotype about lesbians. But because it is a stereotype cultivated by lesbians themselves it feels a bit harsh to call someone to the carpet for a momentary and involuntary show of surprise.

I pity the hypothetical advisor in the second example. It seems this person has been subjected to a DEI training or two, learned that black youth need black mentors, saw an opportunity for one of his black advisees to get coveted face time with a professional role model, and instead of being praised for this humble act of affirmative action is instead pilloried for treating student and visitor as lesser beings. Recall too that in the CSJ worldview colorblindness is a form of crypto-racism, a sin this advisor would seem to have avoided through this intentional pairing—another gotcha!. The alleged dehumanization may hinge on the black scientist presumably not being in the student’s field of specialization. Even so, for the hapless advisor, it is damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Theme 5: Mind Reading/Thought Policing

  • “When I look at you, I don’t see color.”
  • “There is only one race, the human race.”
  • “I don’t believe in race.”
  • “America is a melting pot.”
  • “I believe the most qualified person should get the job”
  • “Men and women have equal opportunities for achievement.”
  • “America is the land of opportunity”
  • “Affirmative action is racist”

These are statements of perception or belief. While the first three might make thinking people gag, they reflect admirable enough sentiments. I will note, too, that I don’t believe in race is consistent with both genetic research and CSJ teaching that race is a social construct. The rest are debatable but perfectly legitimate. None is a derogation of the marginalized. To believe that, one has to assume the speaker is insincere, which may be the case but cannot just be assumed.

These examples reveal another unfortunate CSJ tendency—to engage in ad hominem attack rather than reasoned argument. That said, if one holds one of these opinions, he or she better make sure there are good, informed reasons for holding it. Otherwise one is a blowhard—and a sitting duck for CSJ viewpoint shaming.

Theme 6: Context-dependent

  • Denying the experiences of students by questioning the credibility/validity of their stories
  • White man or woman clutching purse or checking wallet when black or Hispanic man
    approaches
  • Someone crosses to the other side of the street to avoid an of-color person
  • A store owner following an of-color customer around the store
  • “Gender plays no part in who we hire.”
  • Dismissing an individual who brings up race/culture in a work/school setting
  • Being ignored at a store counter as attention is given to a white customer
  • An advisor sends an email to another work colleague describing another individual as “a good black scientist.”

All 52 alleged microaggressions are ultimately context-dependent, and the tool admits as much. But with these examples it really just depends. The race of a good scientist ought to be irrelevant unless the department has been trying to recruit more black scientists. It would be pathologically racist to go to the trouble of crossing the street to avoid an of-color person unless some other aspect of that person’s appearance or demeanor made it seem prudent. Dismissing the individual who brings up race in a school or work setting is peremptory unless he is the one-note wonder who makes a racial case out of everything.

These experiences are supposed to reflect the lived experience of black people. Lived experience as a concept wielded by CSJ activists to shut down reasoned deliberation about race and gender issues has earned scorn from critics. However, in its commonsense application, it refers to degrading experiences that many black people do have, should not have, are tired of having, and are understandably prickly about. If one has not heard these stories, he or she should. They will help one understand where the concept of a microaggression came from and why it really can be an apposite label for certain kinds of interactions.

Such stories should provoke some honest introspection. Is it possible gender does influence hiring and promotion decisions at one’s firm? In conversation, does one habitually attach racial or ethnic modifiers where they are irrelevant—my Asian copyeditor, that Hispanic pharmacist, our Polish department chair, etc.? Is one a bit quick to dismiss personal testimonials of racial mistreatment? Answering honestly and making appropriate changes to policy or behavior will not make one woke, it will make one better.

And so now we have transitioned to examples people really ought to take seriously.

Theme 7: Tone Deaf or Insensitive

  • “As a woman, I know what you go through as a racial minority.”
  • “I’m not racist. I have several black friends.”
  • Asking a black person: “Why do you have to be so loud/animated? Just calm down.”
  • “Why are you always angry?” any time race is brought up in classroom discussion
  • To an Asian, Indigenous, or Hispanic: “Why are you so quiet? We want to know what you think. Be more verbal. Speak up more.”

The first four examples here tend to come up mostly in the context of DEI trainings and mandatory race discussions. How either of the first two is supposed to communicate hostility or derogate anyone is a mystery to me. However, they are hackneyed and insipid and will expose one as a rube. The second two would make anyone of any race or gender irate and understandably so.

Though the last example commits the very racial stereotyping the tool’s creators claim to abhor, it is generally true that not all cultures value glib extroversion the way American schools and businesses do. While immigrants do bear the responsibility to adapt to the cultural norms of their new homeland, those of us who work with or teach them should also make some effort to help ease their transition by understanding certain broad cultural differences and helping to bridge them. It is a commonsense example of what CSJ activists call cultural competency. It is also the collegial thing to do.

