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The B.E.S.T. Microaggression Training You’ve Never Heard Of
Part One of a conversation between Kimi Katiti and FBT's Jake Mackey on Microaggressions and "Bias Education and Support Teams," or B.E.S.T.s.
Antiracism / DEI
THE B.E.S.T. MICROAGGRESSION TRAINING YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF
Part One of a conversation between Kimi Katiti and FBT's Jake Mackey on Microaggressions and Bias Education and Support Teams, or B.E.S.T.s.
Kimi Katiti and Jacob L. Mackey
This is the first part of a conversation between artist Kimi Katiti and author, professor, and FBT co-founder Jacob L. Mackey on the subject of Microaggressions and the “Bias Education and Support Team” (B.E.S.T.) offices sweeping across college campuses today. This edited transcription of their conversation was first published at Kimi Katiti’s Substack, The Faction.
Jake: My name is Jacob Louis Mackey, or “Jake.” I’m an Associate Professor of Classics at Occidental College in Los Angeles. “Classics” means ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. I teach the languages, the literature, the mythology, the religion, the culture, the history, you name it. I wrote a book on Roman religion that came out last year that combines research from psychology and cognitive science to try to make sense of what the Romans were doing in their rituals and religious practices. That in a nutshell is what I do professionally. I also help co-edit the Journal of Free Black Thought, which is published by Free Black Thought. Finally, I’ve become very interested in the microaggressions paradigm, what its scientific status is, and the way it drives so much of the activity of what you could call the DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) bureaucracy in colleges and universities.
Kimi: And I’m Kimi Katiti, I run The Faction Substack, and I’m an interdisciplinary artist based in North Hollywood, California, and originally hailing from Kampala, Uganda. I draw from my multicultural background to share testimonies of transformation, and I advocate for pro-human values in everyday life.
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Our Experiences with Microaggressions
Kimi: I went through a period of “brainwashing” where empowerment programs, philosophies and ideologies were delivered to me throughout college, and I took them in—I drank them in—and I thought the more I get people to care about the things I'm offended by, the better my life would be. But it turned out to be quite the opposite. I was sort of drunk with cynicism and delved into depression and anxiety—what I can only describe as fragility, where anything anyone said that was a little off would tip me the wrong way and ruin my day. So that's my experience, but Jacob, you also have your experience with microaggressions?
Jake: Absolutely. I can imagine anyone who has ever tuned into your channel would have heard you talk about CRT and microaggressions and related topics. Microaggressions are these—they’re micro—they're these small slights or insults. The initial idea of the paradigm was that it happens mainly to people of color, racial and ethnic minorities, but then it got extended to encompass people who are not heteronormative, or women as opposed to men, or people who are queer, and then it got extended to people with disabilities and that's me because I was born missing my left arm from just below the elbow. I was born like that: I’m a person with a disability although that is not an important part of my self-conception.
So as a person with a different body, when I was growing up I experienced both macro-aggressions—people physically attacking me because of my arm, or just insulting me, yelling at me “one-arm!”—and microaggressions, but I didn’t know to call them that at the time. All my life I’ve had—and still have to this day, on a monthly basis—people say “Oh, I’m amazed you can tie your shoes!” if they see me tie my shoes. I’m a 52 year old man with a PhD from Princeton University and you’re surprised I can tie my shoes—like, thank you! Or if someone sees me driving a car they’ll go “You can drive, what do you know!” I’ve been driving since I was 16. I never knew to call these things microaggressions. But when I learned about the theory of microaggressions, I said “Oh, that’s what’s been happening to me all my life.”
Then as I got deeper into the theory, I learned that these microaggressions are supposed to be deeply damaging and wounding to people and cause significant harm. And as a Gen Xer, I grew up with this idea that sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me. That was pounded into my head, like everyone in my generation. I mean, this stuff is sorta dumb and annoying, but hurt me? Impact me? Cause significant harm? Give me a break!
So your story, Kimi, confirms what I suspected. I said to myself, if someone had told me that these things—these microaggressions—can cause significant harm and deeply hurt me, if I had really believed that, my life could have ended up very different. I could be now a broken, damaged person who feels like he’s been under assault for his whole life. This stuff happens constantly, but it rolls off of me. I don’t care, I know the person didn't mean anything. But I could have, in a sense, become a victim. And your story confirms to me that yes, this can happen if you tell someone this at a young age.
