• Rich Barlow

    Senior Writer

    Photo: Headshot of Rich Barlow, an older white man with dark grey hair and wearing a grey shirt and grey-blue blazer, smiles and poses in front of a dark grey backdrop.

    Rich Barlow is a senior writer at BU Today and Bostonia magazine. Perhaps the only native of Trenton, N.J., who will volunteer his birthplace without police interrogation, he graduated from Dartmouth College, spent 20 years as a small-town newspaper reporter, and is a former Boston Globe religion columnist, book reviewer, and occasional op-ed contributor. Profile

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There are 97 comments on When Words Are Unwittingly Racist or Sexist

  1. Thanks to our leaders for tackling this important issue. I wonder how the author managed to equate a student stating a belief in the value of all human life with racism meant to devalue another person through hate. This lack of respect for the free exchange of ideas characterizes a larger problem at this university. Despite it’s tremendous academic program, students cannot dialogue about important human questions. Instead, we write them off and avoid our responsibility as future leaders to have these conversations.

    1. I think you need to re-read the paragraph to which you are referring. The statement about the post on Facebook about abortion was meant to illustrate an example of a statement that some may take offense at, but doesn’t qualify as a microaggression.

        1. The way I read that was actually an example of something that was NOT a microagression. The next sentence reads “Maybe, but “someone disagreeing with you or flat-out telling you something is not a microaggression,” says Christian Cho, assistant director of the Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground.”

  2. Why are we treating racism, sexism, or any other ism as abnormal? We are human beings. We are selfish when we can be, clannish when we must be. We will put down the savage blah-de-blah in Gondwanaland or the snobbish whozewhat in Laurasia – or the dumpy-looking next door neighbor. We must all fight these tendencies in ourselves in order to love our neighbor as ourselves. At the time we recognize the Holocaust, we might want to avoid raising alarm bells about minor comments and pay more attention to statements, like Hitler’s, making clear an intent, a rationale and a plan to commit genocide.

    1. Genocide doesn’t just ‘happen’. It requires increasing amounts of aggression to a particular group that goes unnoticed at first because it doesn’t seem so bad at first…. Until it gets worse.
      And yeah, racism and sexism DO matter. Ever experienced it? If not, I suggest you refrain from speaking about it.

      1. So, only those who have actually experienced something may state an opinion or discuss it? That should definitely quiet most of the debate and rhetoric surrounding the POTUS, SCOTUS, illegal aliens, foreign policy, hurricane relief, space travel, stem cell research…

    1. Kudo’s to you and your comments. We’ve become a society of “damned if you do & damned if you don’t” gee whiz, give a compliment to someone and you are vilanized you not sensitive enough..perhaps we all just do not say anything to anyone you don’t know.

    1. It’s not a compliment if in the same breath you are insulting someone’s race, ethnicity, gender or beliefs.

      By saying “oh, you’re so (x) for a (y)” you’re still insulting a part of that person’s identity.

      1. But a lot of the examples in this article didn’t follow that format. A lot of them were JUST compliments. A person is never allowed to compliment a black person for being articulate or friendly or an Asian person for being assertive? EVER? Sometimes a compliment really is just a compliment and isn’t comparing you to the rest of your race.

      2. It isn’t insulting someone’s identity by giving them a compliment or recognizing their achievements. You’re implied sensitivity to every word spoken makes it difficult for me to understand why this should be taken seriously. There are many people of different races, ethnicities, religions, sexualities, etc. out there who enjoy being recognized for their “identity”

        1. “There are many people of different races, ethnicities, religions, sexualities, etc. out there who enjoy being recognized for their “identity””

          That is not what is happening here. Pay attention.

          Since you clearly don’t care about people’s feelings enough to take this issue seriously, I don’t see the point in explaining to you the difference.

          1. I’m Mexican, and honestly, I feel like you all need to chill out. Jamie is right, you guys provoke racism by pointing it out when it is only meant to be taken as a compliment. Sure, I have faced racism, but some people take it way too far. Micha, just because you feel like the world owes you something does not mean everyone is against you and that everyone is a racist.

            We are moving on as a society and people like you make this a bigger issue than what it really is. Some people are racist, big deal. We move on, and make sure that those people aren’t rewarded. Just grow up a little, yea?

          2. Then why are you responding if you don’t see the point? Lots of indulgence in self-righteousness going on in these comments.

        2. Jamie, it _is_ insulting if you give a compliment *in a way that implies that it is unusual for someone of their identity to have the quality that you are complimenting.* “You’re so articulate [stated or implied: for a black person]” is insulting, because it implies that the majority of black people are inarticulate. “You’re so assertive/ aggressive [for an Asian person]”: same problem.

          Yes, as you say, many people enjoy being recognized for their identities. But they don’t like being stereotyped for them, and that is one difference.

          It’s more complicated with something like “You’re too pretty to be an engineer!” because that’s less direct. But it still implies that women (or at least attractive women) shouldn’t be engineers; historically, it plays into the assumption that women want to be and/or should be valued for their beauty rather than their brains.

          1. Who said that is the reason they are making a compliment is because of your race? You cannot deny the facts that some races are not as wholly educated as others, in a society like BU some people do not understand that. Rather than rant on a BUToday article, why don’t you ask the person who gave you a compliment why they phrased it that way? Better to ask that person than tell a sob story to the rest of the world.