Theme 8: Maybe not racist/sexist but still inconsiderate

  • “What are you?/You’re so interesting looking”
  • A person asks a woman her age and, upon hearing that she is 31, looks quickly at her ring finger
  • Raising your voice or speaking slowly when addressing a blind student
  • In class, an instructor tends to call on male students more frequently than female ones

Few reasonable people would deem the paired examples in the first bullet racist, but if addressed to a person of a different race, they leave the speaker vulnerable to the charge. What are you? arguably belongs with the examples of learned hypersensitivity weaponized. But this particular phrasing is jarring enough to merit unlearning. You’re so interesting looking is such a thoughtless thing to say to anyone of any race that I was tempted to group it with the obsolete phrases above. If anyone under the age of 80 is still telling people they look interesting, stop. Any offense taken by it is reasonable, no matter how innocuous, even complimentary, the intent.

Checking a 31-year-old woman’s ring finger, by no means, suggests that women should be married during child-bearing ages because that is their primary purpose, as the tool claims. But do not let its silliness distract from the recognition that many unmarried women in their early 30s do want families, are growing anxious, and do not need you to make them self-conscious about it.

The tool tells one that raising one’s voice or speaking slowly to a blind person implies that a person with a disability is…lesser in all aspects of physical and mental functioning. That is nonsense. But if you do do this, one might legitimately question your mental functioning.

And while the charge that calling on males more than females signifies that the contributions of female students are less worthy is rote feminist cant, it is a good idea for school teachers, professors, and managers to make sure they are not only taking contributions from the most assertive people in the class or conference room. Self-monitoring and intentional inclusion are good practices.

Theme 9: Not an aggression, but definitely racist/sexist

  • To an Asian: “You must be good in math, can you help me with this problem?”
  • To an of-color woman: “I would have never guessed that you were a scientist.”
  • While walking through the halls of the chemistry building, a professor approaches a post-doctoral of-color student to ask if he or she is lost, making the assumption that the person is trying to break into one of the labs
  • Of-color faculty mistaken for a service worker
  • Female doctor mistaken for a nurse
  • An advisor asks a female student if she is planning on having children while in postdoctoral training
  • “Everyone can succeed in this society, if they work hard enough”

There is no denying that the first five examples in this category do reflect either racial stereotypes or outdated gender expectations. That they are not aggressions but, rather, careless slips makes them worse than actual aggressions because they reflect the kind of unconscious bias the CSJ activists are talking about. If there is dismantling to be done, it is here.

In the United States—and I suspect elsewhere in the Anglophone world—it would violate labor laws to ask a female post-doc about her child-bearing plans; as such, it would trigger a different kind of grievance that carries well-specified consequences for the advisor. Do not do it.

One need not be a Marxist to recognize that the kind of steep inequality one finds in the United States and elsewhere makes a mockery of the belief that hard work is all it takes to succeed. It is offensive to anyone of any race or gender born into adverse circumstances to be told that without heavy qualification. There is nothing micro about it.

Theme 10: Not necessarily racist/sexist, but definitely an aggression

  • Continuing to mispronounce names even after having been corrected
  • Saying “You people….”
  • “Of course he’ll get tenure, even though he hasn’t published much—he’s black.”

I hardly need to spell out what makes these aggressions. They are hostile, intentional, and directed at a specific individual. Even the most thick-skinned target would have cause for offense. Whether the first two qualify as derogations of the marginalized or stigmatized depends on whom the target is. How egregious the third is depends heavily on context and tone, but it is at best ungenerous. Say any of these out loud in a room full of colleagues or classmates and, sorry, you deserve what is coming to you.

If one found himself or herself quibbling with my classifications and reasoning, good. It means one is engaging the examples critically on a case-by-case basis, which is how I am suggesting one should engage them. Just do not let those quibbles distract from one’s own honest appraisal of the examples and explanations themselves. Go ahead and have a good guffaw over the claim that an involuntary glance at a woman’s ring finger means you value women solely as mothers. Relish the hypocrisy of an instrument that condemns stereotyping Asian-Americans as good at math on one page, then on the next stereotypes them as introverted and taciturn. Ponder the paradox wherein it is racist to be colorblind yet also racist to call a black scientist a black scientist. Rage against the bigotry motivating the belief that white people cannot be hurt by others’ words. Then set aside the lunacies and zero in on what has merit, or at least merits complying with.

Navigating the Woke Workplace

If one works in a school or office where CSJ has made headway, one’s survival may well depend on strategic adaptation. I will close with some advice based on what has worked for me.

