I have been a long critic of the erosion of free speech on college campuses and the use of the ill-defined concept of “micro aggressions” to sanction students and faculty alike. Now there is a national campaign by the National Association for Bilingual Education and the Santa Clara County Office of Education that indicates that a teacher who mispronounces a student’s name is causing an offense to the student’s identity. negative emotional state that can lead to poor academic success.
The campaign, titled “My Name, My Identity” says on its website, “Did you know that mispronouncing a student’s name negates the identity of the student? This can lead to anxiety and resentment which, in turn, can hinder academic progress.” The author of an influential report on the issue, Rita Kohli, an assistant professor of education at the University of California at Riverside, maintains that such mistakes can be deemed a “microaggression.” That is chilling for some of us who are notoriously bad at pronouncing names.
Kohli coauthored a report with Daniel Solorzano entitled “Teachers, Please Learn Our Names!: Racial Microagressions and the K-12 Classrooms. The report stressed “[w]hen the child enters school and teachers – consciously or not – mispronounce, disregard or change the name, they are in a sense disregarding the family and culture of the students as well.”
I can see how mispronouncing names can be stressful but it is part of life for many people. One has to have some understanding that most people do not mean anything hostile or intentional in such mistakes. Yet, Kohli insists that teachers who mispronounce a student’s name because they are incapable “to center cultures outside of their own.”
This point was driven home by education blogger Jennifer Gonzalez:
Name mispronunciation – especially the kind committed by the arrogant manglers—actually falls into a larger category of behaviors called microaggressions, defined by researchers at Columbia University’s Teachers College as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color” (Sue et al., 2007).
In other words, mutilating someone’s name is a tiny act of bigotry. Whether you intend to or not, what you’re communicating is this: Your name is different. Foreign. Weird. It’s not worth my time to get it right. Although most of your students may not know the word microaggression, they’re probably familiar with that vague feeling of marginalization, the message that everyone else is “normal,” and they are not.
She stresses that you should not take it personally to be called a microaggressor or bigot:
“And before you get all defensive about the bigotry thing, let’s be clear: Discovering that something you do might be construed as bigotry doesn’t mean anyone is calling you a bigot. It’s just an opportunity to grow.”
The campaign seeks to have teachers sign a pledge to “show respect to others’ names and identities in schools by pronouncing students’ names correctly” and “share my name story on social media” as well as other pledges. I have never met an educator who did not want to pronounce the names of students correctly, so I hardly think that the pledge to do so is problematic . . . or necessary. What concerns me is the ongoing effort to create a new basis for sanctions or compelled “cultural appreciation” or “cultural sensitivity courses” for “microaggressions.”
A category for ““brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color” is chilling. An unintentional “negative” comment is a standard conveys that it turns on how it is received rather than intended. We have seen where an ever-widening range of speech on campuses — particularly conservative speech — is deemed as offensive or harmful to some listeners. Recently we saw professors and students actually support a professor who criminally assaulted pro-life advocates with some calling such advocates “terrorists” for their views.
We have seen students rise in protest over what they believe is “cultural appropriation” in schools offering yoga or students wearing dreadlocks or serving Mexican food. Recently students at Oberlin even fought to stop the school from offering students sushi as “cultural appropriation.” We are losing the important lesson that in a pluralistic society you need to be prepared to hear opposing views and overcome slights that come your way. Ideally you develop an appreciation that some insults are not intended and to develop a thicker skin in dealing with people from different cultures or perspectives. Instead, we seem to be plunging our educational institutions into the dangerous waters of speech regulation and sanctions.
Putting aside the immediate debate over mispronounced names, we have never had a real debate over the meaning or necessity of microaggression codes in this country. However, advocates of the expanding range of speech regulation are succeeding in establishing these ambiguous standards on our campuses despite the threat to free speech and academic freedom.