          2. I’ve read the examples listed here and other examples of so called micro aggressions. Some are rude and racist or sexist; some are ignorant and racially tinged; many are ambiguous. Some of the examples seem to be the product of people with a chip on their shoulder. Some examples are absurdly oversensitive. One web site posted ethnic cooking shows as exemplifying micro aggression if they only show one recipe from a given ethnicity.

            How is anyone supposed to judge the example given by the food server in this article? >>> “A GSU food server reported a response from a middle-aged white customer she greeted with a smile: “‘You’re so pleasant!’…I couldn’t help but think that she said what she did because she didn’t expect black women in real life were ‘pleasant.’” <<< Who is making assumptions about whom here?

            At the O'Hare rental car counter a few days ago, I told the woman who helped me that it was nice to be waited on at the end of a trying day by someone who was friendly. I meant it. I guess she could think to herself "well, this guy surely must hold a prejudice against women/middle-aged workers/service-oriented employees/Chicagoans (she was all of these things), or otherwise why would he be passing on a seemingly kindly but actually sinister remark like that? Still, I gather that it brightened her day a little, because she smiled.

            As for those who do hear actually unambiguously racist or sexist comments, Juan has it right. Say something to the person who made the remark. They're the one who needs correction. If they are in the wrong, let them hear it. And if you jumped to the wrong conclusion, you need to hear that too. Preaching to the in-group choir and indulging in academic p.c. exercises ("oh, we're so righteous and there are so many Neanderthals still walking the halls of academe")–this solves nothing.

  3. It’s certainly true that comments can be deliberately or inadvertently colored by racism or sexism or some other -ism, and be “microaggressions” (an interesting concept though an awful term).

    For balance, though, we should all remember that “I’m offended by what you said” is not in all cases equivalent to “What you said is offensive.” Sometimes we need to crank down the indignation radar a bit. “That’s a very insightful question” does not necessarily have the subtext “I don’t expect that of blacks/Asians/women/Jews/people with cerebral palsy.”

    It is an error, because it damages social interaction, to feel that we have to mentally rehearse everything we say or do to sanitize it and make sure it could not possibly ever be taken the wrong way by anyone.

  4. We can all run the risk of being judgmental on a variety of levels and we have to be careful . A black food service employee taking potential offense because a middle-aged white woman gave her a compliment? Could it be……..just maybe………just possibly…..the middle-aged white woman was so used to seeing workers in general being so seemingly non-caring about the people they serve that it was a pleasant surprise to see someone act warm and personal?

    If that’s the worst thing that happens to any one of us in a given day, thank God that your day has been so blessed and get out there and live life.

    1. As a teacher at BU, I often tell students that they’re bright, articulate, or otherwise really sharp, but never coming from the basis of surprise based on their gender, race, sexuality etc. And it pains me that many of the examples in this article seem to have no basis for assuming that such compliments are motivated by prejudiced beliefs. If I tell a student that he is smart and he assumes that I’m saying that out of some sort surprise based on his particular accent, or style of dress, or whatever, then he has just made an unfair assumption about me. Judgment is a two-way street and we would all do well to avoid leaping to unfounded conclusions based on our own prejudices. I’m not denying that some of these comments are undoubtedly motivated by prejudice, but unless the prejudice is explicit, as in, “Wow! You’re really sharp for a girl,” then the act of reading in a prejudiced subtext is itself an act of prejudice.

      Moreover, I am disappointed that by failing to make this distinction among its examples, this article seems inadvertently to encourage such knee-jerk reactions to compliments.

      1. Karen, as a teacher at BU, I would expect you to be more sympathetic to why people have these reactions. Your intentions are good, but it comes off as if you are blaming marginalized people for feeling this way, instead of seeing why people can feel this way.

        Also, sometimes it doesn’t have to be explicitly stated to understand what the intention is. Tone can say everything.

        1. Eva, Karen acknowledges that some of these comments are in fact influenced by prejudice, and there’s not indication that she condones those comments. It only comes off as her blaming marginalized people for feeling offended if you read it with your bias.

          Remember, tone can say everything. And yours is a biased one.

          1. Anderson, my tone is biased towards people who have been hurt towards these micro aggressions.

            I know its hard to hear that at one point in time you may have messed up, even when that’s not your intention. By Karen pointing out that people may just be giving compliments is missing the entire point of this article. We know you have good intentions, but intention is not everything.

          2. You tried, Anderson, but it looks like Eva has so much invested in hurt feelings that she wants to hang on to them no matter what. Karen was speaking of students at a private Research I university that costs over 60K a year. Eva says some of those very privileged people are actually marginalized. I wonder how many of the world’s billions would agree with that assessment. Of course, Karen is right when she points out that a lot of the examples cited as aggressions are absent of any evidence of actual prejudice. Other sensible readers make the same point.

            Obviously the world is full of active prejudice of all sorts. The halls and classrooms of Boston University? Could we get some perspective here? Some people will never be satisfied because they believe that feelings trump everything. It doesn’t seem to matter to them whether or not those feelings correspond with intentions or even with reality. I feel (victimized) therefore I am (righteous).

    2. No. That doesn’t even make sense.

      If a man tells a woman, “You’re surprisingly good at video games,” it does not make her sexist for acknowledging his unintended sexism. That’s illogical.

      1. Or maybe he’s surprised based on her individual other interests and not because she’s a girl. Talking about these sorts of things in a vacuum without context is a little pointless. Any statement you make towards another person could either be offensive or harmless. Some people are overly sensitive when they hear things, and some people are overly cavalier when they say things.

