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‘Microaggressions’ Scholars Warn Against Using Research to Justify Censorship

By July 5, 2016

In recent years, college students across the country have demanded that their institutions create systems for reporting “microaggressions”—subtle and often unintentional slights against another based on a person’s status in a minority or marginalized group. Faculty, too, have considered taking this step. As FIRE and other free speech advocates have written before, such systems threaten to chill constitutionally protected expression and even shut down precisely the sort of conversations from which college students can learn the most.

Now, Derald Wing Sue and Christina M. Capodilupo, scholars of the microaggression phenomena and professors at Teachers College, Columbia University, are speaking out against the way campus community members have been using their research to justify censorship or the encouragement of self-censorship. The two are co-authors of “Racial Microaggressions in Every Day Life,” a chart illustrating some of the many ways one could commit a microaggression that has been shared widely on the internet and even posted to some institutions’ websites.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Sue intended to spark dialogue, not provide an avenue for punishment:

Mr. Sue said his goal had always been to educate people, not punish or shame them, if they engage in microaggressions.

“I was concerned that people who use these examples would take them out of context and use them as a punitive rather than an exemplary way,” Mr. Sue said.

Capodilupo, too, emphasized that identifying microaggressions should be a step to more speech, not less.

Now that the research has made its way into popular culture, Ms. Capodilupo said, some people use the word to shut down conversations instead of reflecting on the situation.

“It was never meant to give a vernacular that then makes it OK to stop talking,” Ms. Capodilupo said. “It was to ask people to be flexible in their thinking and to be open-minded to the concept that we don’t all walk through the world in the same shoes.”

FIRE is glad to see this clarification from Sue and Capodilupo. We hope more students, professors, and administrators will take care to halt the abuse of the professors’ writings in order to inhibit honest questions and conversations on campus. For more remarks from Sue and Capodilupo, click over to The Chronicle of Higher Education.