Sensitivity has an image problem

On January 27, Brian Farnan, vice-president internal of the Students’ Society of McGill University, was asked to publically apologize for sending a mass email featuring a GIF of U.S. President Barack Obama kicking in a door on the way out of a press conference. The GIF, which was from the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, was fake, but for one student, it touched a real nerve. The student complained, indicating that the GIF was a microaggression that perpetuated the stereotype of an angry black man. Since the apology was issued, commentators across Canada and the United States have weighed in, and practically all of them strongly criticized the necessity of the apology, decrying the rampant “political correctness” which pervades university campuses.

I’ve thought about microaggressions frequently since I first heard the term last summer while surfing the serious part of Tumblr. More colloquially, microaggressions are subtly racist, yet often unintentionally exhibited, behaviours, and the concept explained a lot of my daily annoyances.

When I worked retail, people would sometimes ask me where I was born or why my name wasn’t more “ethnic-sounding” (I actually had someone ask me if Hugo was in fact my real name). I was asked at least twice if I was related to my Asian co-worker—I wasn’t. People are always shocked that I’m not very good at math.

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t really suffer from acts of racism. I have the strange privilege of being annoyed and embarrassed by accidental acts of racism instead of being hurt or frightened by deliberate acts of racism. When middle-aged white people ask me where I’m from for no apparent reason, I’m usually pissed off, but I’ve never experienced an act of aggressive, overt racism. My parents and their parents can’t say the same. The head tax and other restrictive immigration policies kept my father’s family apart for years,  and my mother was welcomed to Victoria by a woman who told her to go back to where she came from, while I was being pushed in a stroller.

One phrase I hear a lot is that “intent doesn’t matter, but rather the injury caused.” If the GIF hurt someone, the offender is compelled to right the wrong. The idea is to force people to examine how seemingly innocent actions can negatively affect others. However, this statement puts all acts of racism, however serious, on a similar moral plane because the situations are put in, pardon the phrase, black and white terms. The distinction between aggressive, hate-fuelled racism and subtle, internalized biases is eliminated by demanding a similar response. I simply cannot understand how a deliberate act of discrimination, which is meant to instil fear, can in any way be equivalent to an accidental act that may have hurt or insulted. The wrong is not excused, but the response should be proportional to the act.

Farnan’s forced public apology is not only an inappropriate response, but it trivializes a serious issue, and those in power get an excuse to ignore a societal ill that still exists. Each time the term “racism” gets used for a situation like this, its power is diminished. Each time a students’ society bans a magazine, those who are already not inclined to reflect on their own potentially hurtful behaviours get to point and decry the scourge of political correctness culture.

The backlash against Farnan’s apology reflects the general public’s yearning for genuine dialogue. The problem of “political correctness” usually refers to a lack of frank, meaningful engagement in favour of bland, overly sanitized dialogue that tiptoes around difficult issues such as race. Being conscious of racial issues is important, and the stereotype of the angry black man is real, but not every instance of black anger perpetuates that stereotype. Jay Leno’s team made that clip because kicking in a door is contrary to the public image of “no-drama Obama.” He may be a black man, but he is also the president of the United States, and he does not deserve to have his anger (real or otherwise) consistently examined through a racial lens.

I’m not naive enough to advocate for a colour-blind world. That simplistic view erases the struggles of people far worse off than me. But, pointing out racism shouldn’t turn into a circus. Its victims deserve more dignity, and otherwise good people who accidentally commit microaggressions (both you and I) don’t deserve to be publically ridiculed. It helps no one.

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