Part of entering any institution of higher learning is a tendency to take in the beliefs of one’s chosen institution of higher learning as one’s own. Much like how a sea sponge absorbs the salt water which constitutes its habitat, the incoming Rutgers student is liable to accept any knowledge impressed upon him or her as irrefutable fact.
This is a misstep on the part of the student. Not everything that Rutgers instructs is to merely be accepted without question especially when a great amount of subjectivity is involved. We’re not talking about math here, with its often definite answers – no, here we enter the realm of social etiquette and political correctness.
Part of going to orientation is having to watch a presentation titled “Language Matters”. Having gone through orientation and sat through this presentation, I feel comfortable telling you that multiple aspects of this session ought to be seriously critiqued because of just how easily offended the people who put this Prezi together seem to come across and want the viewer to become.
As an aside, there’s also a research-based argument against the kind of information Language Matters pushes, but we will come to that later. For now, indulge my personal perception of this session.
The presentation starts off with a video in which a comically clueless white man pulls out all the white trash stops from assuming that Asian people cannot be American to lumping all Asian cultures into one to assuming that because he’s white he’s “just regular American” while an American-born woman from San Diego is “weird” for acting pompously English in an effort to mirror the white guy’s own ignorance. Heady stuff.
Except it’s very critical to acknowledge that no one does that. No one. I’m Indian and people have asked me where I’m from and no one acts the way this guy in the video did. It’s very obvious that the people who made this video instructed the male actor to go full-on white trash just to exaggerate how offended he makes other people feel.
Videos like this achieve one outcome: they make white people specifically and everyone else generally afraid of pointing out or asking about anyone’s ethnicity for fear of being considered bigoted. There’s nothing wrong with being curious about someone’s ethnic background if you ask like a normal person and not the cartoonish depiction of the clueless white person archetype this video would have you believe is all too common.
Now I could go further and point out the absurdity of suggesting that words such as “stupid” and “dumb” are ableist as the Language Matters folks would like you to believe…
… but instead I’m going to jump to some studies to prove that I’m not just some cranky brown person. I’m a cranky brown person who can cite studies!
The first study I will reference was published in Perspectives on Psychological Science by Emory University professor Scott Lilienfeld. Full disclosure, I didn’t read the full study itself since to read it I’d have to pay money and as an incoming college student, lord knows I don’t have much to spare. If you have some extra cash, I suggest you give it a look. However, through contemporaneous articles (one of which was written by the author of the study himself) we can establish the general gist of the study which is this: there’s not enough evidence that microaggression training works and we should hold off on teaching it in schools until the science is in. From criticizing the too enormous range of microaggressions (colleges and microaggression researchers have counted calling America a “land of opportunity” and “melting pot” as microaggressions) to implying that microaggressions lead to mental health issues without fully considering the effects of negative emotionality (“a ‘propensity toward depression and anxiety, and a tendency to react to stressful situations with unpleasant emotions’”), Lilienfeld argues that science is not yet on the side of microaggressions to the extent that it should be taught as if a scientific consensus exists.
I am grossly oversimplifying this study and my reference articles. You should read them if you have time and form your own opinion.
Language Matters also suggests near the end of their presentation that you “find community” through various cultural organizations. Although I’m not opposed to finding community with like-minded and like-cultured people, we have to be careful about how we go about doing so. A 2004 study conducted on students at UCLA found that “although the decision to join ethnic organizations was associated with a positive sense of belonging to the larger university, there was no indication that the experiences in these ethnically oriented student organizations increased the students’ sense of common identity with members of other groups or their sense of belonging to the wider university community”. On top of that, the study found that “among minority students the evidence suggested that membership in ethnically oriented student organizations actually increased the perception that ethnic groups are locked into zero-sum competition with one another and the feeling of victimization by virtue of one’s ethnicity”. As an aside, there is also an acknowledgement that “a sense of ethnic victimization, opposition to intergroup dating and marriage, and symbolic racism” is felt by white people as a result of joining Greek organizations, so all of this isn’t just a minority thing. Cultural groups and Greek organizations actually exacerbate the us-vs-them mentality that Language Matters tries to fight.
This presentation isn’t all crazy – whoops, I mean unbelievable (I’m not ableist, I promise). I do agree on points made in it such as not calling someone a terrorist because you actually think both that they’re a muslim and that all muslims are terrorists. Of course condescending statements directed specifically towards minorities exist. But we simply cannot go around, that too at an institution of higher learning and ideological debate, ready to pounce on people for the capital crimes of asking others about their ethnic background or hyperbolizing the ridiculous nature of certain persons and things. We can’t base programs on subjective emotion rather than objective truth. Don’t spend the next four years obsessively worrying that you’re going to offend someone. Ask me where I’m from, call me insane, but mostly just take orientation with a grain of salt.
Sea sponge picture:
Language Matters presentation (also where I got the ableism slide):
Another article I read while researching this topic that led me to the 2004 study:
Scott Lilienfeld’s study:
Article about Scott Lilienfeld’s study: http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2017/01/how-microaggression-training-could-harm-minority-students.html
Scott Lilienfeld’s blog about his study: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-science-of-microaggressions-its-complicated/
Study about ethnic organizations: https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/3205411/Sidanius_EthnicEnclaves.pdf?sequence=1