Microaggressions: everyday offenses or digs, sometimes subtle and unintentional, directed at a person based on his or her race. It’s a divisive term that some say has helped enable the “coddling” of college students nationwide. Others still say it’s given a name to the kinds of insidious discrimination that students of color and others have faced in the college classroom for generations.
Like it or not, microaggression is now part of the mainstream college climate vocabulary, as a recent, public case at Mount Holyoke College and others like it illustrate. But are such cases—in which a student accuses a professor of discrimination—destined to become high-profile incidents? Or are they best settled between students and professors in private, if at all possible? And what’s the right way to talk about race in the classroom, if there is one, to help prevent such problems in the first place?
Academic freedom and education experts say it’s all a delicate balance.
The Mount Holyoke story goes something like this: This month, a student who claimed she and other students had been subjected to discrimination in their English classroom last semester went public with a detailed complaint. In March, Eugene Hill, a professor of English, was teaching Robinson Crusoe. Trying to explain the derogatory nature of the book’s use of the term papist, Hill allegedly went around the room, looking at various ethnic minority students and guessing what racial slurs might once have been used to describe them.
A student in the class, Danielle Brown, described the incident in an online Holyoke student blog called Radix.
Hill “slowly looked around the room and laid eyes on a student we all knew to be Chinese,” Brown wrote. “He said, while looking at her, ‘If I was to say something derogatory about a Chinese man, I would call him a ch-nk, right?’ The ears of those who had not tuned out this far into the day’s lecture perked up. Did he really just say that? [Italics hers.] His eyes scanned the room again.”
Brown continued: “ ‘What would you call a Puerto Rican?’ he mused. ‘I think you’d call him a … a sp-ck.’ ” Hill “continued to think about other racial slurs that could possibly exist (including Italian and Irish), and at that point, I realized that he was looking for ethnicities he could insult. He was choosing from among us. After a few more racial insensitivities, openly inviting us all to join in with slurs we knew and the interjection of a friend who asked ‘Why are you doing this?’ he turned to me and another black student who happened to be sitting right next to me.”
Hill allegedly asked Brown to name a slur for black people.
“My mind was racing but physically, I was frozen,” she wrote.
How do I react to this? In high school, I would have walked out of the room straight to my car. I would have called my mother on the way home, and she would have arrived at the front office in under an hour to rip the principal and his employees a new one. All is well when you are young and do not have to deal with these issues head-on. But in college my mother is over 1,800 miles away. This time around I was on my own.
Brown said that she debated leaving class, among other options, but eventually answered that she didn’t know what the slur was. Hill allegedly forced her to answer, but Brown said she’d only go so far as to say negro.
“We get what you’re saying. Just drop i—,” she recalled saying, as Hill allegedly said, “Nigger! I would say nigger.”
Brown said she began tearing up as she recalled other questionable statements by the professor, including those critical of women. After class, she and another student decided to report the incident to the department chair, who helped them transfer—along with five other students—to other sections with different professors.
Brown said she also was referred to the dean of students, with whom she filed a more formal report. She said she met with “one dean after another,” along with a third-party investigator. Initially, she said, she was heartened by their interest and trusted “the system.” But after three months of silence, Brown checked in with several administrators and said she’d like, at the very least, a letter of apology.
“It was unfair to all of us that our lives had been shuffled around but yet he comfortably, and literally, sat in the same position without the slightest reprimanding,” she said.
Weeks later, in August, Brown received a short letter from Hill, saying, “Having read the report on the regrettable class … I wish to hereby apologize to students for discomfort occasioned them by my conduct. There will be, they may be confident, no recurrence of such conduct.”
Brown called the letter insincere and “nonchalant.” She said the “briefness of the letter not only represents how much of a priority Professor Hill did not find this matter to be, but also how much administrators found it to be.”
In response, she wrote her own letter to college administrators, which she shared in Radix. She asked the administration to “take responsibility for your employees—especially the tenured professors. Stop protecting them. Professor Hill is not and has never been the only professor to provide such a hostile, uncomfortable environment in a classroom. From sociology to politics to computer science, almost every student I’ve encountered can share a story about a time they were forced to feel belittled, humiliated and hindered by tenured professors.”
Brown also said that the college’s emphasis on cultural diversity in recruiting fell short in practice, once recruits arrived on campus.
Lastly, she said, “Recognize that, despite recent accounts from multiple old, white critics and professors, ‘freedom of speech’ has not been lost. Asking to be treated with basic human decency and not tolerating a mind-set appropriately placed in the 1950s does not make for a ‘softer’ generation.”
“We are sick of your intolerance and portrayal of political correctness as a negative modern-day attribute. We have found that it is high time for your bullshit to be put on display for all to see.”
Brown could not immediately be reached for comment.
Hill, who is still teaching, said via email that the matter was investigated by the college and a report prepared for the dean of faculty. “It was certainly not my intention to cause students discomfort,” he added. “(We were looking at an 18th-century text that I was trying to elucidate by means of present-day lexical analogues and this proved to be a mistaken approach.) I have sent an apology to the students in the class and that apology was sincerely offered.”
Sonya Stephens, dean of the faculty and vice president of academic affairs at Mount Holyoke, said in an interview that “our job is to create a learning environment in which everyone is treated with respect and dignity, but that doesn’t mean not exposing them to things that challenge them or presenting them with ideas that they find uncomfortable. But that’s not the same as making them feel discriminated against.”