        1. Talking about these sorts of things in a vacuum without context is a little pointless. We live in a culture where there is a widespread message that girls can’t play video games. Most statements that include the idea of a girl who games also include something negative, or the implication that this specific girl is special because all other girls are bad at video games. Thus it’s generally not inaccurate to assume that when a boy tells a girl that she’s “surprisingly good at video games,” he probably has some part of him that thinks girls are generally bad at video games.

      2. There is a stereotype that boys are better at video games than girls. Is that a myth? Is it true? I don’t know, I don’t play video games.

        The man was surprised. Was it because she was a woman? Was it because he pictured her primarily as a snowboarder or a musician? I don’t know, did anyone ask him?

        I fall back on the wisdom of fairy tales. If one goes looking for flowers, they will find flowers. If one goes looking for weeds, they will find weeds.

        How many weeds and flowers exist, is a fact only loosely related to how many weeds and flowers one experiences.

        IMO, When a person regularly experiences microaggressions, that says a lot more about the internal process of the person having the experience than it does about the external situation.

      3. Good grief! Karen has it right. If you receive a complement, say thank you. If you think the compliment is based on something else, why not just confront it — as in, “You aren’t saying that because you think a person of color can’t be as articulate as a anyone else, are you?” — and be prepared to have a discussion with this person. BU students are very talented young people; compliments, particularly from a professor, are not out of the norm.

        Life is host; don’t assume what others are thinking (or why) — ask, if you aren’t clear. Then take it from there. We are all teachers, and if you are offended or slighted, you educate others by speaking up, and be willing to explain why you assume that other person has tainted motivation.

        The whole concept of “micro aggression” is messed up. Aggression is intentional and focused. When a subset of our culture encourages us to label a lack of understanding or honest misinterpretation by the listener an act of aggression, we lose all perspective. Our hearts, our intellect, and our wisdom are better devoted to real aggression, real injustice, and the real opportunity each of us has to make a meaningful difference in the world we live in.

    3. Is asking an expectant mother whether the baby is going to be a boy or a girl sexist?
      The very thought of speculating what colour a newborn might be is racist is indeed racist in itself!
      The world has gone mad, it seems that saying what a person thinks they should say is more important than human life?

  5. We live in a society in which people who have been historically and systemically oppressed have to deal with the everyday consequences of this oppression. Microaggressions need to be understood in this greater social context. An individual transgression itself wouldn’t be all that terrible if the recipient didn’t have to question the motivation or intent behind a compliment or statement.

    I agree that we all need to think more critically about what we say and what we infer, but the reality is that social groups that have had power don’t have to prepare themselves for microaggressions. Research has indicated that over the course of an individual’s lifetime, microaggressions have a cumulatively tramautic effect.

    The point that many of you are missing is that there are no hard-and-fast rules regarding social interaction. When someone asks a question or makes a statement, we all need to be ready to ask questions and have conversations that make us uncomfortable. Trying to avoid anxieties is exactly what leads to microaggressions.

    Somtimes, a compliment is just a compliment. But our society, which has been shaped by and shapes systemic oppression, is not one in which all people can equally exist. Before we start blaming people for a supposed hypersensitivity, we need to fully understand the context.

    1. Well said. However, you have committed a micro aggression against me by saying “the reality is that social groups that have had power don’t have to prepare themselves for micro aggressions.” You know nothing about me or the categorization, prejudices, or truly targeted passive aggressive hostility I have had to face in my life. Studies, shmudies! That doesn’t make it so, and we all know it, even by virtue of all the theories and studies and beliefs that have been disproven.

      1. No, I don’t know you and your experiences. I’m pointing out that there are entire groups of people for whom certain microaggressions are not a reality. However, you may have been a target of microaggressions having to do with things other than race or gender. We have to separate examining the individual’s experience and examining group experiences.

      2. Everything you’re said here, Kitty, is spot on. When I ask someone where they’re from (never where they’re ‘really’ from), it’s meant as a conversation starter. A curiosity. I’ve lived in several countries and find people–regardless where they’re from or where they’re going–unique and interesting, and I enjoy hearing their stories. If someone has a problem with what they perceive as a micro aggression, then as suggested by others here, they ought to pursue finding out if aggression was intended. Overall, the word ‘micro’ implies small. Yes, over time micro aggressions could add up to a full blown problem, but ‘victims’ need to find a way to defend themselves (ie, ask the ‘aggressor’ for clarification) and then move on to larger community or world problems. Idiot microaggressors are always going to be out there. Move on. Go macro.

        1. Susan, as who finds this article to be pretty badly-worded but is knowledgeable about the subject, I would like to point out that the people who you refer to as ‘victims’ aren’t people who walk around with a chip on their shoulder looking for microaggressions, and that your explanation of why you’re curious as to where people are from is unnecessary. No one is trying to imply that the question itself will always be problematic, and there are obviously several situations and conversations in which it will organically come up. The above example is in fact referring to what you described as a “where are you ‘really’ from” question where the context and tone make it perfectly clear that the question is being asked purely because, in the aggressor’s mind, the person seems to hail from another country because of their race. In this case, the person being microaggressed against doesn’t “perceive” it, or need to ask their aggressor for “clarification.”

