Tuesday, January 25, 2022
Catharine P. Wells (Boston College; Google Scholar), Microaggressions in the Context of Academic Communities, 12 Seattle J. Soc. Just. 319 (2013):
In the late 1990s, I was invited to speak on a panel about the difficulties encountered by women in the legal academy. In this connection, I wrote a paper about microaggressions in which I used some of my own experiences as the basis for analysis. The frequent response to my examples was, “That can’t be true!” or “Why are you so sensitive?” Of course, neither of these reactions came from other women or men of color. But the response was telling. What seemed burdensome to me was invisible or seemingly harmless to the group of white men that dominated most law schools. In this context, the publication of Presumed Incompetent1 is an important milestone. First, it demonstrates that little has changed in the academic landscape. Second, it describes the especially vulnerable position still occupied by women of color. Third, by bundling these stories, the book makes skeptical responses less viable—we are telling the truth and we are not exceptionally sensitive.
Of course, the past few decades have brought some progress. Although the book makes it clear that the academic landscape is still littered with landmines for women of color, it is also true that the pool of tenured faculties has become less overwhelmingly white and male. This creates important opportunities for discussion and change. White women, in particular, can play a constructive role but only if we recognize that our hard won places in the establishment create the risk of blindness. Unless we remain alert, a microaggressive climate may become as invisible to us as it has been to our male colleagues.
A good place to begin is with a thorough understanding of the microaggressions themselves. Microaggressions are not merely insensitive remarks. If that is all they were, it would be bad enough; but, they also operate in predictable ways to insure that the interests of insiders are protected from newcomers. Thus, they have the overall effect of maintaining current patterns of exclusion. This is why the discussion that has been started by Presumed Incompetent4 is so important. Reliving these painful experiences is more than just catharsis. It is an opportunity to strategize—to think about the ways in which these obstacles impede our progress. It is in that spirit that I offer the following paper.