From the Mailbag: Microaggressed about “Merit” Apartheid

Well, I am back from AERA. Had the great pleasure of hanging out with Kennet Santana, my freshman college roommate at the University of Michigan. He is an ELD teacher in the Bay Area (check out his classroom yearbook here on Youtube), and a hero of a school tragedy they never became one because of his bravery. Speaking of AERA, the last time AERA was in San Francisco, Kennet and I attend a session by Dr. Walter Allen on microaggressions. What is a microagression? Wikipedia:

Microaggression is the idea that specific interactions between those of different races, cultures, or genders can be interpreted as mostly non-physical aggression coined by Chester M. Pierce in 1970. Micro-inequities and micro-affirmations were additionally named by Dr. Mary Rowe of MIT in 1973, in her work she also describes micro-aggressions inclusive of sex and gender. Sue et al. (2007) describe microaggressions 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.”

Microagression usually involves demeaning implications and other subtle insults against minorities, and may be perpetrated against those due to gendersexual orientation, and ability status. According to Pierce, “the chief vehicle for proracist behaviors are microaggressions. These are subtle, stunning, often automatic, and nonverbal exchanges which are ‘put-downs’ of blacks by offenders.”

A few readers have emailed and asked the origin of the quote in the Cloaking Inequity masthead. It currently says “Home of an accused ‘intellectually unrigorous pseudo-scholar.'” I was recently contact by Scott Ullman, reader on the formerly Stanford School of Education LinkedIn page. Here is what he said to me:

Scott Ullman • @Julian, when you use extreme language like “Apartheid” to describe a complex situation like this, you just discredit yourself and make yourself look like an intellectually unrigorous pseudo-scholar. You are right, though: this is a civil rights issue. But, the *real* solutions are school choice to break the union monopoly on K-12 education, changes in our culture that promote the development of cultural capital, and changes in our immigration policy that favor immigrants with higher cultural capital.

You’re already the #1 hit on Google for “intellectually unrigorous pseudo-scholar”. Congratulations, I think…

On that subject, you seem to have ignored the words “look like”, which refers to perception. Ask some of your more senior colleagues what they think of someone using inflammatory language like “Apartheid”, and about the general snide and disrespectful tone of your website. Even better, go ask someone who lived through the *actual* Apartheid in South Africa what they think.

Also, find some of your emeritus colleagues who spent decades doing academically serious work in dignified obscurity, and ask them what they think of a junior faculty member showing a picture of himself with a microphone being held to his face by a news reporter. You seem obsessed with being perceived as “important” and “influential.”

I was left to ponder the venom that Scott used in his posting about the post “Merit” Apartheid: Forces Determined to Segregate Higher Education?, Cloaking Inequity, and myself. I kept coming back to microaggressions. More from Wikipedia:

The concept of racial microaggressions is one of the relative new contributions of Social Psychology to the understanding of factors that influence intergroup relations. Commonplace, public experiences or situations such as being stopped for a check-up at an airport, being ignored by a waiter/waitress at a restaurant or being assigned to a particular task by an employer, might seem irrelevant or innocuous situations under most circumstances. However, when such situations are interpreted as being linked to racial differences, they become distinct, and take on a different connotation. As a result, people subjected to them (racial minorities) may experience emotional pain or other negative feelings.

Supporters of the theory argue that racial microaggressions are reported to be common, including among people who think of themselves as being fair and nonracist.

According to P.C. Davis (1989), microaggression is enabled because “cognitive habit, history, and culture [has left it] unable to hear the range of relevant voices and grapple with what reasonably might be said in the voice of discrimination’s victims.”

There are of course more mild microaggressions than those levied by Scott Ullman. There are also those that young faculty of color experience often. Most people don’t know this but I am regularly mistaken as a graduate student, sometimes even a undergrad at professional conferences. I never take this personally, I get it. People rarely experience people that look like me as a tenured professor (not “junior faculty”). I had an extensive dinner discussion at AERA with several faculty of color and they also regularly experience the same type of mild microagressions even within the academy. I usually divert the conversation by saying that I am flattered that someone thinks I am a decade or two younger (and less experienced) than I am.

Back to Scott Ullman. At the core of my being, I do what I do everyday because I hope that the counter-narratives that we discuss here on Cloaking Inequity will impact equity and the educational opportunities of children. Thank you for joining me each week in this endeavor. Also, Scott, thanks for reading.

Edit 5/22/13: Scott, regarding your comment: “changes in our immigration policy that favor immigrants with higher cultural capital.” I think Heritage Foundation might be hiring a policy analyst on immigration.