          Furthermore, these are situations that happen randomly throughout a person’s daily life. Often, the person being microaggressed against is caught off guard and doesn’t know how to respond, and they do very quickly move on to the “larger community problem” of whatever they were doing before the incident. And that is exactly why there is a need to have conversations about these issues. While all these incidents are isolated, they do add up, to the point where entire groups of people feel slightly excluded from their community at large. I realize you have lived in several places throughout your life and have a more worldly view. While that is a great experience that should be cherished, please do try to consider the situation from the point of view of someone who has lived in the same place their entire life, and greatly identifies with that place of origin. It is disheartening to constantly have that experience called into question, and be associated with places that you do not consider to be your home, all because another person has judged you based on a characteristic of yourself that is an integral part of your identity, but that you also didn’t choose.

    2. We live in a society probably more multiethnic than most other large nations to ever exist. It’s people mostly inured to the worst of the ailments of the rest of world faces like fatal epidemics, famine, and widespread violence.

      Our society was formed and shaped much the same as most others throughout history by a mix of tribalism, desire to expand, and to convert others to one’s faith. We’re no more or less guilty of that than others. I fail to see why anyone should have to bear the burden of something in the past solely because their ancestors happened to be more thorough record keepers about things we now have decided are morally repugnant.

      You seem to at the same time hold the beliefs that white westerners are particularly guilty of racism against other ethnicities, and that they are somehow unique or worse in this respect than anyone else on earth.

      People are cruel and tribal, and the thin veneer of civilization keeps us in check, the fact that you seem to think “microaggressions” are something surprising or even unexpected from any group toward a member of an out group only shows how naive and insulated from anything outside a quiet upper middle class academic environment you are.

      1. “because their ancestors happened to be more thorough record keepers” …I’m sure you mean “on the whole, actively discouraged the literacy and shared cultural traditions of others through colonialism and often violence.”

        It’s not that Christian is *surprised* by microaggressions. I’m going to assume it’s because he believes we can and should, do better by being more aware. Consciousness around the social and historical context of our assumptions and behaviors MAY be only the purview of educationally privileged folk (dubious), but that doesn’t make it pointless.

        The take-home isn’t never ever compliment anyone or ugh, #firstworldproblems. It’s, you know, listening and acknowledging people’s real experiences, and trying to live more consciously across the board.

        It’s not that hard, and it’s not that much to ask.

    3. Fair enough, however, this can lead to some dangerous overcorrecting. I understand the issue and have personally experienced it, being part of a few perceived minorities. Nonetheless, I see an enormous risk in any attempt to eliminate the involuntary microagression.

      For a careful individual, what is the safest way to avoid a microagression? Simple, just don’t say a word. Don’t compliment, don’t seek opinions, don’t risk singling out. Anything else and you risk being perceived as an agressor. I think that becoming sensitive to microagression is a slippery slope. Especially since the cases in which it occurs, as illustrated in the article, seem to present someone who just wanted to bring a smile to someone else and ended up mistakenly opening Pandora’s box.

      The action that I take is different, I take it all at face value. If it’s a compliment with loaded social information, I accept the compliment with grace and take in the challenge. I notice that I have a lot of socially accepted memes to work on to ensure people feel part of a greater human community. Perceiving that compliment as an aggression and acting on it will not solve anything. Much on the contrary. It will just create an incentive for the person to hold back on any possible compliment in the future.

      1. I don’t think people need to hold back from ever complimenting someone. The unfortunate thing about racism as a large, cultural force is that it places the burden of questioning on all of us.

        If you are concerned about your ability to pay people compliments, I would say to examine where this compliment is coming from. If, in fact, it’s coming from a genuine place and really doesn’t have to do with race, then feel free to say it. However, be prepared for how someone may perceive it. If you truly know someone and are close to that person, you have no reason to worry.

    4. Christian Cho, thank you. Very well said. And I like to think I’m fairly aware, but hadn’t thought about it in quite the way you put it in the third paragraph. Thanks for giving me more to ponder.

  6. If you’ve read this article and concluded that it’s purpose is to encourage people to avoid compliments, stifle dialogue or “[raise] alarm bells about minor comments,” you are an unfortunately ignorant person. Probably the kind of person inclined to use such “unintended” offenses illustrated in the article, and certainly not a minority.
    People are racist. There is no sugar-coating it. Call it ignorance, accident or “microaggression” if it makes you more comfortable but the fact of the matter is that racism is inarguably present on campus, in Boston, nationally and across the world.
    I have friends who tell me they would never bring home a black girl because it would shock their parents. I have a friend who was surprised to find he was attracted to a black girl walking down Comm. Ave. Another friend of mine joked about the origins of my mixed race family, asking if, when we were slaves, we liked our owner so much that generations of my family still carry their last name. Just a few months ago, I asked a kid to get out of my party because he was tossing around “nigger” with no reservation. He is the same guy who is now dating a friend of mine and won’t introduce his parents to her because she is Asian.
    Racism is here, folks. The point of the article is to identify the sparks, and attempt to rationalize them before a fire erupts. The only problem is: racism is inherently irrational, and the perpetuation of it is far more complex than merely ignorance.
    As the author articulates somewhat, there is humanity in prejudice; it is human nature to distinguish ourselves from other groups. Sure, maybe I’ll buy that point. However, where I take issue is in the belief that the ignorance of racism can be reversed just because someone sat a microaggressor down and told them that their bigotry is offensive. That is not going to change a thing. In fact, it may even encourage the political correctness that some of the sources in this article so vehemently disdain because it is a surface-level solution that fails to address the origin of the problem which is, of course, that people are still being raised racist, that minorities are still on an uneven playing field and that President Barack Obama is still the exception.
    It will take time. However, it is an injustice to minimize this obvious issue like any of the above comments have, or even as the author somewhat has by using the term “microaggression.” Racism will continue to not only survive but flourish if we do not address it directly and with conviction at it’s roots.
    In the meantime, we must continue to battle the casual discrimination and ever so slight racism directly– by telling someone when and why what they just said is, in fact, racist (not ignorant or accidental or micro-whatever, but racist). The word itself carries with it a recent and tremendous national history that no reasonable person can argue against and has the social and historical effect that a PC version of it doesn’t. Finding a reasonable person might prove to be more difficult.

