Oxford microaggressions: seeing racism everywhere

Oxford University’s equality and diversity unit has issued guidance to staff and students, stating that not looking someone in the eye, or asking where they are ‘really’ from, is a ‘microaggression’ – a form of ‘subtle, everyday racism’ which contributes to students’ ‘mental ill-health’.

Oxford may have its fair share of socially awkward students and dons, who struggle to hold eye contact or get a conversation going, but it’s not overrun with racists. I’m often asked where I’m ‘really’ from, despite being born in the UK, but it’s pretty clear that this comes from a place of curiosity, not racism.

This obsession with microaggressions is deeply patronising, suggesting that students aren’t capable of having conversations with each other without the input of a diversity committee. Thankfully, overt racism is largely a thing of the past in the UK. And on the rare occasion when someone is genuinely racist, we should feel free and able to challenge them. But Oxford’s guidelines on microaggressions actually take a step backwards for anti-racism, encouraging racial thinking and distrust between students.

Worst of all, this new guidance is most demeaning to the ethnic-minority students it claims to be protecting. It’s extraordinarily condescending to suggest that black and ethnic minority or international students are so fragile that they need protection from everyday encounters and awkward academics. Furthermore, the claim that students’ mental-health suffers as a consequence of microaggressions adds a pseudo-scientific gloss to an ugly, racialised paternalism.

Ideas around microaggressions and the policies they inspire are of no benefit to students, whatever their background or identity. All it does is give the university authorities, like Oxford’s diversity unit, a greater remit to police the speech and behaviour of students and academics. While students’ unions are rightly subject to ridicule in the national press for daft bans on innuendos and sombreros, this increased censoriousness of university administrators must be addressed.

If we believe that university is a place of free and open debate, this move to police speech on campus must be opposed. Students, and academics, must kick back against this microaggression obsession, and not let their private social interactions be micromanaged.

Fraser Myers is a producer at WORLDbytes.

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