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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

A Few Things on Microaggressions

<ourse Carleton is a diverse place and a microcosm of America. On the other hand, of course a school with a vocal subculture that celebrates the class politics of Harry Potter has a certain set of handicaps to contend with when it tries to discuss its own diversity. Among these handicaps: a steely refusal to consider other perspectives, a reliance on a poor application of Occam’s Razor, a thoroughgoing sense of entitlement.

I’m going to discuss Michael Goodgame’s column from last week in terms of these handicaps, because his piece was what symptomatic of all of them—that is, both his arguments and the handicaps share an underlying set of axioms. I’d like to clarify that this isn’t an attack on the author, and I appreciate any opportunity to broach the topic of race at Carleton, but the column takes a simplistic, obstructive position that approaches willed ignorance of the principles of the text it analyzes. This evinces an intellectual laziness that, frankly, doesn’t have any place at this school.

The kernel of the column’s basic logical fallacy appears in its fourth paragraph. Michael notes that the Carleton Microaggressions blog claims to catalog acts of systemic prejudice in order to fight the system itself rather than, to quote directly, “the people who commit such acts.” After a paragraph-long disclaimer about reverse racism, he immediately notes, “I do feel targeted” and goes on to say that the site really is targeting the individual, despite its protestations to the contrary. The rest of the column is predicated on this assertion, which he does not substantiate.

Following paragraphs take a similar strategy of dismissal. After giving an example entry from the blog, Michael writes that it is “completely absurd,” later that it is “truly ludicrous”; both are gestures of disregard rather than critique. He dismisses the idea of a “white gaze” as well, which is less excusable seeing as the white gaze, one of the theoretical concepts at the heart of the Trayvon Martin case, is far from a fringe concept.

The following paragraphs become more troubling, morally and logically, as the column continually asserts an unsubstantiated dichotomy between “real racism” and microaggressions. Calling back to an earlier statement about the difficulty of discussing race in a “meaningful way,” The column develops an idea that Carleton Microaggressions “propagates an anxious culture of hyperawareness” that “disenfranchises” people in positions of cultural privilege.

The choice of the word “disenfranchise” is ironic for two reasons, one being that it contradicts his earlier paragraph about reverse racism, which avows that he has “never experienced any kind of real discrimination,” let alone outright disenfranchisement, and the other that he clearly still feels enfranchised to define the boundaries of racism. He praises Carleton Microaggressions for its exposure of “very real and heinous racism,” implying, again without substantiation, that the instance he has already catalogued is not real and, moreover, that the distinction between real and false racism is his to draw.

I might be tipping my hand here, but that kind of naive faith in one’s own ability to control the discourse is itself an exercise of unconscious privilege, and therefore a kind of microaggression. This doesn’t seem to have occurred to Michael, and I doubt that it would have been possible for him to write a column like this if he took the concept of microaggression seriously.

On a fundamental level, Michael’s article takes as its basic principle the idea that there are people who are clearly part of the problem and people who are clearly part of the solution. There is real racism and there is mudslinging. This in and of itself is not a problem. However, the Microaggressions blog has different assumptions—subjectivity is blurry, people reproduce the social systems they live in without consciously choosing to do so, and “part of the problem” is not really a relevant concept. Not to engage with these assumptions, and not to realize that the terms at hand are not the same, that your subject’s definition of racism is qualitatively different from your own, even when the argument is against the effects and not the logic of that definition, is to miss the point of critique completely. Ignoring the opposite viewpoint and advancing your own is anti-intellectualism at its very worst.

On a diverse campus, in a culture that pleads with us to keep an open mind, it is an abdication of responsibility not to analyze to the best of our abilities the viewpoints around us, even, or especially, if we disagree with them. It does a disservice to the training in close reading and reasoning that we all receive at Carleton. Last time I checked, despite the bewildering diversity of students at this school, there was not a single straw man.

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