    1. Your comment is reasonable than most so I’ll just ask this. Given the extreme levels of racism between different East Asian ethnicities, between Saudi Arabs toward Filipinos and Malaysians, tutsis and hutus. What makes you think racism is something that can really be eliminated and that the current disdain of it isn’t anymore than a half century first world fad?

      1. What makes you think it can’t? Everything about humans figuring out how to live together and understand each other is new. We shouldn’t bother concerning ourselves with other people’s perspectives?

        I realize this is the second of your comments I’ve responded to. Not picking on you & sorry if it seems that way, I guess your rhetoric is just sticking out to me for some reason…

  7. I’m sorry but when does reality turn into racism? I’m not trying to be insensitive but honestly everyone can admit that many students of Asian background who grew up heavily in that culture are quiet and reserved. There is a giant difference between racism and observation. As a student, I’ve worked behind the counter as a cashier and honestly I’ve noticed that I have most trouble hearing anyone of Asian background. Again, that’s an observation and nothing more. I really think society has greyed the area between observation and racism. When that professor said that comment, I’m fairly certain he or she was not trying to be racist or put down the culture; he or she just made an observation.

    1. If you are white you will never understand the implications of telling a black person they are articulate as a compliment. It assumes that it is a rarity which is insulting.

      1. Totally agree. If you are white, or even slightly off-white, or even white but like darker white, or even white but with a really good tan, you will never be able to understand. Obviously there is just something about being white that makes you incapable.

        1. Phil, you should be embarrassed about your comment. It is people like you who create barriers between races. If I were white, I would be extremely offended from your words, “never be able to understand” and “incapable.” I will not let people like you create racism or reverse racism.

          I don’t know why you discredit all white people and I don’t care. It’s statements like these that are racist.

      2. That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. Get over it. You are providing for a feasible environment to allow racism to grow with comments like this. Because someone complimented you, you take that to mean “HE’S TALKING ABOUT MY RACE!!” And then by saying “you are white” and continue to basically say you know nothing about what it feels like to be judged, it’s just racist in itself.

      3. Tatiana, you’re ensuing racism and encouraging it by being racist against both black and white people. As a black woman, I am offended with your racism against white people. Your comment is effectively racist against anyone who is “white.” The comment generalizes and creates pity.

        If someone told me I am articulate I’m not going to assume it’s because they expected me to not be articulate. There is no optimism in your comment and I wholeheartedly disagree with you.

    2. Somewhat accurate. Stereotypes exist for a reason. There are some accuracies that they are based on. I think the point would be in the diverse society we live in, you try not to let those stereotypes influence your perception of a person before hand. There is some sense of confirmation bias too, you expect (conciously or not) person of X race to act in a certain way so you automatically look for things in their behavior to confirm that. In the case of this article I think there are factors of people automatically perceiving a statement as a slight on their race or gender or sexual orientation because they are sensative to instatutional discrimination, and there are factors of people subconciously making insulting statements. I think the point would be just to be more aware of what you’re really saying to someone when complementing them.

    3. The problem is that not everyone that’s Asian (or whatever minority) grew up in whatever kind of culture. It seems like we should be able to deal with this a little bit better, seeing as American is supposedly the cultural melting pot, and there are tons of people out there with situations like mine. I’m half Asian and grew up in white-bread American suburbs, but I’ve been told I “don’t look half white” and people are always asking me about “where I’m from” or if I visit/want to visit the country that some of my genes happen to come from.

      I’m American, but thanks for noticing I have slanty eyes, stranger-I-met-on-the-bus; and no, I don’t have some cultural heritage I’m longing to get back to.

  8. I think one problem with this conversation which leads to misunderstanding is that it seems like ‘microaggressions’ are only being applied to racial minorities and women. That may be true in many areas of the U.S., but that doesn’t take into consideration urban areas of the U.S where there’s more diversity. Unfortunately microaggressions are made towards everyone. Just because someone is white doesn’t mean their rich or can’t dance, just as being asian doesn’t mean they’re quiet or good at math.
    If we’re going to talk about this we should recognize (as some have) that 99.9% of people fall back on generalizations that unfortunately permeate through our society.

  9. I have visited this page before on Facebook and, while there are cases of these microaggressions or even blatant racism/sexism, it seems that there is largely an issue with hypersensitivity among many of these students. Somehow connecting that a compliment is based on your identity and not your achievements is horribly fallacious and actually seems to prolong the issue by making such an issue exist to begin with.

    Look at the first and fourth examples given in the article above. In neither case does the “aggressor” make a comment on race, gender, or sexuality, but, somehow, it was inferred that those pieces of identity were the root of the compliment. Cho even says these aggressions could be the cause of trying to be too PC, but how does making everyone anxious that a simple compliment could be taken as subtly racist help to alleviate that cause in the slightest sense? This seems to be the complete opposite of the goals in mind.

