The question you pose is “how much social awareness is too much?” You argue that the Williams community’s emphasis on microaggressions has led to a “period of hypersensitivity that has hindered much of what [you] thought the Williams intellectual community would become in [your] time here.” This is not a unique sentiment, and I have had many discussions with people who feel frustrated and/or stifled by this “emphasis.”
My response to this sentiment is: what is the alternative? You hate the proverbial microaggression minefield – but isn’t is better to know that you are navigating a minefield than it would be to be ignorantly treading on mines that you do not know exist?
To continue this with this metaphor: your attitude also indicates that you believe that the individuals you are conversing with “planted” the mines, waiting for you to step on them. You could instead acknowledge that we each have our own minefields of sensitivity. Some have fewer mines than others, but each of us undeniably has our own insecurities or topics of conversation that make us uncomfortable.
In regards to stifling conversation: what comments or sentiments are you withholding for fear of someone labeling you as a racist/homophobe/sexist etc.? One of the most difficult parts of expanding our horizons and increasing our social consciousness is confronting our own areas of ignorance. If I were you, and you truly feel stifled, I would find a friend that you can discuss difficult topics with before engaging in public forums. Hopefully, that friend can explain how your comments may be received and provide feedback.
Certain topics are going to affect people in particularly strong ways. And I have been a part of conversations where I started to push back against someone’s beliefs and he felt so passionately about the topic that they appeared to overreact. Instead of immediate emotional reactions, the conversation would have benefited from an explanation as to why my comment enraged him. I did not think I said anything offensive, but I would have liked to understand if I did. That way, I would be at a decreased risk of making the same mistake later.
The only remedy for this type of event is empathy and understanding. There is a reason that people react so strongly to certain comments/topics. By the same token, I would invite those who find themselves constantly feeling offended to consider the other person’s intentions. Intent need not be present for offense to be taken- but instead of shutting down conversation by accusing someone of being close-minded, you could take that opportunity to educate him/her. In a recent article on ESPN.com, Dana O’Neill states that NC State freshman Abdul-Malik Abu, a devout Muslim, responds to discrimination by, “trying to counter even the smallest of snubs with patience, taught early by his parents that overreacting will only exacerbate a problem.” Abu states, “I think if people have questions about my religion, it’s my duty to answer them. At least they have the curiosity.”
This is not to say that discrimination should not be immediately snubbed out. I just think it is important that before responding, a second should be taken to determine intent. A response is warranted regardless of intent – but that second to decide whether someone is behaving out of ignorance or malice could determine whether that person walks away from the conversation thinking that you are hypersensitive or with a newfound understanding. This sounds like a lot of responsibility on the part of those who are the victims of offensive comments. But if we want to build a stronger, more empathetic and conscientious community, we first need a dialogue. Communication begets understanding.