Do microagrressions matter? They’re just words.
People who love words sometimes get caught up in their beauty, forgetting that words are often proxies for concrete realities, and that they can even act on their own.
The word “privilege” is highly loaded. Its meaning is distorted when one person uses it to completely shut down someone else’s participation in conversations about contentious topics. Because privilege is multi-dimensional, and being a student at CLS is in itself an example of privilege, our usage of this label as an accusation can be both disingenuous and counter-productive.
I do recognize, however, that this response may stem from the incredible burden that is placed on individuals affected by discrimination when they are expected to explain not only traumatic personal experiences, but also the complex historical narratives and political factors that give them context, to those who have not been marginalized. Those who demand that these vast subjects be explained to them on their terms, when they feel like discussing these issues at their convenience, place an unfair burden on their peers. The only people who can reach the age and educational level of the typical law student while retaining a high level of ignorance about social inequality are those who have not experienced its harms firsthand; those who may be the beneficiaries of that inequality. Realizing that one may be a beneficiary of inequality is jarring, but it pales in comparison to experiencing the brunt of inequality. Expecting the world to cater to your ignorance, exhorting your peers to refrain from discussing these ugly realities in the presence of your delicate ears, is an obvious act of privilege.
If someone truly wants to understand why the conversation on microaggressions is happening, they have to take personal responsibility for learning about that conversation and its origins, rather than assuming that those who have been immersed in it should start over from step one every time they deign to participate. Jumping into dense theory on one’s own is more daunting than reading about current affairs and popular culture through a particular critical lens; there is a colossal variety of accessible online resources addressing contemporary discourses on race, gender, sexuality and class, including blogs such as Racialicious and Feministing.
In addition to personal education, institutional measures are also needed to produce a constructive environment for addressing cultural tensions at CLS. This project requires an overt commitment to core values and practical mechanisms for enacting them, as well as meaningful communication between administrators and students. Since the Dean is not just a symbol of the law school, but the major actor who shapes its policies from the top down, she plays a powerful role in promoting these efforts.
Incoming Dean Gillian Lester should actively commit to the goal of building an inclusive culture that represents the expectations of current students; those who do not, for example, find it charmingly nostalgic when a professor says, “well, I can use the word ‘Negroes’ because this case is from the 1950s.”
Structuring our core values into daily life at CLS can be accomplished through two other ways as well: the formation of a student focus group (including non-Senate members) that meets regularly with the new Dean, and reforming the Legal Methods curriculum.
Legal Methods is the first law school class students experience, and as it currently stands, it evidences no doctrinal cohesion nor overarching pedagogical purpose beyond affording students time to practice briefing cases before their fall semester classes start. Professors could accomplish much more without increasing the 1L workload, by borrowing from courses such as Critical Legal Thought, which covers various legal theory movements and analyses of the law school as an institutional actor. If students are exposed to key concepts of critical race theory and intersectionality upon entering law school, they would perhaps be less likely to misconstrue the significance of microaggressions.
Microaggressions are not just a social problem wholly separable from the education we receive at CLS. They are current examples of how the power dynamics wrought by the law change over time. An eagerness to dismiss the impact of these issues might appear to demonstrate the self-regarding gravity to which law students are told to aspire, distinguishing “real” harms from mere perceived slights, but re-enacts the historical refusal of complacent institutions to recognize ideas that are threatening in their unfamiliarity.
Legal education must adapt to the exigencies of each generation in order to retain its dynamism and avoid ossification, a task that requires a basic reconceptualization of the obligations of legal educators to future lawyers and non-lawyers alike.