    I do, however, also want to bring another issue regarding the Facebook page into light. Go to the page, use ctrl+f and search “white.” Look at posts like #22. While bringing awareness to actual microaggressions is okay, it is absolutely NOT okay to generalize “the oppressor.” As a white individually, it sickens me to know that people out there have these feelings over my race as a whole. Oh, but reverse-racism? According to #74, that’s not actually a thing. People can’t possibly be racist to caucasians, or sexist to males, or discriminatory against heterosexuals. I’m absolutely in favor of creating an environment based on equality and understanding, but equality shouldn’t be achieved by “oppressing the oppressor.” In that case, nobody wins.

    1. The anxiety that people feel because of the fear of possibly offending someone is a real problem. This is systemic oppression – everyone loses. I don’t really hear that students have deep and meaningful conversations about race. Instead, we’re so quick to avoid discomfort or are quick to react. Yes, we all need to be mindful about what we say and what we hear.

      Like I mentioned in a previous comment…there are no rules regarding social interaction. I don’t think it serves anyone for people to avoid paying compliments or saying something because they might offend people. What I hope people learn from reading this article is that we need to be more open to both our own feelings regarding this issue but be ready to have conversations with people and have an open mind.

  10. I know it definitely happens, like when someone says something like “you’re pretty for a black girl.” But does anyone ever wonder that it’s possible that the “for a black girl” part is not actually implied? Like how do you know the compliment about you being pleasant actually isn’t based on a stereotype that black people aren’t pleasant? Could it be that the person honestly and simply just thinks you’re pleasant, regardless of your ethnicity? Is that impossible? I don’t know if everything is really a microaggression. The way i see it, some people’s reactions are like the fundamental attribution error. I think it might just be human nature to make assumptions. I guess I’m a rarity because I don’t always assume things…

  11. From a purely academic perspective this article makes sense. However, we are humans imbued with free will and prone to sin, or for those who don’t believe in god, error. As such, we are imperfect. There will also always be good and evil in the world. This article seems to place the blame on everyone else rather than any blame on the individual. At what point, does the individual create racism rather than being the recipient of it? At what point, does the individual force others to accept them rather than being part of the collective group or society they are part of? I am not saying that racism or oppression does not occur and that we don’t need to challenge it. However must we dig up every small example and blow it out of proportion? At some point we need to let things go and rise above them. Sometimes we need to let things that hurt us, make us stronger. In most cases the people that had the greatest impact in history were ones that struggled the most. Some struggle, oppression, hurt feelings, etc. are all things that exercise our spirit or being that allow us to be better people. Stop forcing people to be different, show them how to be different. At the end of the day, this will make you a happier person.

  12. This whole article is ridiculous, and the president’s advice to “not tell people what they’re really like” is basically saying compliments will be read into in order to find a racist edge. People are overly sensitive and create barriers with these extreme rules. This article and the student group’s micro management is extremely biased. The glass can be half full, not always half empty.

    1. Actually, Cha never really did say that you shouldn’t “tell people what they’re really like”. She muses on facebook that she’s not even sure what it’s supposed to mean. Just wanted to clear up that particular point :)

  13. Well, I think that more than half of the problem can be dealt with by being a little bit thoughtful when giving an opinion and flexible when receiving it. In my personal perspective, what might be something good to implant first and foremost, is to wean off using any types of “Comparison Thoughts”. This applies for both the complimenter and the one who receives the compliment. For example, saying that “Oh, you are (x) to be (y)” even if the part -to be (y)- is left unsaid, it should be, in a way or another, subliminally delivered in the context. This may lead to a defensive reaction in the receiver even if the complimenter doesn’t mean to do so. Eradicating this very natural behavior is probably next to impossible since it is very natural!! However, dealing with the roots of it would tackle some of the misunderstanding which is the result of coming from different cultures/environments and of being different in processing thoughts.

    One possible way to achieve this, is by (trying) to walk in others’ shoes. This could be a very efficient beginning before getting involved in a dialogue and throwing out some comments -Please underline the word (trying). However, there are some major well-known concepts we should be aware of and anticipate their effects on others.

    Broadly speaking, having an identical definition for every expressed idea is inapplicable, so we need to be more flexible when processing/producing these ideas and this is the applicable part of it as we are human beings.

  14. Just to comment on this particular quote which represents the theme of the article.

    “A white professor told a student “how ‘articulate’ and ‘bright’ I am. Ugh, he sounded so condescending, can’t a black queer woman just go to class in peace?”

    I have been fortunate enough to received compliments from Professors exactly like a few times in my college career. Every time I have felt pride that my questions and comments in class were exceptional enough to warrant being singled out by my professor in class. These compliments from professors are even more meaningful today now than ever because the majority of students in class refuse to participate either because they are shy or because they are using their laptops or cell phones. Professors are becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of participation and love and admire students who are willing to break from the norm.

    Since I received this exact compliment myself and I am a white male, it is probably quite likely that she received this compliment because she was more bright and outspoken then the rest of her class which consists of males and females from all 50 US states and close to 100 countries and not from a comparison stereotype to her race.

    If we break down this quote, it is interesting to note how many ways the person tried to extrapolate racism, sexism and and homophobia all in one sentience. The person tries to say that the professor sounded condescending and was being compared against:
    1.African Americans

    I can understand how the professor might be able to identify numbers 1 and 3, however, unless he was a mind reader, she was wearing a sign or she told him her sexual orientation, there is no way that the professor could have 100% known number 2. Throwing her sexual orientation into the mix is very puzzling way to strengthen your argument.

