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AT30 Irvine – The future of speech and ‘microaggressions’ on college campuses

by Audrey Ngo | AirTalk®

AT30 Event, UC Irvine Louis Felix/SCPR

The University of California has come under fire this summer for a series of workshops for deans and department heads on so-called microaggressions -- "slights, snubs or insults...that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target people based solely on their marginalized group membership," according to a University memo.

They can be intentional or not, and range from questions such as "Where were you born?" to statements about America being a melting pot, or claiming that gender plays no part in who you hire. UC officials claim these types of microaggressions can create a hostile learning environment and they advise faculty to avoid them; Opponents say it's tantamount to censorship.

Are efforts to protect students from emotional distress limiting important campus debate?What responsibility should the university have in balancing free speech with protecting against offending others?

As college students head back to school, we'll go with them. In the next AirTalk on the road, we're heading to the University of California-Irvine for a heated discussion about the future of speech on American campuses.

During last night's panel discussion, tensions rose as the debate surrounding microagressions got deeper and more personal. 

Here are some highlights from last night’s event:

During the panel discussion, tensions rose as the debate surrounding microagressions got deeper and more personal. It became clear that the approaches to handling microagressions are endless.

Among the panelists was Tanya Sanabria, a graduate student at UC Irvine’s Department of Sociology. She served as one voice out of thousands of students who had personal experiences with microagressions and gave examples of how she moderates discussions on the subject as a teacher’s aid at the University.

“Students are often afraid to discuss race, and some don’t know how to address tough conversations,” Sanabria said. “Students bring personal experiences of racism, sexism and a buildup of microaggressions to their conversations in the classroom, and it can get emotional for students.”

Greg Lukianoff, president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education or FIRE, was adamant about students saying what’s on their minds, even if conversations become messy.

“People are talking on eggshells,” Lukianoff said.“But what that sounds like is not sensitivity, but instead it sounds patronizing.”

Alonzo Bodden is a comedian and winner of the third season of the reality television series, “Last Comic Standing.” Aside from bringing brevity to the event, Bodden brought a perspective outside the realm of academia.

As someone who deals with the subject of microagressions on a public level, Bodden spoke about his experience taking the stage at college campuses.

“When it comes to comics performing on colleges, my experience is that students have a sense of humor, but it’s the administrators who are worried about words and phrases,” Bodden said.

Lukianoff and Bodden also spoke about the responsibility of educators to teach the historical context of offensive language and racial slurs.

“How can you teach without using a word?” Bodden said. “I think it is more offense to use ignorance.”

At the end of the night, questions were taken by audience members. One lecturer spoke about the difference between microagressions and macroagressions. She said microagressions can make people question their responses and question themselves. Her comments shed light on the power of these small offenses and how it can be difficult to detect them, which may ultimately be more hurtful than an overtly offensive comment. 

“Microaggressions are  difficult to understand because they are micro...many times we have to second guess ourselves and ask was that a microaggression?” Sanabria said. “It is a hard thing to understand and pinpoint with all the subtle nuances of it.”


Alonzo Bodden, comedian and winner of the third season of the reality television series, Last Comic Standing

Bradley Campbell, Associate Professor at the California State University, Los Angeles Department of Sociology; he co-authored the recent paper “Microaggressions and Moral Cultures

Doug Haynes, Professor of History at University of California Irvine’s School of Humanities

Greg Lukianoff, President and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE); he co-authored The Atlantic’s September cover story, “The Coddling of the American Mind” 

Tanya Sanabria, graduate student in the University of California Irvine’s Department of Sociology and a former council member with the Diverse Educational Community and Doctoral Experience (DECADE)

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