In recent months, universities have turned their attention to an important problem that should be included in our national effort to examine and root out bigotry. They have identified, and attempted to reduce, “microaggressions” — words or behavior that might stigmatize or humiliate women or members of minority groups, with particular emphasis on African-Americans, disabled people, and gays and lesbians. The effort has admirable goals, but there is a risk that schools will overshoot the mark.
Chester Pierce, a Harvard Medical School professor, coined the word in the 1970s to describe the kind of behavior that can really hurt — and that deserves stigmatizing. Suppose, for example, that a professor refers to African-Americans as “you people,” or says approvingly that a student “doesn’t act like a normal black person,” or proclaims that today’s African-American students are “amazingly articulate.” Such remarks are worse than careless; they’re insulting and demeaning, and hardly conducive to a good educational atmosphere.
Or imagine that a teacher exclaims to a female student, “You’re so good at math,” or announces, “When I look at you, I don’t even think about gender; I just see an outstanding young person.”