Section: Opinion

Bringing “microaggression” to Kenyon

So far, the trend of campus-specific “microaggression” shaming has not yet reached Kenyon.

A few weeks ago, The New York Times highlighted how campus blogs, papers, performances and discussions all seemed to fixate on the term, which is used to classify small racial slights as the latest and most frequent form of discrimination. A Brown University tumblr photograph shows a girl holding up a handwritten sign saying “So … you’re Chinese right?”; St. Olaf College has one anonymous quote claiming a Latino student was asked “So is your family involved with drug cartels?”; there is photograph in the Times article of a black Harvard student performing a monologue about being mistaken for a waiter at an event.

These students are arguing that there is hatred in these slights, that such behavior is wrong. I disagree. They oversimplify. Such slights deserve a serious response, but I believe the term micro-aggressions, if used crudely and poorly, risks lowering the standards of critical thinking Kenyon is supposed to encourage. Worse, we may fail to address the far deeper cultural conflicts and inequalities that allow discrimination to persist.

While micro-aggressions have mostly been used to refer to incidents of perceived racial discrimination, we must not forget that inequality works on many levels: perceptions about gender, sexuality, income, ethnicity and faith all can be used to discriminate. If all we do is bin and label these latest small-slights as micro-aggressions, it becomes nothing more than the latest version of “political correctness,” which Nikhil Idnani ’14 wisely critiqued in the Collegian last week (“The problems with political correctness,” March 27). But I don’t think Nikhil went far enough: Political correctness is a dumb way of sugar-coating blunt realities about the hierarchies of society. Saying “don’t say that” does not go nearly far enough. For instance, when someone asked that girl at Brown whether or not she was Chinese, and she perceived that as offensive, we need to unpack why she saw it as offensive, and why the person who asked the question thought it was okay. What perceptions, hopefully false and misplaced, lead someone at St. Olaf to ask someone assumed to be Latino if his family was involved in drug trafficking?

Only by moving rapidly to what cultural ideologies, used consciously or not, are behind such incidents can we hope to prevent discrimination. But all too often, such discussion does not happen when it comes to slights seen as “micro-aggressions.” For instance, just this week on Twitter, there was a misguided attempt to cancel The Colbert Report, a satirical television news show on Comedy Central, because the Twitter account for the show truncated a longer, off-color joke from the show itself. I fail to see how such flash-in-the-pan scandals help address inequality and discrimination in the long-term.

We should be objecting to the way power is distributed or exercised unfairly instead of launching into ad hominems about poorly phrased jokes or questions. It is possible to do this using incidents of micro-aggression.

But while the rest of the country, and Twitter, has been discussing micro-aggressions, Kenyon has been doing its own thing: Some really tough questions have been appearing around campus this week. Questions like “What is the purpose of this school?” or “Is there a safe space for women of color on campus?” get closer to our perceptions of privilege, power and identity as Kenyon students, but more importantly, as really complicated individuals, who are rendered more significant, not flatter, by our race, gender, sexuality, income, ethnicity and faith.

These are the tough questions we should be asking, and we should not stop at just a few provocative signs. We must bring the discussions about discrimination home, to Kenyon, because just feeling safe is not enough: we must know why we feel safe, and why we can call this place our home.

Jonathan Sun ’16 is a prospective English major from Watchung, N.J . He can be reached at


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