For that reason, she said, the college has various channels for students trying to resolve such issues with professors, from encouraging students to talk with professors one on one to making general climate reports and/or filing targeted complaints. The college is in the midst of resolving a complaint and public accusation of racial microaggressions against a longtime faculty member.
Stephens said she was limited in what she could say about Brown’s claims, given concerns about student and personnel privacy and because the college is still addressing the issue. Regarding Brown’s claim that she had not been provided a copy of the investigation upon request, Stephens said the college has various reporting mechanisms, with various levels of anonymity governing each.
Hill said that Brown and other students “had not indicated any problems with the course; and I do wish they had spoken with me directly.”
It’s a somewhat common complaint in cases involving perceived microaggressions, with critics saying that professors sometimes don’t even know they’ve offended students (although many would argue Hill’s alleged actions amount to more than just microaggressions). So students should attempt to resolve the issue at the classroom level if at all possible before triggering more formal processes, these critics say.
On the other hand, many student advocates say that it’s hard for students to address such issues with professors, given the inherent power imbalance and due to any uncomfortable environment that may have been created.
Azhar Majeed, director of education for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said that in many instances the organization encourages students with climate concerns in the classroom to first address them with the professor in question. “If I were a student, I’d at least try that, and if it doesn’t change anything, then you have the option to take it up [with] the academic department or dean,” he said.
“I would hope that students have the ability to come across both ideas and individuals that they find offensive. We hope that that’s something they come to college prepared to do, but certainly they can develop those skills on campus. Because once they graduate and start working in the real world, these kinds of problems aren’t going to go away.”
Majeed said he can recall several recent instances in which students have “prematurely” filed complaints against professors for exercising free speech. For example, he said, a professor at Northwestern University recently was investigated for violations of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, prohibiting gender discrimination, for writing critically about the implications of increased Title IX filings.
Student complaints against the professor in that case were “overzealous” and had a “chilling effect on academic freedom,” Majeed said. The professor was cleared of wrongdoing but objected to the idea of being investigated.
The Holyoke case is “is a little bit closer to the line” of overt discrimination, however, he said. And given that Brown implies Hill may have a history of such behavior, “there might be a legitimate concern here about professionalism and keeping the classroom a proper learning environment.”
Aaron Cohen, chair of the department of history at California State University, Sacramento, publicly defended a professor in his department who was recently accused by a student in various media outlets of saying that settler and U.S. actions against Native Americans fell short of genocide. Cohen stressed that he thought what had happened in his department was very different than what had happened at Holyoke but that he was still limited about what he could say regarding the case on his campus.
But generally, Cohen said via email, “University instructors in the liberal tradition should, to some degree, make students intellectually discomfited but not personally uncomfortable.” When an instructor tries to do the former and ends up doing the latter, for whatever reason, he said, “then it’s appropriate for students to communicate their discomfort to the instructor and to his or her superiors (chair, dean, etc., following the chain of command). Perhaps the instructor needs to change his or her approach, perhaps the students need to change their approaches. In any case, communication and dialogue can help people understand each other better and find a resolution.”
John K. Wilson, co-editor of the American Association of University Professors’ Academe blog and an academic freedom expert, said he agreed with Brown’s comment that it was “high time for [Holyoke’s] bullshit to be put on display for all to see.” He said he didn’t like the idea of “official investigations and punishments and reprimands and forced apologies” and that sometimes the public sphere was an appropriate forum to settle these kinds of concerns.
“While I think it is often good for students and faculty to discuss these issues directly and personally, if that doesn’t work, I think there are times when going public with these discussions is important,” and “public shaming” helps, Wilson said.
Regarding race in particular, Wilson said he thought it was important that professors not try and “force” race upon their students, either by assuming their race or asking them to use racial slurs. “That goes far beyond a microaggression, which is an unintentional offense made based on ignorance,” he added.
At the same time, he said, that doesn’t mean racist words are banned from the classroom—just that they should be relevant to the context of the class and not targeted at particular students. “Encouraging professors to exercise their academic freedom with some degree of sensitivity and intelligence is not censorship,” Wilson said.
Richard Milner, the Helen Faison Professor of urban education at the University of Pittsburgh, who’s written extensively about discussing race in the classroom, said that better education and training of professors about power differentials related to race and their positions in the classroom are necessary going forward.
When actually discussing race in the classroom, there’s no “one way” to do it, since so much is dependent on context and content, he said. But it’s “essential for professors to explicitly stress that they are open to student feedback and concerns during and after race-based discussions.” In other words, Milner said, professors have to see themselves as “learners” in the classroom, just like students.
Administrators can help by being more “diligent about developing and maintaining expectations for professors, especially as issues of race emerge,” he said. “When policies shepherded through expectations are clear to professors about what will and will not be accepted, university classroom settings can be spaces where people feel supported and nurtured.”
Regarding microaggressions in particular, Milner said that much more attention needs to be placed on their role in the classroom because “students of color find themselves miserably underserved and psychologically and emotionally drained in classroom settings with insensitive professors.” Indeed, that’s how a group of graduate students at the University of California, Los Angeles, reported feeling after alleged microaggressions on campus in 2013; the group staged a teach-in to voice their concerns.
He added, “Race matters for all of us—not only people of color—and white professors, due to a range of privileges related to their whiteness, may forget that their race and their whiteness manifest in their practices,” sometimes unintentionally. But being “unaware of how issues of race, discrimination, microaggressions and racism emerge is not an excuse for the kinds of support all students deserve in college classrooms,” Milner said.