WRITTEN BY: PHILLIP WARD | CONTRIBUTOR
Does being a white male of privilege disqualify me from participating in certain dialogues? Last week I wrote an article that made light of gender roles in relation to Valentine’s Day. It was a bit controversial. The thing is, I didn’t mean to be controversial at all. I was looking at an issue and offered a tongue-in-cheek opinion on the matter. I honestly had no intention of upsetting anyone.
So imagine my surprise when I heard of multiple classes across multiple disciplines discussing, debating and dissecting my article. I was shaken for two reasons. One, I had never before written anything in my life that even had the capacity to offend someone. I was in un- charted waters. And two, I realized that even my subconscious, thoughts I don’t even know I have, can offend someone by manifesting in unconscious action or speech. Who I am and what I think can be offensive if expressed in the wrong way to the wrong person.
Because I am a white male of privilege, I do not and can never fully understand the complexity of minority discrimination in the United States. The closest thing I have come to empathizing with such a thing was experiencing a huge lack of scholarship opportunities for white males from an upper-middle income household seeking a college education. I remember racking my brain to think of diversity characteristics I could put on college applications and scholarship forms. All I could come up with was…I’m really tall? I think I’m like one twenty sixth Native American? Needless to say, in terms of legitimate minority discrimination and lack of opportunity, I am under-experienced.
There is a new term getting a lot of use on college campuses across the country today. Microagression. According the University of California’s Tool: Recognizing Microaggressions and the Messages They Send, “Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.”
In my article last week I used the words “men” and “girls” in the same
sentence, unintentionally implying that women are not equal to men. That is a microaggression. While it seems like a small thing, it is the accumulation of lifetimes of similar microaggressions that contribute to the devaluing and diminishing of minority groups.
Microaggressions are a legitimate concern and the more I researched them the more this question came up: Because of my socioeconomic status, am I automatically predisposed to exhibit and communicate certain microaggressions? And if so, does that mean I should re- move myself from situations in which I could cause someone harm?
I think in some ways the answer to that question is yes. Would I consider myself sexist? No. Racist? Another no. Have I said things that could be construed as sexist and racist and could be potentially harmful? Certainly.
But on the other hand, what if I wanted to learn about and participate in an unfamiliar issue? If I was worried about upsetting someone through my predispositions and biases, I would never get to take part in anything more complex than ordering delivery pizza. I think it would be a massive loss of human diversity to exclude from important dialogues any group that could potentially offend another group.
The problem is in the extremes. I acknowledge that my poorly thought out use of language in last week’s article could have been harmful to someone, and I think it is incredibly important to think about the impact your words could have.
However, it is impossible to be completely politically correct one hundred percent of the time. Furthermore, trying to be zealously politically correct can lead to a dangerous sort of homogeneity that encroaches our right, as humans, to free speech.
In conclusion, I contend that the effort to minimize offense by monitoring our language has very limited returns. I think, instead, that we should focus on how we can speak encouragement and value into someone’s life. To me, political correctness feels like a Band-Aid. We try to cover up the issue and avoid aggravating the wound. I think far more good would come from proactively attempting to heal the wound, by speaking truth and love into sensitive areas.