The agony of microaggression and discrimination knocked me out

A student’s mysterious accusation of racism saw P. K. Newby removed from her course – and another woman lost from the leaky pipeline

March 7, 2019
Illustration of woman with barbed wire speech bubble
Source: John Holcroft

Many students have reported finding my classes on food and nutrition “life-changing”. They leave them motivated to create meals that are both healthier and more sustainable. In my favourite compliment ever, I was called a “rock star”. Such humbling responses have provided a deep sense of professional and personal gratification.

But I have also been subject to the usual sexist comments on my clothing and questions about my qualifications that many female professors receive – especially those in science. Most of these I learn about from student evaluations or anonymous surveys that continue to be used to rank professors and courses despite mountains of evidence showing that bias invariably results in women and people of colour receiving lower ratings.

Moreover, such surveys are just one of the ways that today’s student-consumers are encouraged to complain about professors. In one particularly heartbreaking case, I learned that I had been reported to my university’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion for racism.

This was a first in my 20-plus years of teaching. I was flabbergasted, yet eager to understand what had happened, seek forgiveness and move on, wiser for wear. However, despite my repeated requests, the details were never revealed.

After countless hours racking my brain, I concluded that it must have been a microaggression, possibly when I mentioned that some students “looked Chinese”. Many students in my classes hail from China, and my aim had been to draw them into the conversation and avoid the common dominance of US classrooms by one or two students, often (white) Americans. But perhaps “looked” was the wrong word choice, my (Indian American) husband offered.

Maybe my fault had been something different.

But without any discussion, I was ousted from a course that I had developed and honed for more than a decade – and that had won copious praise and a teaching award. It was given instead to a male colleague who lacks both my scholarship and experience in the subject. In an unplanned experiment, he was also criticised for a teaching point we had each independently made in separate lectures regarding food technology: a native Alaskan student erroneously claimed that canning had been used in the state long before it was used in Europe.

This complex vortex of race/ethnicity and gender issues provoked a deep crisis of faith about my teaching abilities and the academy as a whole. I was left to contemplate the crucial question alone: Am I a racist?

I concluded that the only honest answer is yes. I am white. I am also human, ergo flawed. Microaggressions – defined by Columbia University psychology professor Derald Wing Sue as “brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities and denigrating messages sent to people of colour by well-intentioned white people” – are abundant on the internet, in universities and elsewhere.

Yet what if the perception of a microaggression is rooted in its own microaggression? After all, students have their own stereotypes about professors. And humans often place their previous experiences into the present through what the father of analytical psychiatry, Carl Jung, called transference. Social psychology can also be revealing, as can emotional reasoning, in which feelings rather than facts guide interpretations.

While emotions are authentic, they are subjective, so may not reflect objective reality (to the extent that it exists). In their 2015 Atlantic article “The Coddling of the American Mind”, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff argue that “the increased focus on microaggression coupled with the endorsement of emotional reasoning is a formula for a constant state of outrage, even toward well-intentioned speakers trying to engage in genuine discussion”.

Is it victim-blaming to consider the possibility that a student’s race/ethnicity impacts their view of facts, allowing them to misperceive an invitation to inclusion as a racist comment rooted in exclusion? Or that a student might be clouded by their own narrative, and hence unwilling to “learn, unlearn and relearn”? And might the genders of both professor and student play a role in how comments are received?

Still, any perceived microaggression must be examined, beginning with a professor’s words and context, particularly where power dynamics are involved. Any professor worth their salt must therefore seriously consider student comments: many have instructive kernels of truth. But inferring a professor’s worth based on the perceptions of a minuscule minority over two decades is not reasonable. Anecdotes are insufficient data upon which to draw a meaningful conclusion. Establishing whether they are representative would require years of data, with an adequate sample size and variability and a diverse set of valid tools, the most valuable of which would be direct observation of teaching: virtually unheard of in university settings.

Losing my class has left me with deep scars, and that’s the way it should be. It is the ongoing questioning of our actions that is the foundation of a woke society. I will continue to reflect earnestly on my character, ever attentive to how I impact people in the classroom and elsewhere, including unintentionally, in an ongoing journey to become the best person I can be. And so should we all – especially those whose practices and policies are rooted in white hegemony.

But I nonetheless mourn that another female scientist has been lost from the leaky pipeline, denying my students the benefit of a strong teacher, mentor, role model and advocate, in a world where more are sorely needed. And I’m certain that giving my life’s work to a white male was not the right choice.

P. K. Newby is a scientist and author of Food and Nutrition: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2018). She is also an adjunct associate professor of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health.


