Or does it? We aren’t really sure: Alas! Right from the start, race was one of the central organizing principles of American life.
Saturday morning, on the front page, the New York Times discussed one part of the giant backwash bequeathed to us by our benighted ancestors.
Or did it? We aren’t entirely sure.
We refer to this front-page report by Tanzina Vega. Here’s what the headline said:
“Students See Many Slights as Racial ‘Microaggressions’ ”
If the term “microagressions” is new to you, you shouldn’t feel bad. According to the Nexis archives, the word has only appeared in the Times on two previous occasions—once in June 1989, once in October 2007.
The term is basically new to the Times. The concept, which is easy to understand, pretty much isn’t.
As she began, Vega defined the term “microagression.” She also described two possible views of this matter.
A tape which Vega narrates on-line helps show why this is important:
VEGA (3/22/14): A tone-deaf inquiry into an Asian-American’s ethnic origin. Cringe-inducing praise for how articulate a black student is. An unwanted conversation about a Latino’s ability to speak English without an accent.Is discussion of microaggressions “a new form of divisive hypersensitivity?” In some cases, presumably yes.
This is not exactly the language of traditional racism, but in an avalanche of blogs, student discourse, campus theater and academic papers, they all reflect the murky terrain of the social justice word du jour—microaggressions— used to describe the subtle ways that racial, ethnic, gender and other stereotypes can play out painfully in an increasingly diverse culture.
On a Facebook page called “Brown University Micro/Aggressions” a “dark-skinned black person” describes feeling alienated from conversations about racism on campus. A digital photo project run by a Fordham University student about “racial microaggressions” features minority students holding up signs with comments like “You’re really pretty...for a dark-skin girl.” The “St. Olaf Microaggressions” blog includes a letter asking David R. Anderson, the college’s president, to address “all of the incidents and microaggressions that go unreported on a daily basis.
What is less clear is how much is truly aggressive and how much is pretty micro—whether the issues raised are a useful way of bringing to light often elusive slights in a world where overt prejudice is seldom tolerated, or a new form of divisive hypersensitivity, in which casual remarks are blown out of proportion.
Might this also be a very useful discussion? In many cases, presumably yes—as you can see by watching Vega’s tape.
On the tape, Vega speaks with two Harvard undergraduates who are very bright and reflective. We’d love to hear more about what their experience is like.
To watch the tape, click here, scroll down, click again. We have a lot of confidence in the nation's young people (possibly not including those with jobs at Salon).
Question: How often do these young women feel that they experience “microaggressions” in their campus life? The question is never asked in Vega’s report, which largely skims the surface of this topic.
That skimming is one of the unfortunate aspects of this front-page report. To our mind, it represents the casual, casually politicized way the Times tends to toy with race.
We don’t mean that as a criticism of Vega, who also sounds like a winning young person. We mean it as a criticism of the culture of the New York Times.
Vega is dealing with a very important part of American life. It probably deserved a longer and clearer discussion.
On the whole, we were frustrated by Vega’s attempts to introduce nuance and perspective into her report. Cases in point:
VEGA: To Serena Rabie, 22, a paralegal who graduated from the University of Michigan in 2013, “This is racism 2.0.” She added: “It comes with undertones, it comes with preconceived notions. You hire the Asian computer programmer because you think he’s going to be a good programmer because he’s Asian.” Drawing attention to microaggressions, whether they are intentional or not, is part of eliminating such stereotypes, Ms. Rabie said.To our ear, Rabie’s discussion of “racism 2.0” was a bit hard to follow. That’s basically Vega’s responsibility—also, that of her editor.
On the other hand, John McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Columbia University, said many of his students casually use the word when they talk about race, but he cautioned against lumping all types of off-key language together. Assuming a black student was accepted to an elite university purely because of affirmative action? “That’s abuse,” Dr. McWhorter said. “That’s a slur.” Being offended when a white person claims to be colorblind—a claim often derided by minorities who say it willfully ignores the reality of race? Not so fast.
“I think that’s taking it too far,” he said. Whites do not have the same freedom to talk about race that nonwhites do, Dr. McWhorter said. If it is socially unacceptable for whites to consider blacks as “different in any way” then it is unfair to force whites to acknowledge racial differences, he said.
(Presumably, Rabie meant that negative stereotypes of other groups can lead to preferential hiring for Asians. Presumably, the “microaggression” isn’t committed against the person who gets the job—although we’re forced to guess.)
We thought the passage quoting Rabie was hard to follow. The passage in which McWhorter was largely paraphrased seemed quite fuzzy too.
Is this the best our leading paper can do on its front page concerning such an important part of American life, of the ongoing American project? Based on the history of the past few decades, the answer would seem to be yes.
If you watch that tape, you will see two impressive young women speaking, ever so briefly, about their lived experience. We wish the Times hadn’t skimmed the surface of this topic so.
We also would have liked to hear more from Professor Gates. Here’s how he was quoted and paraphrased at the end of Vega’s piece:
VEGA: Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard professor and author, said the public airing of racial microaggressions should not be limited to minorities, but should be open to whites as well. “That’s the only way that you can produce a multicultural, ethnically diverse environment,” he said.Hold on there! Was Gates suggesting that “microaggresisons” can be committed against so-called whites too? That a fuller discussion might include the complaints of those people too?
“We’re talking about people in close contact who are experiencing the painful intersections of intimacy,” he said. “The next part of that is communication, and this is a new form of communication.”
Did he mean that the recitation of complaints could be done in the most radical way of them all—black and white together? We have no real idea. That passage flew by too quickly.
What did Professor Gates have to say? We wish the Times had explained in more detail.
We wish the Times was more sincere about race. Also, a bit more competent.
Still coming: Daringly, the New York Times fights the Klan