According to much of the campus Left, American society is characterized by the oppression of women and minorities at the hands of white males, who command institutional power and run a system that benefits them at the expense of all other identity groups. Thus all racial and gender disparities — including differences in employment rates between racial groups, income gaps between men and women, and so on — are assumed to be caused by racist and sexist power structures. As a result of this structural racism and sexism, members of disadvantaged groups are said to suffer daily humiliations, offenses, and microaggressions.
The concrete effect of such an ideology, regardless of whether its premises happen to be true, has been to encourage students — especially those from historically marginalized or disadvantaged groups — to interpret their interactions in society through a certain ideological lens.
At Columbia University, I’ve made friends from all across the political spectrum, from hard leftists to passionate Trump supporters. I’ve noticed that there is a strong correlation between political attitudes and the extent to which people feel discriminated against on the basis of their race or gender. My female and minority friends who are centrists or conservatives (or even moderate liberals) say that they feel at ease in American society, that most people have treated them well, and that their identities have not been obstacles to their success. They might offer the occasional anecdote of being at the receiving end of a racist or sexist comment, but these are extremely rare and not characteristic of their general life experience. By contrast, female and minority friends on the far Left tell me that they experience sexism or racism almost every waking moment of their existence. Innumerable opinion articles at Columbia’s newspaper demonstrate this latter way of thinking (e.g. here, here).
Which of these narratives is right? It almost seems like my two groups of friends are living in separate universes. However, I want to set aside the delicate question of adjudicating between which of the two alternatives better represents reality and instead focus on how the tenets of social justice activism and its accompanying social dynamics encourage students to feel oppressed. Allow me to illustrate, with a personal example, the means by which these dynamics play themselves out:
I’m an immigrant from Venezuela. I came to the United States twelve years ago, when I was in the third grade. Naturally I did not know much English when I arrived, but I was fortunate to learn it relatively quickly. I’m a fairly social person, so I made friends without much trouble despite being the “new kid,” as well as the “foreign kid.” And when I started high school, I grew closer to my friends, making what Americans warmly refer to as “lifelong friendships.”
When strong bonds of friendship had been established (and only then), my friends would sometimes tease me about my immigrant status. “Why don’t you go back to Venezuela, you damned immigrant?” they would joke. Now, to a university liberal of enlightened sensibilities, such a “joke” would be abhorrent. It would be perceived as racist, discriminatory, and oppressive — a demonstration of America’s grotesque nativism and its contempt for immigrants.
But is it, really? Can’t a joke just be a joke? That’s how I interpret it, then as now. I know that my best friends do not hate me, or immigrants, or other minorities. Their teasing does not betray America’s underlying racism, nor is it the result of oppressive power structures; instead, it is their attempt to poke fun, to build comradery, to test my sensitivity (or lack thereof). I was not offended by their jokes — but if they had bothered me, I would have told them to shut up. And I know, with certainty, that they would have stopped.
But suppose that I had arrived at Columbia and become a radical activist. I would have been encouraged to rewrite my personal history. I would have been encouraged to revisit those episodes with my friends, to castigate them as racists, to expunge the “internalized racism” that allowed me to let them get away with making such remarks. I would have been encouraged to call out their “racist bullshit.” And I would have been told to look out for such offenses in the future, always making sure to berate anyone who dared utter an unwelcome joke, no matter how obviously ironic or satirical, about immigrants or women or minorities or any other group supposedly in need of extra protection.
Under the guise of opposing everyday sexism and racism, the campus Left has proposed a vast array of “microaggressions” which people — especially white men — are forbidden to utter. Some of these microaggressions include complimenting immigrants on being articulate, or on speaking good English.
But whom, exactly, are these campus speech codes serving? According to a recent Cato Institute survey, a majority of minorities said that they do not find paradigm microaggressions to be offensive (such as: “You speak good English,” “You are so articulate,” “I don’t notice people’s race,” “America is a melting pot,” “Everyone can succeed in this society if they work hard enough”). Yet campus activists seem intent on “problematizing” situations even where offense was neither intended nor taken.
Of course, there are comments which do seem to contain subtle racism — saying “you are a credit to your race” to a successful minority student, for example. Indeed, even in the Cato study, this was an example that most minorities found offensive. But surely it is possible to push back against insensitive comments like these without losing one’s sense of humor or surrendering to moral panics, speech codes, and soft censorship.
Universities should not be telling the young to view their lived experience in the worst possible manner, because encouraging students to feel oppressed is wreaking grievous damage on the social fabric of our country. It becomes very difficult to make friends and build community when one is beset by a crippling paranoia about the (possibly imagined) racism and sexism implicit in everyone else’s words. This is not the way to foster tolerance and understanding. Nor is it the way we should want our society to operate, our conversations to unfold, or our inter-racial and cross-gender interactions to be interpreted.