In the mandated DEI training
The approach I am advocating is for one’s mind only. I intend it as a reflective exercise to help one turn what might otherwise be a divisive, unedifying, and potentially offensive experience into a worthwhile one. In the workshop itself, I advise singing from the hymn book. If that sounds unfair or cowardly, consider all the other pseudo-sociological gibberish one has had to parrot back to managers for the sake of keeping one’s job, or to professors for the sake of a good grade. Has one ever had to take a Myers-Briggs or Strengths Finders inventory, or master the argot of systems thinking, disruptive innovation, or continuous improvement? Did you ever turn a paper into your feminist professor condemning misogyny in media? If so, you should be able to pledge to purge yourself of impure micro-aggressive thoughts and actions and promise to vigilantly police your colleagues as well. Most DEI training is performative. Learn to make the right noises, at the right times, in the right ways, in the right amounts. You are better at it than you think.

Yet CSJ is not as benignly vacuous as systems thinking or Myers-Briggs. It is designed to provoke strong emotional responses. It brazenly demeans and demonizes men and white people. If one falls into either of those categories, it helps to be prepared. If one has any way of anticipating which common DEI tools are going to be used in the training—the microaggressions tool, the privilege inventory, the Implicit Associations Test, the racial identity heuristic, etc.—it is worth reviewing them ahead of time. Get familiar with them. Process whatever visceral reactions they provoke. Then, do your best to identify kernels of truth and good sense. Try to walk into the workshop with those kernels in mind, along with some points where you might have common ground with the presenters and your woker colleagues. Focus on those as much as possible when called upon.

It helps to translate the more hysterical, overwrought, and even bigoted wokespeak into commonsense terms. Notice above how often I question whether something is an aggression or othering or racist/misogynist but grant that it is tactless, inconsiderate, impertinent, or unfair. CSJ terminology is hyperbolic to the point of being hysterical. Its analytical frameworks are crude and relentlessly procrustean, force-fitting complex social phenomena into its rigid dystopian categories. So, one needs to detach the described behaviors from the incendiary CSJ packaging. I would not openly challenge the terms or categories. However, one can slip one’s translations into the discussion. Do not say “I don’t see how asking an Asian-American colleague where he came from is racist or ‘othering.’” Simply say, “I suppose answering such questions could get old after a while.” Period. If a presenter or tablemate then insists on tacking on “because it’s racist!” all one has to do is shrug and pledge to never again ask an Asian-American about his or her ancestral heritage.

What about those things that, after honest and nuanced reflection, one still finds absurd, hysterical, or even offensive? That’s up to you and your knowledge of your organizational culture and your status in it. If you think you can speak your mind in a measured way without fear of reprisal, then say what you have to say. Just bear in mind that even if the people you work with are affable and collegial (and you all got along great before human resources poisoned the well with DEI trainings), the collective pressure to conform and perform might cause them to turn on you. (Better you than one of them, right?) That is why I generally recommend saving your objections for later, in a post-workshop kvetch with trusted colleagues behind closed doors. Or better yet, off-site over a couple of stiff drinks.

Day-to-Day

Think of the microaggressions tool as a Woke Guide to Office Etiquette. We routinely practice euphemism and thought-suppression in our professional and personal lives. One would not tell an Asian-American colleague how sexy one finds him or her; do not praise their problem-solving prowess either. If you are smart, you refrain from airing your views on the death penalty and abortion around the office; add colorblind social policies and race-based college admissions to your list of taboo topics. For your own sake avoid everything in Theme 7, and, for the sake of others, eschew Themes 8, 9, and 10. Social etiquette seems to be changing at such a break-neck pace nowadays that it can be hard to keep up. But keep up we must if we want to survive the woke workplace.

There is a limit, however. Reasonable accommodation does not require one to be a pushover. If one suspects that his or her colleagues’ rights are being violated (or livelihoods are being put at risk through coercive or discriminatory workplace policies), one should fight back with every legal resource at his or her disposal. It is one thing to parrot pop orthodoxy at a workshop or accommodate colleagues’ sensitivities for the sake of courtesy or compliance. It is quite another to accept second-class status (or worse) in the name of CSJ’s grievance-driven notions of restorative (read: retributive) justice. If anyone with power over your professional future suggests that it is time for the likes of you to “Step aside,” it might be time to lawyer up.

Conclusion

The pragmatic approach that I have tried to model here applies to many of the tools, templates, presentations, and stories one will encounter in most DEI trainings and other compulsory CSJ forums. It will help you unpack your invisible knapsack, identify your blind spots, and explore your organization’s white supremacy culture (my favorite—and a real doozy). Once you get past the tendentious framing, histrionic lexicon, and invidious intent, you can usually find something of value. Doing so will help you resist the gaslighting and indoctrination while helping you wring some genuine benefits from the ordeal. If you do it right, you’ll come away more informed and thoughtful, less likely to trigger a disciplinary inquiry, and maybe even a little more pleasant to work with.

David Ferrero is an independent education & non-profit management consultant based in Seattle.

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