The B.E.S.T. Microaggression Training You’ve Never Heard Of, Part 2
The incentive is never to turn down the heat
Antiracism / DEI
THE B.E.S.T. MICROAGGRESSION TRAINING YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF, PART 2
Part Two 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 second 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 the second part of their conversation was first published at Kimi Katiti’s Substack, The Faction. Read the first part at The Faction or at JFBT.
Negative Outcomes of BESTs
Jake: Speaking of harms that result from having Bias Response Teams (BESTs) on campus: We know there are some negative outcomes that result from having BESTs on campus. There have been reports of bias that were just hoaxes or pranks and abuse of the system and campus life has been needlessly disrupted because of BESTs. There have been lawsuits—six of which that I know of have been won against BESTs—because student’s rights, especially with respect to free expression, have been trampled because of BESTs. So, that's clearly a harm.
However, did you mean to ask whether we have reason to believe that teaching young people that certain otherwise innocent sounding phrases are harmful microaggressions? Do we have reason to believe that that's bad for them?
Kimi: Yeah! That’s sort of my question. Outside of testimonies, or people posting their stories on YouTube, do we have anyone doing any research that’s published that reflects a long-term study of individuals and their outcomes or does that not exist at all?
Jake: Here's the interesting thing—there's actually no serious empirical research to suggest that microaggressions hurt anyone, beyond some self reports. That—empirical evidence—would be the first hurdle one would want to clear. We've set up offices on many college campuses in America to deal with these things on the premise that they are harmful. However, as we discussed, there’s no reason to think all so-called microaggressions are experienced the same way by all their supposed targets and we know there is no good empirical evidence that they reliably cause harm. That inspires questions: What are we doing with these offices—are we wasting money, wasting resources, wasting time? And furthermore, are we actually hurting people by teaching them to be harmed?
So on that final question, I want to turn to Musa al-Gharbi, a sociologist at Columbia. He reviewed the microaggression literature and he said, “there simply is no empirical evidence to suggest that microaggressions hurt anyone.” Even if we agree, as you and I do Kimi, that there are microaggressions—we’ve both experienced them—he says there’s no evidence that those cause you anything more than annoyance. Like, in the moment, you know?
He says there is no evidence they hurt you but we do need to be careful with social-science constructs like microaggressions, because of
“the long and ignoble history of harm caused by hastily applied (and often later discredited) social and psychological research—with the costs borne primarily by women, people of color, the poor and other vulnerable populations. [G]uarding against iatrogenesis and adverse second order effects is important, including for minorities—perhaps especially for minorities.”
Iatrogenesis is from Greek. “Iatro-” means physician, and “-genesis” means origin. It’s the idea that the healer causes the harm. Because these Bias Response Teams are intended to be a kind of therapeutic healing institution, right? The idea is that they help you recover from your microaggression, but by teaching you that you have been deeply harmed, the healer may be actually causing more harm than the initial incident did. So al-Gharbi is saying that in our attempts to help people, we may be actually harming them.
And he goes on:
“...it seems highly plausible that poorly conceived or implemented policies intended to address microaggressions could endanger the free exchange of ideas…”
Well we know that's true. As I pointed out earlier, there have been lawsuits won over that.
“...lead to unjustly severe consequences for minor (even unintentional) infractions…”
Again, that’s built into the BEST model. It may not have involved a BEST, but we saw something like that in the Smith College incident a couple years ago, where some working-class employees, a janitor and a cafeteria worker are the workers I recall, were subjected to a battery of “anti-bias” and “intersectionality” trainings as a result of a simple misunderstanding on the part of a student when they were just doing normal, legitimate functions of their jobs.
“Heighten animus between minority and majority groups…”
This is one that I really worry about, because if you tell all the black students coming onto campus that all their white peers, who are almost inevitably going to be in the majority (unless it's an HBCU)—if you tell them that those white peers are likely to “microaggress” against them, and “harm” them, you're setting these two groups up as opposed camps. It couldn’t be worse for social harmony.
