Last year’s student protests were deplored and ridiculed by off-campus commentators across the political spectrum (see this from Bill O’Reilly, this from Bill Maher, and this from Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff). Even President Obama has chided students for running away from people whose ideas don't match their own.
But many of us suspected that on-campus officials would accede to students’ demands. (At TheDemands.Org, you can read demands lists issued by black student groups at colleges and universities around the country. Eighty lists have been collected as of this writing.) At least, we suspected, administrators would create little programs that respond to the feelings of hurt that arise from racism and discrimination.
Yesterday, the New York Times reported on one such effort, a freshman orientation seminar focusing on micro-aggressions at Clark University. In the program, Clark’s chief diversity officer, Sheree Marlowe, explains to incoming students what microaggressions are: “comments, snubs, or insults that communicate derogatory or negative messages that might not be intended to cause harm but are targeted at people based on their membership in a marginalized group.” She proceeds to explain how to avoid them.
Included in her advice:
• don't ask Asian students to help you with your math homework;
• don't assume that black students like basketball;
• don't refer to a group that includes women as “you guys.”
The advice is as microscopic as the aggressions. If a white woman grasps her purse when a black person approaches, that’s a “nonverbal microaggression.” (This judgment wouldn't apply to a black woman who did the same thing. Definitionally, microaggressions cannot be committed by members of marginalized groups.) If you happen to believe in the principle that “Everyone can succeed in this society if they [sic] work hard enough,” you have committed a “microinvalidation.” And so on.
It is easy to denounce these kinds of instructions as political correctnesss run amok, as a re-education camp, the infantilization of college, and social engineering approaching Orwellian surveillance. Speaking of Orwell, the students I teach these days don a blank look whenever race, gender, or politics comes up in discussion—a look that is a lesser version of the expression Winston Smith wears at the end of Nineteen Eighty-Four (“He loved Big Brother”).
But there is a simpler question to ask, one that has haunted the dictators of virtue from Robespierre downward: Who are the custodians? Better—who can they possibly be?
In this regime that probes people’s minds for hidden assumptions, for biases concealed even from their holders, the custodians have an impossible task. To judge the minds, sensibilities, dispositions, expectations, prejudices, and experiences of nineteen-year-olds relative to social matters, to exert the discernment needed to read their behavior for underlying, furtive opinions about race and other delicate affairs, one must possess extraordinary wisdom, knowledge, sensitivity, and discretion.
I don’t qualify, and neither does Sheree Marlowe, who has been an attorney specializing in civil rights litigation and employment law. Nobody does.
At the end of the Times story, we see just that breakdown taking place. After Ms. Marlowe spoke about racism and reverse-racism, a white male student asked, “When you use the term ‘self-identify’ as a white woman, are you saying that you can choose your race?”
Ms. Marlowe replied by giving an example of a man she had assumed was black but who corrected her by saying, “I'm Cuban.” That is, his self-identification altered her conception of his race.
She added, however, that the case of Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who claimed to be African American, isn’t valid instance of self-identification. “You can’t say you’re black if you’re not, historically.” The student appeared confused—as we would, too, given the flat meaning of the term self-identify.
Ms. Marlowe had no answer, proposing instead (in what every teacher recognizes as the standard dodge): “You want to come see me afterward?”
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.