    This quote is what I like to call, the trifecta of prejudice, the person was able to cover all the bases. Feminism, racial prejudice and homophobia, how can anyone argue with that hand of cards without being ostracized 3 times over.

    We all go to school in the one of the most liberal cities in the United States and arguably one of the most liberal universities in the country. We have one of the most diverse and tolerant student bodies and have a sympathetic and protecting administration. We need to start giving our University, student body and administration more credit then we have recently

  15. “A GSU food server reported a response from a middle-aged white customer she greeted with a smile: “‘You’re so pleasant!’…I couldn’t help but think that she said what she did because she didn’t expect black women in real life were ‘pleasant.’”

    “A white professor told a student “how ‘articulate’ and ‘bright’ I am. Ugh, he sounded so condescending, can’t a black queer woman just go to class in peace?” holy shit this has to be a joke”

    It doesn’t make a white person racist to compliment a person of color. Wouldn’t it be more racist to never compliment someone of another race? So white people should only compliment other white people because if it’s anyone else they’re being condescending and patronizing? Wow that seems like sort of a white-supremacist mode of thought to me… seems more to breed racism instead of combat it. We should all be more comfortable receiving compliments from others and stop assuming racism where racism isn’t there.

  16. Let’s look at some of the examples/comments in this article.
    1) “‘You’re one of the more outspoken Asian women I’ve encountered.’” – a person is literally stating his/her experience. It would be racist to say “You are unusually outspoken for an Asian”. However, in this case, the person has just encountered the most outspoken Asian she has ever met. This statement is both a complement because it points out that the person is outspoken and a remark about his/her experience with other Asian women in regard to outspokenness.
    2) He advises professors to make clear that they’re asking for a student’s personal opinion, not for a statement reflecting what all black people think. – Now, professors, please, if you ask any international students, people who went to private or public high schools, athletes, people who are majoring in engineering or communications, be kind to specify that you are asking this person about their personal experience and not asking them to be the spokesperson for the entire group of international students, etc. Really?
    3) ‘No, no, that’s not where you’re from; where are you really from?’ – I ask this one a lot. I am an international student myself, there are only 4 people from my country at BU. From my perspective it seems incredibly silly how people want to deny their cultural/geographic heritage. Doesn’t multiculturalism make you “richer”? Doesn’t NOT talking about your heritage make it seem like you are ashamed of it? Why would you be? It’s not a question of whether or not you CAN be from New York. You can. But, by asking this question, one simply implies that you can be so much MORE than that.

  17. Isn’t assuming that someone said something racist without asking or engaging them in a conversation racist? It seems like your stereotyping white people and Professors at BU

    1. No. Racism is not hurting someone’s feelings or white guilt. Racism is prejudice that is institutionalized. Racism is a white man with a criminal record getting a job over a black men without one–again, and again, and again, as shown in studies. Racism is the death of Jordan Davis. Racism is stop-and-frisk disproportionately targeting people of color. Racism is not me thinking you’re a racist. It might hurt your feelings, but people of color have been through a whole hell of lot more than hurt feelings.

      1. Jay, Again, why does everyone have the need to compare white to black and minimize/pity the blacks while making it seem the white’s get whatever they want.

        “People of color have been through a whole hell of lot more than hurt feelings” – what does this imply, that because I am black I have bigger problems, more issues and should be treated differently.

        You’re asking for DIFFERENT treatment, or BETTER treatment for “people of color,” which is wrong. There are many times I can think of where white people are stereotyped against and can’t do or say anything because they’re white.

        In my opinion, Jay, you’re using history as a crutch for the present. It’s too bad you can’t live in the moment and recognize today is more important than yesterday or 40 years ago.

  18. Thank you for posting this article. We need to have a serious discussion about microaggressions, sexism, and racism on this campus, and NOT shut down conversation because so many white (and male) students are in denial about the roles we all play in perpetuating stereotypes and making people of color’s lives a little harder every day. You would think a college education at one of the nation’s top universities would encourage white students to be more aware of CONTEXT when it comes to daily interactions with people (Christian Cho explains the importance of context in the comments section below). Unfortunately, we’ve got a lot of work to do to push white folks out of their comfort zones and make them realize that intention does not dictate interpretation. That’s not because people of color are “hypersensitive.” It’s because those giving “compliments” based on racial stereotypes protect their social comfort by being blind to social contexts.

    If the point of giving someone a compliment is to make them feel good, then why get so defensive when the recipient points out how your comment really makes them feel? Let that marinade with you a little..

  19. An alert reader points out that our earlier reference to sexual “preference” in the third paragraph was inaccurate, as it implied that one can choose one’s sexual orientation. We have amended the wording accordingly. Thanks for catching my error. Rich Barlow

    1. While “sexual preference” and “sexual orientation” may have marginally different denotations, claiming that the two refer to different types of people is the only way to suggest that one may consciously choose sexual orientation.

      Preference (n): a greater liking for one alternative over another or others
      Hypersensitive (adj): excessively or abnormally sensitive

      I entirely agree that sexual orientation is set from birth. I also happen to be a straight male (sorry, male-bodied person?), so I have a greater liking for women over men; I’ve stood by this preference since birth, just as my homosexual friends have stood by their respective preferences since birth. In other words, you sexual preference is your sexual orientation – unless, of course, you believe one may choose a sexual orientation.

      I’m from an area where homophobia and even occasionally racism are more prevalent issues than hypersensitivity. But at BU, the opposite is true, and it’s people like your “alert reader” (and by extension you, Rich) who turned me away from my previously far-left views.