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  • Let’s give pragmatism the opportunity to be evaluated. Scott Ullman said, “You are right, though: this is a civil rights issue. But, the *real* solutions are school choice to break the union monopoly on K-12 education… “. This was beautifully said — or not. The effort toward school capitalism becomes even more apparent when the vernacular is examined.

    Ullman said, that “the real solution [is] school choice…” — is this like that water fountain thing, you know one water fountain is labeled “white only” and the other water fountain is labeled “colored only” (colored like black, brown, red, green, purple, blue and every other color except “white”). I thought separate wasn’t equal – but, that is choice, the kind of choice that is unitary. The privatized charter schools educate each lotto picked child, and the public schools educate all children.

    Let’s now factor out “union”, because in all Scott’s wisdom I’m sure he knows that not all states have unions (e.g., Texas), but they do all have children, so let’s substitute public school in it’s place. Yes, public schools do have a “monopoly” on education; they are required to educate all children, not a lotto selected few. But, why use the term “monopoly” (i.e., the exclusive possession or control of the supply in a commodity or service)?

    The use of this term concerns those with whom “diminishing return” is commonly used. If the cream-of-the-crop is selected and drilled in a prison environment to know what is already known then expert consumers can be created. This narrow view of achievement should not be confused with creative thought at the highest-levels of thinking—that is, levels of thinking that regard numbers representing test scores as nothing more than meaningless lines on paper. It is the children that develop this level of reasoning who become the true solution and serve as the model of improved education.


  • Monty J. Thornburg, PhD

    Dear Dr. Vasquez Heilig:

    You are a tenured, Associate Professor, at the University of Texas, a Level I, Research University like: Stanford, Harvard, UC, etc., and like the land grant universities Ohio State, etc., and (WSU) Washington State University, where I attended the Summer Doctoral Fellowship for the Professorate in 2000.

    While not a professor, but rather a school teacher educational leader in the trenches like your friend and former roommate from the University of Michigan, I have witnessed the effects of “micro-aggression” in the daily lives of the young. I appreciate your ability to graciously thank Scott Ullman for participating with your Blog site. It’s an endeavor that I see as your community service, with the “hope (that) the counter-narratives will impact equity and educational opportunities for children” as you have said.

    Prior to more recent civil rights efforts and during the Jim Crow period in the Deep South, the use of the “N” word was commonly used both by whites in various derivations, and by oppressed students “of color” themselves among themselves. Another word that is equally as strong, as a form of “micro-aggression” is “BOY” and is still used against men of color in some places regardless of age or accomplishment.

    My gut reaction when reading this Blog was that Scott Ullman was effectively calling you “BOY” and then trying to justify it, with rationalizations giving his interpretation of your correct role, while at the same time, ignoring your real accomplishment. To be overly generous I’ll assume that his “micro-aggression” is based on his own lack of understanding, his ignorance about the professorship at the associate level.

    At the Summer Doctoral Fellowship, WSU in 2000, I had the opportunity to learn what it means to become an Associate Professor. That is, I learned what it takes to work up from an appointment as Assistant Professor. I also learned what it means for woman and persons of color attempting the this as I attended seminars, listened to meaningful lectures and witnessed issues emerge when some of my “Fellows” were “micro-aggressed” in the context of the program.

    Bottom line for those who need to know: The criteria for “tenure” and Associate Professor are as follows: Over a three year period, minimum; (1) demonstrate excellent teaching in the field as Assistant Professor, (2) demonstrate excellent research that is peer reviewed and published, and (3) demonstrate community service through work and expertise that (in this case) “has an impact on equity and creates opportunity.”

    You have done all three and congratulations on earning tenure and an associate professor’s appointment.

    I see your work on this Blog as “community service” number (3) above, and as someone who has worked in the “trenches” for many years, like your friend and I’m sure many, many others I appreciate your “community services” with this Blog.


  • Barbara Hirsch

    Julian, The Dallas Morning News Series on segregated public schools in Texas echoes your words on apartheid.The Racial Divisions Series and the articles in the May 3 and 4th editions as well as the editorial by Commissioner Williams describe the shifts in population and their implications.Thanks for all you do.


  • Reminds me of one experience of mine (I was the observer). Riding down the elevator at a former employer with a colleague (I’ll call him Bob, but he was at the time a 20-something African American) who was celebrating his new job (somewhere else) and the Exec VP (I’ll call him Jim, over-60 white guy)of the company (a large education-focused nonprofit).
    Jim: “So, Bob, what are you leaving us for?”
    Bob: “I’m going to Unnamed State University”
    Jim: “Great! You going to grad school?”
    Bob: “Um, no, I’ll be a tenure-track professor.”

    As my daughter might say, “awkward…”


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