Microaggressions Cause Controversy

From the New York Times to Clark, discussion of Week One session is widespread


Photo courtesy of Flickr User Torrengra https://flic.kr/p/5PUDGb

Jessica Macey, Co-News Editor

Controversy sprouted from a New York Times article covering Clark University’s new Week One session addressing “microaggressions.”

According to the Week One presentation, microaggressions are “everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults” that send “hostile, derogatory, or negative” messages to members of marginalized groups.

Sheree Marlowe, Clark’s new Chief Officer of Diversity and Inclusion, facilitated this session in order to have “more robust diversity training in orientation.”

The session was covered in the New York Times’ article “Campuses Cautiously Train Freshmen Against Subtle Insults” by Stephanie Saul.  This article led to a number of responses including one from President David Angel.

In a statement, Angel addressed concerns that Clark is not “preparing … students for life’s jagged edges.”  He stated that “central to the Clark University mission is the cultivation of a learning environment in which all members of the Clark community can flourish. Such an environment necessitates being aware of and responsive to the presence of bias and discrimination that can impede the free exchange of ideas and viewpoints.”

The main portion of the Week One presentation that has been most criticized dealt with the phrase “you guys.”

Saul critiqued Marlow’s week one presentation in her New York Times’ article, “‘Don’t say ‘you guys.’ It could be interpreted as leaving out women,’ said Ms. Marlowe, who realized it was offensive only when someone confronted her for saying it during a presentation,” wrote Saul in her article.

“I will explicitly say that the New York Times article was a misrepresentation of what was actually presented,” said Marlowe in response.  She went on to explain the “you guys” topic. In her Week One presentation, Marlowe was referencing an incident after a presentation she make before coming to Clark. In this anecdote, a student approached Marlowe angrily and asked “being a diversity officer, how can you not know how offensive [saying ‘you guys’] is?” Marlowe used this story as a way to discuss the importance of looking at intent vs. impact to Clark students.

“I didn’t intend to harm … but the student was clearly impacted,” Marlowe reflected on the situation.“So that’s what I actually said, and the article quoted me as saying ‘don’t say you guys.’”

Student reactions to the presentation as a whole were mixed.

“I thought a lot of what she said was really relevant and really important, especially for kids coming into college for the first time,” said Frances Eby (‘20).  Despite seeing the importance, Eby did see a flaw in the logistics of the session.

“It could not have been held at a worse time[during Week One,” she said.  “People just tuned it out at that point because we had to sit through so many presentations.”

Eby recognized the importance of the topic as well as the potential for things to go too far.

“Being politically correct is like a pendulum and it can swing too far to one side to the point that you’re just nitpicking things,” she concluded.

Peer Advisors (PAs) were also trained on microaggressions.

“It was just very tedious because they tell you things that you know,” said PA Jose Castillo (‘19).  “Obviously you should know not to generalize but I don’t think you should have to go for a training,” he added.

He went on to say that the session could be more effective in the future if it was shortened or discussed only in PA groups.

I will explicitly say that the New York Times article was a misrepresentation of what was actually presented.”

— Sheree Marlowe

While the logistics of the session may have affected the impact, much of the controversy has been over whether it was necessary.

For Castillo, the things highlighted as problematic were not all offensive.  He gave the example of how he’d feel if someone asked him if Chile was in Mexico upon hearing where he’s from.

“I’m just gonna feel like you don’t know much, and I’m gonna feel bad for you, not for me,” he said.

Overall, Marlowe stood by the goal of the session.

“You never subscribe to a laundry list of do’s and don’ts, that’s not what the work is about,” said Marlowe.  “The work is about bringing awareness and understanding the impact of our interactions.”

Marlowe intends to continue the presentation next year, as well as roll out new programs and initiatives as part of her work for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.