      Though I still advocate for universal equality, take it from someone who was formerly quite vocal about the matter – you only hurt your cause when you get overly caught up in simple semantics. Even if someone isn’t “politically correct” to your standards, pointing out such shortcomings will only garner support from like-minded individuals, and it will turn away any moderate/reasonable people.

      1. Anderson, it is not male-bodied is not the correct term. It would be straight cis-male. Cis means that you identify with the gender you were assigned at birth.

        And second, language is important. It is not simply semantics. How would you feel if someone constantly called you the wrong name, on purpose, even though you told them it’s incorrect? And when you said, hey, actually my name is (x) and they said, no no, it’s just semantics.

        Just because it may take some time to learn these words, you are dealing with people’s identities here. Take it a little more seriously.

        1. Identity police. Who appointed you? One can identify as they please all they want and they can demand society call them whatever they want… basic biology be damned by politicized soft science. If Bob, with the XY chromosome, decides to walk up to the playground and claim he is some child’s mom in your world it is incorrect to try and explain that observation and basic science say that he is not this child’s mom and not a mom period.

          God save us from an ism obsessed society.

  20. As a former active member of WOC (Women of Color Coalition) I have the following to say about this article:
    1. Let us define coalition. It is a pact or treaty among individuals or groups, during which they cooperate in joint action, each in their own self-interest, joining forces together for a common cause. With that said, various instances where possession of the group is mentioned should be changed immediately as this is highly offensive to pretty much the entire purpose of the group.
    2. Secondly I am sooo pleased this poorly written article has begun a conversation about race–really I’ll take it, something is better than nothing.
    3. Ok now that we’ve established interest in the topic (and re-established a need to set the record straight on so many things relating to race and oppression),and the “president” has received her verbal accolades, how bout’ we stop having BU today represent the group, and begin organizing actual events the old fashioned way? Activism is hard work! Complaining is easy! I hope this article reminds all members why the space needs to be active!

  21. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. “Wow, you’re very pleasant” can mean “wow, you’re very pleasant.” There is a concept known as “most respectful interpretation,” which says that rather than look for offense, the listener considers the intent of the person making the statement. Not to denigrate subtle racism, but beware of looking for hidden meaning behind every statement. You’ll find it, whether it exists or not.

  22. The irony of all of this. I wonder if the White Women’s Coalition would be as widely accepted as the Women OF Color, which clearly as a white women I am excluded from. Why can’t it just be the Women’s Coalition, working together regardless of race. Quite frankly as a white woman I can still be insulted with these comments as well. When you insinuate that me complimenting you was paired with a racist undertone I am insulted by what YOU are ASSUMING about me.

  23. I don’t understand why the writer of this article, Rich Barlow, decided to invent a false quote from Laura Cha and then thought it was appropriate to include it.

    Not to mention he very blatantly trivializes the intentions of this discussion by calling attention to superficial aspects of various speakers, exampling the facebook commentary in such a confusing and poorly written presentation, not explaining any ambiguous language, and not clarifying what this group was or what its members’ positions were in it.

    Why has the author not edited or revised this article?

  24. I worry that students/faculty will be afraid to say anthing for fear of “microagression”. We used to call this giving someone a little “dig”( positive or negative), but we got over it. New lingo for the educated elite to create and ponder. So what good does this do? Energy should be spent on doing something such as helping inner city kids get a good education.

  25. This racism debate, lets not forget we are all human beings I was taught Stick and Stones will break your bones but names have never hurt you, lets not be so precious and be thankful we have been born and can enjoy our time on this Planet , its all too correct these days.

  26. Why don’t we all just quit speaking to one another and then no one will be offended! The lack of love for our fellow human beings is the basic cause of our cultural conflict. Let me offend some by saying if you have Jesus in your life you will not offend or be offended.

  27. A great article, I would have liked to see more suggestion on what one can do to be more aware as they speak, BUT I think its very interesting maybe even humorous that the article is examining remarks and phrases that commonly used and unknowingly racist or sexist built, but then finish the article with
    “a general rule of thumb.”
    The origin of the word comes from the British law during the 1700’s when a man was allowed to beat his wife so long as the rod was no thicker than his thumb. I think its a great reminder that no one is innocent of using words that are built on racism and sexism and a million other ism. We need to really put our language under the microscope and develop a way of speaking, it makes no sense to be progressive but use outdated words or phrases built on hate.

  28. Race is the biggest underlying issue in this country and has been since Europeans arrived. Depending on which side you are on, your perceptions of your place in this society have been programmed into you from birth. Your views of race will govern your speech and actions on a subconscious level and you may not even be aware of it.

  29. In this now classic work, Devine found that White participants explicitly endorsing prejudiced beliefs toward Blacks as well as those who holding more egalitarian beliefs were equally able to produce lists of cultural stereotypes about Blacks (e.g., rhythmic, uneducated, hostile). She also found that following exposure to stereotype-activating words, high-prejudiced and low-prejudiced participants equally interpreted ambiguous behavior of a Black character in a vignette as hostile. However, when asked to write their thoughts about Black Americans, low-prejudiced participants produced more thoughts with themes of equality, (e.g., it is unfair to judge people by their color ), while high-prejudiced participants expressed more stereotype-congruent thoughts. Together, these experiments showed that common cultural experiences create awareness of stereotypes, which can be automatically activated in ways that bypass deliberate thought and influence one s judgment in unintended and unacknowledged ways. Devine described these as automatic (implicit) and controlled (explicit) aspects of prejudice.

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