Vito Perrone is out of a job. The incoming Massachusetts school superintendent was ready to start as head of Easthampton Schools when scandal struck. No, it was not embezzlement or some stalking charge as principal of Easthampton High School where he previously served with distinction for eight years. Perrone made the unpardonable error of sending an email to Chairperson Cynthia Kwiecinski and Suzanne Colby, executive assistant to the committee, that referred to them as “ladies.” What is most interesting about the outrage of Kwiecinski and Colby at being sent such a greeting is that it is considered a “microaggression,” but in this case had a decidedly macro impact.
Perrone was offered the position as the head of Easthampton Schools on March 23. He was willing to take the job despite it being $14,000 less than his existing job. However, Perrone wrote to Kwiecinski and Colby to seek more sick days and possibly a bump in living adjustment costs or compensation. He began the note with the greeting of “Ladies,” which Kwiecinski and Colby reportedly found deeply offensive.
Perrone recounted how Kwiecinski told him that using “ladies” as a greeting is hostile and derogatory and constitutes a microaggression. She reportedly added that “the fact that he didn’t know that as an educator was a problem.” He was then informed that the job offer had been withdrawn following a vote.
Perrone was devastated and said that “This job was not about the money for me. I honestly felt like I was coming home to Easthampton. I coached football here. I was principal here when we built the school. I have such wonderful memories … I was excited to come back.”
What is most striking is the macro impact of the microaggression in this case. We have previously discussed the growing list of microaggressive language deemed inappropriate at colleges and universities. From a free speech perspective, the concern is that this category of prescribed language is often ill-defined and subjective, including seating decisions or eye-contact. Mount Holyoke College’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion added new terms to the list with a guide on social media listing “fatphobic language” that will now be deemed microaggressive.
It is now common for universities to list offensive terms to be avoided by faculty and students, as we have previously discussed at schools like Michigan, James Madison, and Berkeley. Brandeis issued a list of “oppressive” words that include such expressions as “killing two birds with one stone” and “beating a dead horse.” However, the school did not issue a trigger warning because “trigger warning” is now on the list as . . . well . . . triggering.
Recently, the University of North Texas lost a critical motion in a free speech case brought by Mathematics Professor Nathaniel Hiers after his contract was not renewed due to his criticism of the school’s microaggression policies.
I have had debates over my opposition to how microaggression policies have been used to limit free speech and target dissenting voices on campuses. Advocates for these policies often struggle to clearly define them. They were originally deemed as a category of speech that fell below outright discriminatory or hateful language. However, the language was still considered “harmful” or not helpful. In the past, I was told that microaggression policies are not free speech concerns because they are not treated as seriously as outright discriminatory language.
It is now apparently enough to lose a job in a single greeting. I have no problem with Kwiecinski and Colby objecting that they do not want to be called “ladies.” However, there are generations (including my own) where this greeting was accepted as a standard expression of respect. There is no evidence that Perrone meant to insult or belittle these two women. Indeed, he was actively negotiating with them on employment compensation.
If microaggressions are going macro, the distinction between the categories of discriminatory language and microaggressive language is largely illusory for teachers and students. That would mean that a much wider array of speech could be subject to sanctions.