Print headline: A deep crisis of faith

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Reader's comments (16)

This article has been written based on the assumption that the reason the author was reported for racism to the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, is that she, and I quote “must have [used] a microaggression, possibly when [she] mentioned that some students “looked Chinese”. There are so many things wrong with this piece, beginning with the amount of assumptions this author makes. While I can understand the distress of being ousted from a course one conceived and has delivered for 20 plus years, the ease with which the author relies on assumed conclusions is troubling. No less troubling is the lack of self-awareness she exhibits. The author concludes —somewhat defensively, I might add — that she must be racist because “[she is] white.” Without further reflection on such a bombshell statement, she then surmises that the assumed micro-aggression for which she is being punished is the result of a micro-aggression on the part of the student complainant. !!!!!! Instead of honestly interrogating whether her statement about Chinese students or her general behaviour was in fact racist, this academic proceeds to gaslight ALL students. Furthermore, she suggests reverse racism on the part of the complainant while assuming that gender inequality within the academe is a more pressing issue than institutional racism. In doing so, she illustrates, albeit unwittingly, what structural bias in action looks like. Her terrible analysis and her (typical) defence reek of white fragility. She assumes that racism is an individual character flaw instead of being a structural issue rooted in centuries of inequality. This assumption opens the space for guilt and anger that the individual could possibly be accused of being the dreaded ‘R’ word. This academic, in assuming this stance, makes structural racism about her guilt, about her anger at the consequences, before transferring the blame to her students, this absolving her of any and all responsibility. It is shameful behaviour. It is actions such as these which hold up the structures around racism and keep us as a society from moving forward. I expect better from the THE. I suggest that the author of this dreadful piece purchases and reads New York Times bestseller ‘White Fragility: Why it’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism’ by the brilliant Robin DiAnglelo.
I don't think this is a particularly helpful contribution to the discussion and the book recommendation is a terrible choice. Possibly this commenter needs to re-examine their own issues with race if they can respond with outrage instead of constructive criticism to this article. I think your feedback would then be a very valuable contribution to the discussion. What strikes me about this article is the complete failure of Harvard to inform and engage with PK about the racism charge against her and the irony and insensitivity of replacing her with a less-qualified white man. It is no wonder that she is left with dangerous assumptions to try and examine how she could be called 'racist'. If we are going to change our institutions to better value and support different ethnic groups, hanging thoughtful people who are willing to engage and change will only slow and stunt the potential for progress.
This is an expected take on my piece, and I don't get into lengthy discussions via social media for obvious reasons. I have read and considered all of your points, and I thank you for taking the time to write them; though I considered all of them myself, and more, prior to your making them here. I gently offer that you might also consider the extensive literature on student evaluations of teaching and their inherent bias (toward women and people of color alike); the research is mountainous. And no one piece can discuss everything due to issues of space and length; my original piece was double the length. Finally, this was not a piece about structural racism, which is indeed profound yet far beyond the scope of the current story.
If this is 'woke' thinking, I'm rejecting it! Perpectuating sterotypes only leads to continued bigotry, each individual should stand (or fall) on their own behaviour not that of any gender, ethnicity or other group's perceived behaviour. If I went about making derogatory comments based on ethnicity, I would be racist, but I cannot be racist merely because I have a pink skin. In the case woffled about above (I'm not going to dignify it with a verb like 'described'), there appears to be an appalling lack of process. How can anyone be accused of racism without a shred of evidence being produced, for if it is not produced how can it be challenged or addressed? Sounds more like a case for immediate resignation, constructive dismissal suit to follow, if this is actually what happened.
Thank you for your comment. This piece was double the length in detail in depth before cut for editing, which is common in publishing. The woke thinking ref is also out of context. :)
People should stop talking about microaggressions - its empirical bases and scientific rigor is severely lacking. Stop using pop Psychology concepts to engage in moral self flagellation. Lilienfeld, S. O. (2017). Microaggressions. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12, 138-169. 10.1177/1745691616659391
She should sue Harvard. I have spoken with a professor of color who was targeted for perpetrating sexual harassment for something completely innocent, because the student was racist, and moreover just plain stupid. And yes, I just wrote that deliberately. The administration would not tell him what happened, but fortunately he had a sponsor at the top of the food-chain so he eventually found out. His crime was that he was a "male" and "black" and dared to email the "white female" student in question directly asking her about her lack of progress, in a perfectly professional manner. This at a northern university and not so long ago. The student "was not used to being contacted by black male professors" and thought she had been sexually harassed. I am conscious that this example also includes the race question. But how about the irresponsible student question? How is it possible that a student can ruin someone's career, just because they are too "offended" or careless or young or plain stupid and mean? Such students should be held accountable and go through remedial workshops on how to behave responsibly in a multigender, multicultural society. Unless university administrations are open about their processes and the issues, we will never be able to combat racism or other isms properly. No one will learn, neither the faculty nor the students, of whatever color or background. It will only keep harming everyone and students will not grow up.