Kimi: Right. People might not see it this way but the compounding effect is really where the harm sets in. You have one slight everyday for 30 days, and one of any of those days is a day where you’re not all there cognitively. So you're kind of going through life under this dark cloud and it does compound. You spent all those days probably giving half of what you could give to whatever task you're doing, and then down the line, you’ve now spent a year under this cloud and this mindset affects your output— mentally and physically. That low output compounds and diverts you onto a different path.
And you know of course we have these programs as we study microaggressions. You have these professors and academics saying “Hey, let other people fix themselves so that you can be coddled and protected. Don't worry about it, we'll deal with it by pointing the finger at the other people.”
But you know, we are afraid to talk about “us”. What about our internal locus-of-control, how we perceive events, how we perceive life? We're learning about different ways to tackle [microaggressions] but I think there's a huge element missing in our individual selves—the person who happens to not be “heteronormative.”
Are you familiar with the origins of this school of thought? How did you learn about microaggressions—how this came into being?
Jake: First of all I thought “I’m sure glad nobody ever told me that when I was young!” and then I thought “that sure sounds like a dangerous thing to be teaching people” but then I began to have to look into it more deeply because the school I teach at—Occidental College—began to talk about it and implement whole offices, like a “Bias Education and Support Team,” or BEST, that offer services related to microaggressions and so this made me start to take it much more seriously and to look into the research on it.
Bias Education & Support Team (BEST)
Kimi: Tell me everything about BEST—what it stands for, what it aims to achieve, who’s behind it and how prevalent it is?
Jake: This stuff is everywhere. BEST is an acronym and it stands for Bias Education and Support Team. Some of them are also called BIRT—that stands for Bias Incident Response Team. Now if you were to Google something like “bias response team college campuses” you will get endless hits. These things are literally everywhere, they've been implemented in hundreds or even thousands of institutions. There's a lot of concern about them because they're implemented with different levels of wisdom. In some places, the way they're implemented is directly unconstitutional—they violate the First Amendment. Their own language on their website is unconstitutional because it seeks to suppress speech. The idea is that microaggressions take place when people speak, and therefore microaggressive speech must be suppressed. There are organizations such as FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression) that break down the various BEST programs on their website.
Some are on their face just unconstitutional, but others seek to chill expression, or they do it without even seeking to. They hold that there's a whole class of things you can say that are not illegal to say, and they're not the kind of things you can get kicked off campus for saying—they're not racial epithets—but they are nonetheless microaggressions. And what they say is that if anyone on campus utters or makes a microaggression, they can be reported to the bias response team and they will then “educate” the perpetrator, to set them straight. It gets to what you said earlier—that this model relies on the idea that we're going to fix the world for you so that you can be okay.
And you lose that locus-of-control in yourself, because it's the world that's microaggressing you and until the world is fixed you are going to be harmed. That’s the whole presupposition behind these things.
And so there have been lawsuits—some schools have been forced by lawsuit to shut theirs down. The University of Texas at Austin had their bias response team shut down for free speech violations. These are just not uncontroversial offices. That said, I think it’s possible to do these offices in ways that are not necessarily destructive of academic freedom, and not unfairly suppressive of speech on campus. I think it’s hard. Because when you put people on notice that they could be called into an office and “educated,” or that they could get penalized if they accidentally say the wrong thing, I mean you’re gonna have people walking on eggshells, right?
Microaggressions and Power
Kimi: Isn’t there an element of turning anything you don’t like into a microaggression claim in order to exert power? For example, if someone said to me “I really loved your presentation in class the other day, it was so articulate” I could turn that into a microaggression if I don't like that person and set them off on a path of punishment. Is there a criteria for the speech that is illegal, and just things that aren't? Is there a dictionary of these things that BEST uses to say “yeah, that was a bit suspicious”?
Jake: You made several points to address there. On the one hand, you pointed out that almost anything anyone says could be interpreted as a microaggression. Musa Al-Gharbi, who's a sociologist at Columbia—he's got the best critique of microaggressions—he points out that you’re damned if you do, damned if you don't. He writes:
Assume a white teacher puts forward a question and a number of students raise their hands in response—including some minority students. According to microaggression literature, if the teacher fails to call on the minority student(s), this could be interpreted as a microaggression. However, deciding to call on a minority student would merely create a new dilemma: if the instructor criticizes or challenges any aspect of the student’s response, this could also be construed as a microaggression. On the other hand, if the teacher praises the student’s answer as insightful or articulate, this might also be considered a microaggression. (Original emphasis.)
