Lennie held out his hands pleadingly. “Give ‘um to me, George. I’ll take ‘um back. I didn’t mean no harm, George. Honest I didn’t. I jus’ wanted to pet ‘um a little.”
John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men.
Whether or not one agrees with the specifics of school social justice initiatives I think that one should concede that the general goal of these initiatives is to improve the lives of previously disadvantaged groups.
There is an understandable desire to protect such groups from having to listen to speech that undermines their humanity. It is, therefore, quite common for schools to include in their codes of conduct a list of expressions that are considered racist, sexist, or homophobic. Many of the things mentioned are clearly discriminatory but just as many defy reason and one would have to engage in some seriously woke mental gymnastics to conclude that they are.
While diversity consultants and activist teachers are staying limber doing just that, otherwise reasonable adults should remember that lofty ideas, when grounded, have real world consequences for very real people.
Unfortunately, like Lennie with the puppy, too many of these ideas turn out to harm the very groups they seek to care for.
Such is the case with banning racial microaggressions.
In short, a microaggression is when white people say or do something that might seem benign but actually, intentionally or not, contains a hidden message that reinforces negative stereotypes or the oppression of non-white people. A classic example is saying to a black person that they are articulate, or that they speak well. The thought is that what you are really saying is that the person speaks well for a black person.
South Africa’s elite schools have an obsession with microaggressions, no doubt caused by consultation with diversity, equity and inclusion experts and activist teachers. A concerning number of school codes of conduct ban micro-aggressions in general and many list specific examples.
I want to discuss two of the most disturbing examples of speech bans I have come across in a South African school, before closing with some comments on the detrimental effects this kind of social justice could have for black lives and race relations.
According to a list of ‘Anti-racist and discrimination nevers’ in an official school code of conduct, nobody is allowed to say …
- … that if someone works hard they will get ahead, as if structural discrimination does not exist, and;
- … that we should just trust and respect each other. It takes more than this when trust for some has been broken many times before.
I humbly submit that if there are two memes worth spreading in a school, respect and work ethic would be viable contenders.
Why then would a school ban the above assertions and call it social justice?
I asked them. They told me that the assertions are banned because they are racial microaggressions. I emailed back saying thank you, but that I was in fact looking for an explanation of why the expressions are considered racial microaggressions
I think it is fair to assume that at least some members of the Transformation, Diversity and Inclusion (TDI) department at the school know perfectly well why the aforementioned expressions are thought to be racial microaggressions. After all, they would have been integral to the drafting of the policy. It’s not as if somebody decided to sneak the clauses in in the dead of night hoping nobody would notice. Odd then that they seemed to avoid giving me a straight answer.
(They did, however, inform me that the ‘nevers’ apply to children as young as 5 years-old and that these particular ‘nevers’, ‘support our BIPOC students, staff and community members and make them aware that microaggressions or discriminatory language are not tollerated (sic)’.)
No matter, because we can take a punt at understanding these particular microaggressions by looking at a similar example and the explanation provided.
In July 2020, KIPP, an organisation with network of 270 public charter schools in the US decided to get rid of its official slogan because it was considered problematic. The slogan?
‘Work hard. Be nice.’
They justified the decision in a tweet that read:
‘We are retiring “Work hard. Be nice” as KIPP’s national slogan; it diminishes the significant effort required to dismantle systemic racism, places value on being compliant and submissive, supports the illusion of meritocracy, and does not align with our vision of students being free to create the future they want.’
This was backed up by the leader of the Foundation’s equity programme who said:
‘The slogan passively supports ongoing efforts to pacify and control Black and Brown bodies in order to better condition them to be compliant and further reproduce current social norms that center whiteness and meritocracy as normal.’
I think that very same idea is behind the above two ‘nevers’.
Now imagine little Johnny is asked what his solution to racism would be and he answered, ‘We should just trust and respect each other, Ma’am’.
Imagine Suzie is asked what advice she would give to somebody looking to get ahead and she said, ‘work hard’.
A reasonable person might conclude that although Johnny’s answer may be a bit naïve, he is ultimately tapping into the idea of universalism, one of the foundational principles of liberalism. And as for Suzie, her advice appears pretty sound.
A sad consequence of the obsession with microaggressions is that in order to be considered microaggressions they have to be interpreted in the most uncharitable way imaginable. By encouraging this kind of mind-reading, Haidt and Lukianoff in The Coddling of the American Mind, say that we are teaching children to ‘engage in emotional reasoning and other distortions while setting them up for higher levels of distrust and conflict’.
Consider what hidden meaning the school requires one to intuit in this case. Johnny’s answer is meant to betray in him an unconscious desire to further the subjugation of non-white people, and Suzie is guilty of a microaggression that distracts from systemic racism, resulting in the continued normalisation of white supremacy. To not intuit this is to not care about social justice. In light of this, speech acts of this nature must be banned.
In banning such speech acts, schools are engaged in what Haidt and Lukianoff call ‘safteyism’. Safteyism, they say, ‘deprives young people of the experiences that their antifragile minds need, thereby making them more fragile, anxious, and prone to seeing themselves as victims.’
To think that black people need to be protected from assertions like these is to think very little of them. Are black people so pathologically fragile that they are incapable of formulating an argument against any idea that offends them? Of course not. Yet, by banning microaggressions, children are being taught that fragility is a virtue: that it is a sign of wokeness.
And finally, what message is the school sending to its black students by including the two ‘nevers’ in an official code of conduct?
It is that no matter how hard they work they will never amount to anything. That there is no chance of upward mobility due to the ubiquitous and oppressive quagmire they have inherited. White people are not to be trusted. They may say nice things but really what they are doing is trying to keep them oppressed. The only way for them to escape oppression is to dismantle systems of whiteness.
Not only is this factually incorrect but to spread this idea among children as young as five is child abuse.
If anybody is looking for answers to why race relations at many schools have become increasingly fraught, the obsession with microaggressions must surely be one reason.
I think that black children would be better off being told that it is okay to trust white people. That even though people who look like them were seen as second-class citizens for centuries does not mean that most white people still see them as such.
I think Johnny and Suzie would be better off if they were not told that they were racists or participating in a system of racism if they believe that hard work will get you ahead and that we should trust and respect each other.
Believe it or not, it is possible to praise work ethic and to advocate for respecting each other, while being mindful of the facts of history and how they affect the present.
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