Surely she is entitled to know the full extent/details of the accusation against her and the right to appeal the decision taken. A survey is not the best instrument for getting such feedback and in many instances the feedback is anonymous. A dignity and respect policy or procedure should be invoked where, there she is made aware of the complaint against her and there can be an opportunity for mediation if both parties agree to it, and if not an investigation can be held with a documented outcome. Speculating on what she may have said to the student is not helpful to herself.
It's disheartening to see the comments attempting to vilify this professor who clearly cares not only about her work but her students as well. If every professor cared as much about the students and their teaching as this professor seems to, higher education would likely have fewer problems across the board. "While emotions are authentic, they are subjective, so may not reflect objective reality." Therein lies the rub. This is why we wake up from dreams and still feel the fear from the zombie attack, or the anger and hurt from seeing our significant other cheating with another, or the exhilaration of dreaming we have the power to fly whilst wearing a red cape. We know these things are just dreams. We know the zombies aren't real. But our emotions do not know the difference between fantasy and reality. Our emotions are responding to the dream like it actually happened. When we THINK something, we feel it. It is up to us then, as individuals, to recognize that feelings of offense are coming from a constructed thought (processed through our own unique emotional paradigm) we have chosen to absorb as truth. As each of our emotional constructs are different based on our personal experiences and genetic makeup, there is no way to successfully navigate the current microaggression mentality. It has moved far past the psychological assessment and explanation of effect on societal constructs into something far uglier in regard to the pieces of human nature it has hijacked. Anytime we make an assessment of another's internal intentions, we are placing ourselves into an omnimpotent, godlike paradigm where we know what others' feelings and intentions are and respond accordingly. Ergo, shattered ego. Of course we are not gods, and we are not omnipotent. Not to mention crystal balls are extremely difficult to find and maintain these days.) I understand the psychology behind microaggressions, but at what point do we have to take responsibility for how we respond as individuals? No one can MAKE me feel marginalized if I choose not to internalize their marginalization efforts. I make a difference in my world by how I treat others and how I treat myself. I know my truth. People say ignorant things sometimes, and sometimes with intent for malice. That is clearly not the case with this professor. To the author, I encourage you to maintain your genuine spirit and continue to make a difference where you can. Try not to break down every word or statement you have said because it threatens to remove you from the genuine response realm and places you into a construct of ridiculous overthinking that is not compatible with being functional in real life. There will always be people who can't get past their own bias to SEE you. There is nothing you can do about those people, and it's unfortunate that Harvard is unable to make that distinction either. Being consistently who you are and who you have been throughout your career is your best defense against those who choose to internalize microaggressions thus choosing unhappiness and disdain in anything that does not fit within their emotional paradigm. Happiness is an inside job. Always. We choose. Every day. Lastly, I would probably consider legal action were I in your shoes. Not so much for you, because you seem like a selfless sort who would not want to rock the boat in such a manner, but because when one side is very loud, the other side may need to be a little louder to self correct the lack of objective reality -- to protect our future generations from the self-defeating cycle presented in this discussion.
Why is it that in issues of the type central to this piece - eg allegations of racism, sexism, sexual misconduct - the concept of due process is so often deemed irrelevant ? Genuine question.
It is really so sad to see a prof internalising the nonesense of microaggression in one breath to accept willingly a totally unjust situation she's been put in, then in the next breath attacking the man who replaces her because ..... he's a man. Says a lot about how damaging intersectional victimhood politics can be.
Actually, I said he was less qualified, substantially; that is the issue. (But, yes, that he's a man adds to the lack of gender balance and equity in science as well.)
Light the blue touch paper, and stand back !!
Grateful to all who took the time to read and reply to my story. Many, many thanks.
I think it's a shame that a single, untoward remark should cost someone their class. I agree that saying that someone "looks Chinese" is a problem. First of all, you might be wrong; they might be Asian of another ethnicity, or not even Asian at all (which is possible particularly with some native American, Inuit and aboriginal North Americans). But, having said that, I happen to know that many Asians kind of dislike the term "Asian" or "Asian-American" as it is too vague (which I agree with). They would prefer you simply ask them and by doing so, ascertain if they are Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Okinawan, etc. Personally, I don't think it is harmful for a professor, in the course of a friendly conversation, to ask a student if they are Chinese, or Chinese-American. Notice I said "are" and not "look." But we live in defensive, polarizing times, and some might retort, "Why? Do I look Chinese?" This is why conversation about these matters sometimes grinds to a halt. We also live in racist times, though we should acknowledge that every year, things get better. But to live in the milieu of racism does not mean that every single white person is by definition a racist. This dilutes the meaning of the word; there are true racists, by which I mean people who openly and consciously avow the superiority of (usually) white people, and denigrate the race and accomplishments of people from other races (particularly Blacks). While I applaud those striving to lessen racism, we should try to give people the benefit of the doubt if they try to be welcoming and inclusive, even if they at times fail in the attempt. That appears to be the case here. The students were probably pleased that their displeasure resulted in a firing, but there is absolutely no guarantee that the professor who replaced the author would be better with respect to racial issues or in fact regarding the purported content of the class.
It seems to me that the injustice here is that no due process was followed. Everyone can be guilty of micro-aggression and should rightly be pulled up on it. But if we are not given a chance to reflect and reform then where are we as a sector, and even a society? Harvard here are at fault.