There are many mad and worrying things about the speech codes spreading across campuses like a contagious brain funk. There's their treatment of even everyday words as "problematic" terms of abuse. There's the branding of the most anodyne forms of friendly banter as "aggressive" (apparently it is a microaggression to say to a Latino or Native American, "We want to know what you think"). And there's the idea that even static objects can commit acts of violence against students: one university bemoans "environmental microaggressions," which can include a college in which all the buildings are "named after white heterosexual upper class males." What these codes add up to is a demand that everyone be permanently on edge, constantly reevaluating their every thought before uttering it. It's an invitation to social paralysis.
But perhaps the worst thing about these tongue-clamping rules is how they incite hyper racial-consciousness. Indeed, some college speech codes chastise students who refuse to think racially, who balk at the idea that they should always be actively mindful of their own and everyone else's racial make-up.
The "problematization" of students who refuse to think and behave racially is best captured in a University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) guide to "Recognizing Microaggressions." In keeping with other campus speech codes, the guide treats as dicey everything from simple questions (such as asking someone "Where were you born?") to expressions of faith in meritocracy (like saying "America is the land of opportunity"). But even more perniciously, it warns students and faculty members against being non-racial, telling them they must always "acknowledge" other people's race.
UCLA says "Color Blindness," the idea we shouldn't obsess over people's race, is a microaggression. If you refuse to treat an individual as a "racial/cultural being," then you're being aggressive. This is a profound perversion of what has been considered the reasoned, liberal approach for decades—that treating people as "racial/cultural beings" is wrong and dehumanizing.
UCLA offers the following examples as "color blind" utterances that count as microaggressions:
"When I look at you, I don't see color."
"There is only one race: the human race."
"I don't believe in race."
Apparently such comments deny individuals' "racial and ethnic experience." But on a campus like UCLA a few decades ago, refusing to treat individuals as "cultural beings" would have been the right and good thing. Now, in an eye-swivelling reversal, the polar opposite is the case: to demonstrate your politically correct virtue you must acknowledge the skin color of everyone you meet.
The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point similarly advises that color blindness is a racial microaggression. It lists "America is a melting pot" as an aggressive phrase. It brands as problematic any comment by a white person that suggests he or she "does not want to acknowledge race." Anyone who claims to be "immune to races"—that is, who prefers not to think about people as racial beings—is viewed as aggressive.
At the University of Missouri, the guide to "inclusive terminology" lists color-blindness as a form of prejudice, even as it recognizes that this term "originated from civil-rights legislation." Once, color-blindness was considered cool, but now we know it can be "disempowering for people whose racial identity is an important part of who they are," says the school.
And in the University of New Hampshire's (UNH) barmy guide to "bias-free language"—brilliantly mocked by Reason's Robby Soave at The Daily Beast, and now disowned by UNH's president—students are expected to take account of a person's skin color, age, and heritage before engaging with them. Whether they're being told that using "American" to refer to people born in the U.S. is wrong, that they should call Arabs "Western Asians" (what?), the message to students is clear: judge your acquaintance's skin color, consider his or her cultural origins, and then decide what to say. Think racially, always.
Gwendolyn R.Y. Miller, a diversity consultant who advises educational institutions on how to tackle racial microaggressions, says being color blind is a "microinvalidation," since it serves to "exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of certain groups." She says the phrase "We all bleed red when we're cut" is a microaggression. (Perhaps Shakespeare was being microaggressive to Jews (and others) when he wrote his great, humanistic line: "If you prick us, do we not bleed?") Miller says the claim that "character, not color, is what counts with me" is a racial microaggression too.
If that line sounds familiar, that's because it is almost exactly what Martin Luther King said in his "I have a dream" speech. But American colleges in the 21st century demonize those who follow the King approach of judging people by "the content of their character" rather than by the color of their skin. Today, MLK would be viewed as naive at best and suspect at worst, conspiring to deny the primacy of our selves as "racial/cultural beings."
But here's the thing: King—like many other postwar radicals, liberals, and progressives—was challenging the idea that people should be engaged with and judged as "racial / cultural beings." He, and others, preferred to treat people as people, not as products or expressions of "culture." Now, 50 years on, the regressive, racial politics of identity has won out over that old humanistic dream of a post-race society, to such an extent that anyone who refuses to think of whites and blacks as different is treated as problematic.
New college speech codes don't only infantilize students and stymie open, frank discussion. They also point to the creeping re-racialisation of society, and to the rebranding of universalism itself as a form of racism. Call me microaggressive all you like but, as a humanist, I will not treat my fellow citizens as "racial/cultural beings."