Colleges feel the pressure to ensure their new students are being politically correct

By Margeaux Reed

Photo from Flickr user Jirka Matousek
Photo from Flickr user Jirka Matousek

Political correctness: Our parents hate us for it, politicians criticize us for it, the media ostracizes us for it. However, it seems that the Lewis & Clark College community at large prides itself on its commitment to so-called “political correctness.”

Political correctness, or the attention paid to the use of careful language as not to accidentally oppress, trigger or offend anyone, has become a hot-button issue for this election cycle and its real-time implications are manifested on college campuses across the nation. It is safe to say that ours is also invested in this debate.

As evidenced by a recent New York Times article, “Campuses Cautiously Train Freshman Against Subtle Insults,” there has been recent movement from administrations to focus new student orientation programs on issues like microaggressions. Microaggressions are defined as verbal and nonverbal communication that display prejudice based on stereotypes, and are typically accidental or unconscious. Specifically asking an Asian American friend for help on your homework or being surprised at a female scientist’s accomplishments both constitute microaggressions. Though it might have seemed harmless to say, these instances reveal how pervasive racial- and gender-based stereotypes are in our language and in our interactions with people who don’t look like us. Administrations have recently incorporated cultural sensitivity trainings into their new student orientations to give communities a basic understanding and common language surrounding microaggressions for the benefit of everyone.

The fact that LC’s campus is largely comprised of students who would identify as progressive, liberal, or, at the very least, socially conscious allows me to assume that a majority of our students respect the idea of being “politically correct”; that is to say, we have a desire to unlearn the internalized biases we hold in order to make our school as inclusive as possible. But this recent shift in thought begs the question of whether or not it is LC’s administration’s job to communicate its value of careful language and cultural sensitivity to its incoming students, and if it is, whether or not the systems they have in place now are enough.

Let’s start with the second question. As someone actively involved in PSI, student unions, and interactions with administrative office, I would say that LC provides several institutions to communicate its position on issues like microaggressions. In the sexual health and consent PSI session alone, we not only teach LC’s official policy on consent, but we also maintain discussion about healthy relationships, bystander intervention, and the grayness that surrounds issues of consent and the consumption of drugs and alcohol. All of these exist to set expectations and standards the school has to its incoming classes to be responsible and respectful students and community members. 

All this, however, presumes that it’s is the school’s duty in the first place. While I’d like the think that the community I surround myself with day-in and day-out completely understands the breadth of the social phenomenon known as microaggressions, I know that this is not the case. My first two semesters on campus have revealed that many of my peers have never even heard of microaggressions.

The fact of the matter is that although our community puts great emphasis on social justice, we do not readily enough provide resources to the members of our community on issues like microaggressions. As much as I believe that is important for LC to hold true to how it advertises itself, namely as a social justice-oriented institution, it is not solely the administration’s responsibility to prepare its students for these conversations or educate them fully on these issues. Instead, I would argue that it is the responsibility of the student body at large to engage in active and conscious socialization of our incoming classes. Incoming first-years will not understand the language we use to understand issues like microaggressions unless we teach it to them. It should be the job of continuing students, student unions and student-run institutions to provide the language and concepts to incoming students that prepare them for civil discourse surrounding issues of gender, race, sexuality, ability, class, etc. We as students, and as individuals, must take it upon ourselves to communicate our values to our peers and it hold everyone accountable for the way they contribute to our community.     


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