I attended Commencement to support the seniors in my life who’ve taught me to be critical of the world and try to change it for the better. However, hearing Michael Bloomberg talk about microaggressions, trigger warnings and safe spaces reminded me of the confidence with which many rich, white men speak on experiences they’ve had the privilege to never go through. In a single speech in front of thousands, Bloomberg demonstrated an incredible lack of understanding of the experiences of those with underprivileged identities — experiences that many of his policies as mayor of New York City help create.
“The fact that some university boards and administrations now bow to pressure groups and shield students from these ideas through ‘safe spaces,’ ‘code words’ and ‘trigger warnings’ is, in my view, a terrible mistake,” Bloomberg stated after reiterating the importance of college to introduce students to “challenging and uncomfortable” ideas.
In regards to what Bloomberg called “one of the most dangerous places on a college campus” — the safe space — I’d like to ask Michael Bloomberg if he has ever attended one. Bloomberg claimed these spaces were unsafe because they create “a false impression that we can insulate ourselves from those who hold different views.” As an Arab-American on this campus, I’ve been to several and can attest to the difficult conversations that occur with individuals from all backgrounds. The term ‘safe’ includes psychological and physical safety, which is necessary for the kinds of conversations Bloomberg claims to value. How can such conversations take place in spaces where marginalized groups do not feel accepted and remain silent from fear?
Bloomberg mentioned trigger warnings as a conversation hurdle. Trigger warnings, preferably called “content warnings,” are part of a courteous society that acknowledges the pain found in others’ experiences. If I want to have discussions on sensitive topics that might cause another person significant pain, I’d inform them so they can prepare themselves in order to take care of their well-being. If that means they choose to leave a conversation or activity, so be it. I may not share those experiences and cannot rightfully police how they respond.
“A microaggression is exactly that: micro,” Bloomberg said, minimizing microaggressions’ impact. I have never been New York City’s mayor and will not comment on what it’s like to have chosen to increase police forces and surveillance of Muslim communities, implement policies like “stop-and-frisk” or to hold a legacy policing people of color, and likewise, Bloomberg should have recognized he was out of line to comment on experiences he has never had when he’s responsible for policies contributing to them.
Growing up, I dealt with microaggressions insinuating I wasn’t fully American and requiring I consistently explain I do not support terrorism. Dealing with microaggressions from a young age has made questioning everything about how I present myself to the world second nature — if I do or say this, am I hurting or helping those who share my identity? Microaggressions are not micro for those forced to deal with them. To Bloomberg, we can’t and shouldn’t try to prevent microaggressions “in politics or in the workplace.” Why should we not expect that we treat our fellow humans with respect? Bloomberg seems to care only for the privileged groups’ comfort at the marginalized groups’ expense.
While I was left with a bitter taste on my tongue, Bloomberg did have some positive messages in his speech — urging students to get involved in politics by voting and demanding more from their leaders. Many commend Bloomberg for his speech’s content because he was “brave” and not afraid to challenge “political correctness.” At a time when the University of Michigan has actively promoted their Diversity, Equity & Inclusion campaign, Bloomberg’s speech stood out like a sore thumb on an important day for many. Individuals can have conversations on issues like police brutality and gender inequality without being hateful. It is important to recognize some of these issues are “topics of conversation” to you, but “topics of one’s own life” to another.
“Oh, but that’s not how the real world is?” True — many would never claim such a thing. The world isn’t a utopia with no “-isms.” Many do not want to take responsibility of their privileges and dismantle the institutions and systems granting them. Individuals who’ve always been marginalized are still bogged down with forms of injustice morphing throughout history. We will use the spaces where future generations are educated to create a culture of mutual respect, awareness and acknowledgement of how our differences impact our lived experience. While Bloomberg feels change in the way we treat others is impossible, I know it isn’t.
Nadia Karizat can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.