“...or even exacerbate the harm caused by microaggressions (for instance by making already-vulnerable individuals even more sensitive to perceived slights or injustices).”
Now this last bit gets to your point, because you asked if there was any evidence that teaching people about microaggressions or setting up these Bias Response Teams causes harm. We don't have direct evidence of that, but what we do know is that, as al-Gharbi says elsewhere:
“there is abundant research demonstrating that heightened perceptions of racism, discrimination, racialized violence and inequality have highly adverse effects on the psychological (and even physical) well-being of people of color. That is, the more people perceive themselves to be surrounded by others who harbor bias or hostility against them, and the more they view their life prospects as hostage to a system that is fundamentally rigged against them, the more likely they become to experience anxiety, depression, psychogenic and psychosomatic health problems, and to behave in antisocial ways.” (Emphasis in the original)
So, if you are trained to see more bias and racism, and if you therefore come to see more of it, this actually has well-established adverse impacts on the psychological and even physical well-being of people of color.
So, yes, there is a certain amount of racism, racial inequality, and discrimination in the world. But if you make that the diet—if you make that the breakfast, lunch, and dinner—of everyone, it's going to cause harms. It'll be less harmful to people like me: the straight white guy. I will think it sucks, I will be very unhappy about it, I may donate money to BLM, but if I'm black, it's potentially going to have a really negative impact on my psychological health and even my physical health. So, we have to be careful with how we handle these things.
So there you go. It's not direct evidence that teaching people to be offended by microaggressions causes demonstrable harm, but it's a good reason to think that it might.
Kimi: Is there a way to rewire the brain to experience trauma or be trained to experience trauma? The same way you would be traumatized by an accident, or abandonment in childhood. Are you familiar with any psychological studies on that?
Jake: I’m a classicist, not a psychologist or a neurologist, so I'm outside of my lane here. But here's what I do know from reading the literature produced by people whose field it is. There's this thing in recent years called “concept creep.” There's a 2016 article by Nick Haslam, “Concept Creep,” and he talks about trauma and other things. This idea of trauma once upon a time—like more than a hundred years ago—meant physical trauma to your body and organs, and then it was rightly extended to PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, where you have not been physically damaged, but you have received such a psychological blow that you have prolonged, debilitating psychological symptoms. Since then—and that was in 1980 with the publication of the DSM III—trauma has been expanded to include everything. Like, if you went to the grocery store and they didn't have what you were looking for, it was traumatic for you.
I'm going outside my lane here, I'm saying what I think, and it's just an educated guess, but I think if you tell people that more and more things are traumatic, and more and more things are going to disrupt their inner lives in really deep ways, I think people match themselves to what you tell them. We have a massive mental illness epidemic among young people right now. It's not a coincidence, I don't think, that it's happening at the exact same time that we're telling them that everything is a trauma, and everything hurts them, and everything is a harm. Just to give you an example of just how bad it is, the mental health crisis: at my school, from the spring of 2022 last year, to the fall of 2022, hospitalizations for suicidality went up 600 percent, and these hospitalizations were already high. It does not mean we went from zero incidents to six, it means we went from too many to holy shhhh… yeah, this is a lot!
It’s coming at the same time when all the emails from the administration are telling the students that they live in a white supremacist society that's filled with violence against people of color. They will send out emails that start by referencing a recent tragedy—and it'll be something like the Michigan State University shooting, a horrible event—they’ll send out an email saying “it’s totally reasonable for you students to be traumatized, broken, wounded, unable to go on in light of what happened yesterday. We have our Counseling Center open for you…” Or it will be the dance club massacre right here in Los Angeles, where 11 Asian and Asian American people were killed by a 72-year-old Asian man, but before a perpetrator had even been identified let alone caught, the college president sent out an email insinuating that maybe the massacre was the result of anti-Asian bigotry, and in effect wishing the Asian students on campus “good luck not getting murdered by the anti-Asian killer on the loose,” without even promising that he’s working with Campus Safety to keep them safe. So, the upshot is that in the well-intended interest of being supportive, of demonstrating that they are “woke” to the evils of the world, they’re reinforcing, “yeah, you probably should be traumatized, you probably should be deeply wounded.”