So, anything you say or do has the potential to be turned into a microaggression. My students actually tell me—I taught them microaggressions and al-Gharbi’s critique of microaggressions a couple weeks ago—they came up to me afterwards, and said there are students on this campus who attempt to turn innocent things into microaggressions for the purpose of gaining power over others.
To address another point you made, there are these lists of what are called the “canonical microaggressions.” The original researchers on microaggressions made lists in their 2007 article, and it's things like asking someone where they’re from. It presumes “Oh, you must not be American” because maybe you look phenotypically Asian or Latino/Latina—you're assuming I can't be from Los Angeles or wherever. Colleges have adapted this list for use on campus.
Let me present something I got from a publication by Musa Al-Gharbi. There was a study done on microaggressions where the researchers polled ethnic and racial minorities on whether a statement was offensive or not. In the microaggression literature, the following statement is said to be a microaggression: “America is a land of opportunity.” Well, as you can see, over 90% of black people and just under 90% of Latinos do not think that that's a microaggression. Another microaggression is asking “Where are you from?” Roughly 83% of Latinos do not find that offensive. They might say, “Well, I'm from Guatemala”, or they might say “My parents moved here from Peru and I was born in Los Angeles!” They just don’t care—they’re not bothered by it!
Another microaggression is saying, “I don’t notice people's race.” As you can see, 80% of Latinos just don't care, and something like 72% of black people just don’t care. “America is a Melting Pot”—about 78% of African-Americans don't find that offensive, and 70% of Latinas don't find that offensive. So, you have these researchers telling minorities that they need to be offended—that they are offended by these things—and they're just by and large not.
Kimi: Where do these canonical microaggressions come from if the majority of minorities don’t mind them?
Jake: The people who dreamt this whole thing up are elite academics—and of course, some of them are people of color. Their theory of the world, their model of how the world works, is highly skewed by the fact that they have PhDs from Harvard and other elite schools. Normal people who do not hold PhDs from or teach at Ivy League schools just haven’t been socialized into the same elite ideology as these folks, which helps to explain why microaggressions don’t resonate with normal people. The article where it all started—the main author is a Columbia University professor named Derald Wing Sue—was published in 2007 and it’s titled “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life.” You have to imagine that they were, in part, drawing on their own experience, surely, and they were just sort of asking themselves, “Well, what offends me?” But you generally have to have an elite education to be offended by something like, “America is a land of opportunities.” You have to have imbibed a rather boutique critique of America, of capitalism, and so on, to recoil from that. In contrast, if you ask an Hispanic immigrant who started a construction contracting company, or a black woman who is a small business owner, or whomever, they just haven't been taught to think that it's problematic to say that. So, we now have whole offices on many college campuses in America teaching students that these things are harmful and damaging to them. And most of these students wouldn’t have known so otherwise, without instruction. The polling suggests they just wouldn’t have thought so unless they were taught to think so. And that’s where I see the real danger and harm in this—that actually is a harm.
Stay tuned for part two—which will appear first at Kimi Katiti’s The Faction—where we discuss the money poisoning DEI, empirical evidence, and how to reckon with a B.E.S.T program on your college campus.
Kimi Katiti is an interdisciplinary artist. She creates visual art, produces and performs music, and expresses her views through video essays. Her African upbringing and faith inform her worldview and, ultimately, the art she creates. Born in Boston, MA, Kimi is ethnically Ugandan and was brought up in Uganda, Tanzania, and South Africa. She moved to the United States 10 years ago and is currently based in North Hollywood, California, where she can often be found at local skateparks. Check out her channel on YouTube, follow her art on Instagram, hear her music on Spotify, connect with her on LinkedIn, and keep up with all her activities by visiting her website.
Jacob L. Mackey, or “Jake,” is Associate Professor of Classics at Occidental College, where he teaches Greek and Latin languages and literatures and their transformative reception by African-American writers. He is faculty advisor for the student Persuasion club, which provides a space for the free exchange of ideas on campus. He grew up between Austin, TX, and a small village in Kerala, in south India. The darker side of his experience in India—growing up in a cult—is captured in this film. He is planning a memoir about the brighter side. He is the author of Belief and Cult: Rethinking Roman Religion (Princeton University Press, 2022). He tweets here.
Journal of Free Black Thought is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.