It’s Not a Race to the Bottom

BY NATHAN BODENSTADT
First Year Experience Advisor
For the UAS Whalesong

In the Jan.  25 issue of the Whalesong, Student Activities Coordinator Tara Olson, wrote about microaggressions and how we can do something about everyday discrimination. It goes without saying that we are living in a particularly turbulent time – regardless of who you might believe is propagating it. The debates about what is “equitable” will continue for the foreseeable future, and it is easy to become exhausted, disenfranchised, or “checked out.”

So how do we address burnout and keep the conversation going? How do we raise the bar for discourse to avoid shouting matches? The UAS Power and Privilege Symposium is an important answer to those questions.

But a one-day event each year does not solve the entire problem.

Lets break down how we discuss Power and Privilege, and investigate how we can infuse compassion (from all sides) into the conversation. Microaggressions are a great example.

I recently saw an article posted by The Atlantic that reviewed a 2014 scholarly paper on microaggressions and how we respond to them. I encourage you to look up the full text (titled Microagression and Moral Cultures, buy Campbell and Manning) if you’re interested! In this paper, the victim of a microaggression shares their experience in a public forum and lashes out against the individual who offended them. That individual, then on the defensive, lashes out in return. This action is attributed to victimhood culture, with the goal being to exercise social control. Victimhood culture is when we address conflict by placing ourselves in the position of a victim with the intent to paint the other party as an aggressor. It is important to note that someone can be a victim of something and not be propagating victimhood culture.

The profanity-laden tirade does not educate either side, and reads as though the two are jockeying for position. This redirects the conversation from one of equity to one of stratification. It places the recipient of a microaggression into a subservient role to separate oneself from the aggressor, who is portrayed in a privileged role.

This is problematic because it takes us away from educating and causes conflict. While it is important to learn about how different groups are treated historically and to understand how microaggressions occur today, it is also important to remember that we are all learning and growing. We all come from diverse backgrounds and experiences – regardless of what you see standing in front of you. Some might argue that we are in a “race to the bottom” – to identify who is the most oppressed, the least privileged, etc. A select few in the world engage in this behavior. Yet most humans are compassionate and caring individuals who are being dragged into the quagmire of this phenomenon.

So how do we avoid racing each other to the bottom? How to we avoid victimhood culture? We return to dignity culture. In dignity culture, the offended individual might connect with authorities for egregious offenses (i.e. discriminatory behavior), pull aside an individual 1:1 for a respectful conversation for minor offenses (i.e. microaggressions), and even avoid conflict for situations where they realize that the individual made a mistake but did not intend harm. In dignity culture, we share an experience with third parties for educational purposes, but not for combative ones. Sharing this way protects the victim and offender from further conflict. The behavior, not the person, is what is relevant.

I encourage you, the next time you have a conversation about power and privilege, to engage in dignity culture instead of victimhood culture. Change happens often at an individual level. Recognize that you will both learn far more by having a respectful conversation than by “racing each other to the bottom.” We all have past experiences, identities, and more that people do not know about. Keep that in mind and your conversations will be more productive and educational.

If you are interested in helping us promote dignity culture, let us know! The UAS Faculty Senate has recently approved a date for the Second Annual Power and Privilege Symposium: Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017. We need students interested in presenting or helping us plan! Contact Tara Olson at tmolson4@alaska.edu for more information.

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