If you choose to, you can spend every minute for the rest of your life watching nothing but horror in the news. Look at the recent earthquake in Turkey, right? Over 59,000 people dead. If you chose, you could linger over every single one of those horrible deaths, and you can do that till the day you die, and still not be done with it. The world is what it is, and we've got to somehow get through our lives without being completely ground down and broken by it. I think we're encouraging the opposite right now: we're telling young people that they should be broken and ground down by it.
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Money poisoned DEI
Kimi: I’m not a fan of conspiracy theories, to be honest. Conspiracy theories make you look for evil that doesn’t exist, where there is a lot of evil that is already present. So you tend to excuse what is before you to look for things that are unseen. But, it really does make me wonder…
If you are truly a racist—say you are secretly a member of the KKK, to put it a little too strong. You’ve seen change happen in America, you've seen opportunities spread to everyone. How can you still instill racial ideas and make one group less than the other? I can't help but feel that to some extent, the way some of this training is just pushed and promoted, are there actually truly motivated racists behind this? Obviously that's a bit dramatic—I'm going way too far. But it's like hey, I mean…how do people not see this?
Jake: I totally get where you're coming from. I mean, this is why John McWhorter wrote a book, Woke Racism, because he doesn’t say that he thinks it's white supremacists doing a sneaky conspiracy theory. He says, if you wanted to hurt people of color, this is how you would do it. Personally, I think it’s good intentions gone very wrong.
Kimi: Do you think money has poisoned our racial [reconciliation] intentions?
Jake: Well absolutely. There actually, I don't even think it's good intentions, I think it's the profit motive because these Bias Response Teams are part of a billion dollar industry called DEI: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. I truly believe people go into it with the best of intentions. But if you want to talk about something systemic, what is systemic is the sort of incentives that are built into that DEI industry.
The incentives are never to turn down the heat. The incentives are never to tell people, “you know what, you're good, you've got this, you're cool, everything's going to be okay.” The incentive is to say “you're not good, you're actually in danger, you're being harmed.” The incentive is to say “we live in such a racist society that we need to do all these billion dollar interventions.” Those are the incentives.
I think most individuals in DEI mean the best, but I think that the overall systemic incentive structure of the DEI complex is such as to create problems, rather than solve them. And it's not that there aren’t problems that need to be solved—there are, I've seen them. But overall, I don't think that industry has the right answers. I just don’t.
Kimi: I am so grateful for everything you have shared—thank you so much Jake. Hopefully we can continue talking about this topic down the line if there are any developments. Are there any final thoughts you would like to share?
Jake: We were talking about these BESTs and how they’re getting set up everywhere. They set one up on my campus and they used all the microaggression language, some of it copied and pasted from Derald Wing Sue’s 2007 article, which we discussed earlier. They said that “significant harms” can be done unintentionally when people say things that make you feel slighted: “Bias incidents may or may not be intended to cause harm.” They did the whole thing, they set it up, but now here's a success story—I want to leave you with a good story, a success story.
They set it up, and some of us faculty were able to coordinate and say, “Listen, we should try to shut this thing down, or at least minimize the harm it can do,” and what we succeeded in doing, by banding together, was that we got faculty exempted from it. Originally, they had it so that a student could go to a class, hear something from the professor that he or she didn't like, and then go report the professor. Now why is this a problem? Let me just go on a slight tangent—here’s why this is a problem.
People's lives are being ruined by these kinds of accusations from students. There was a professor at my school, who had just finished graduate school. This was her first job. She had just spent 6 years not working, not making money, not paying into a 401k, not paying into Social Security, working on her PhD. She gets her very first job, and in her first class, she's reading from a graphic novel. The graphic novel intentionally has a character with a name that sounds like a racial slur. It’s on purpose. It’s to point something out about racial stereotypes. It’s an antiracist book! The point of giving this person this name that sounds like a racial slur is to make a political point.
She merely reads that name—Chin-Kee—and you have to hear it to understand what the pun is, right? She reads the name. The students hear it. They call her a white supremacist, they march out of her classroom. For the rest of the semester they refuse to do any work for her. They then destroy her in her teaching evaluations.
That was the end of her career. Because to go on to her next job (it was just a one year job at my college), she has to show positive teaching evaluations. Her current evaluation says she's a white supremacist. That's the end—that's it!
Six years of her life, these students destroyed it in one semester. So, that's one reason why it matters in a general way whether we encourage this hyper-sensitivity to so-called “bias” on campuses.
Anyway, we got the professors exempted from BEST, but not the students. We did it not by talking about DEI ideology. We merely talked about the potential impact BEST could have on the careers of professors like the one I just mentioned. Different professors may feel different things about DEI and microaggressions. I'm sure tons of my colleagues totally believe in microaggressions. But every one of my colleagues believes that their career could be impacted if there's a report in there, a personnel file at HR that states they “microaggressed” a student, right? Everyone!
That’s how we got everyone on board—we got the professors removed from it. And then we observed the operations of BEST and we determined to our satisfaction that the team, the way they're doing it, when students report each other for bias incidents, they’re actually de-escalating the situations. Our BEST is actually a really good team of people; this is what I mean when I say I think the people who go into this have good intentions. It’s unfortunate that they have to affirm all the quasi-scientific DEI ideology about microaggressions, and “significant harm” and tell students that even unintentional slights may reflect “bias,” but at least they are not running the BEST in a punitive way. They're actually doing the right thing, as far as I can tell. (That’s the luck of the draw in our case, a result of the sensible people involved, of course.) So, that's a relative success story.
We also asked to exempt staff because I think it’d be horrible for a gardener who happens to be a Mexican immigrant—because to be fair, if you come to our campus, the people doing the work on the grounds are predominantly Mexican-American or Mexican—what if he, unaware of the “politically correct” things to say, commits a microaggression within hearing of a student? And then gets called into this quasi-disciplinary office? He's a minimum-wage worker. Are you going to harass him with “anti-bias” training, like at Smith College, over the complaint of a relatively privileged student who learned about “bias” and correct language in college classes that the guy maintaining the grounds will never get a chance to enroll in?
So, that’s the success story—that we limited the scope of this organization. An ideal, fully beneficial BEST (which we still don’t entirely have even at my institution) would:
Not use language associated with contested quasi-scientific constructs such as “microaggressions” and not use the catastrophizing “concept creep” language of “harm”;
Exempt faculty and staff;
Have as its first priority the de-escalation of episodes of social friction and conflict and work to channel student energies away from “canceling” each other or destroying professors’ careers, as happened at my school.
People can reach out to me if they want to talk about how to do this on their campus. They can email me.
I wanted to end on that happy story of how we at least partially resolved the threat. We can win this if we just stick together and be sensible.
Kimi: Absolutely! That’s really positive and I’m glad you were able to achieve that. And I’m sure more things in the right direction will happen on your campus. There are a lot of great students, I must say. I'm hopeful for the future. I know it seems pretty dark the way this thing is spreading. It seems like it’s on a lot of campuses right now. I'm hopeful that as we have more of these conversations, spark more bravery, brainstorm ideas to counteract the negative effects of these things, we will begin to shift the tide in a different direction. Hopefully a really good direction.
Jake: I agree with you. I think if you spend too much time on Twitter and you hear people complaining about wokeness, you would think it was the end of the world. I really don't think it is. And we can come up with strategic ways to push back. Never lose sight of the fact that there really is racism in the world, and injustices, and we need to not throw out the baby with the bathwater. We need to stay sensitive to that stuff because it’s real. We need to work with the BESTs that will inevitably crop up to ensure that they do only good or at least no harm. Because we just can’t allow them to commit iatrogenic harm, right? We can’t let the healer harm the person they’re supposed to be healing.
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.