Trigger Warnings and Microaggressions

There has recently been a flurry of controversy over "trigger warnings"--the practice of marking that a text has misogynistic, racist, or otherwise violent content, which has moved from activist blogs into college syllabi.  (For examples, see recent articles in the NYTimes, The New Republic, or The Nation).  The intention of trigger warnings is to keep people from being surprised by violent material and to give them a greater sense of control over the experience of consuming culture.  Critics of the practice argue that it misunderstands how trauma works and that it might undermine educational goals.  As Jessica Valenti points out in the Nation, triggers are highly specific and it is impossible predict what might trigger another person's trauma memory.  Another common concern is that that students could use trigger warnings to avoid uncomfortable material, avoiding the part of college that challenges them to think in new ways (the educational part).

Although provocative and challenging in other ways, the "trigger wars" that I've encountered are missing a nuanced consideration of the different forms of violence that haunt our classrooms and impact our wellbeing.   The question of whether or not trigger warnings are a useful pedagogical tool has fallen to the background.  So to, has the question of what other tools might help navigate the felt experience of learning for students with differential experiences of and social vulnerabilities to violence.  These are the questions I'd like to explore.  In doing so, I'm trying to respond to Andrea Smith's call for the discussion to move "beyond the pros and cons of trigger warnings" into considerations of how to make spaces for collective healing. 

Violence hums in the background of every classroom experience. Students and teachers are often survivors of major trauma, experiences of terror that may or may not lead to PTSD symptoms.  Members of marginalized or oppressed groups also endure more subtle forms of violence that wound through their cumulative impact.  All learning environments exist in the context of both macroaggressive and microaggressive violence.  Although it is crucial to consider trauma, a discussion of trigger warnings that only considers experiences of explicit attack or extreme danger misses much of the bigger picture.  In order to evaluate how to address violence in the classroom, we need to talk about both big, intense moments of violence and smaller, everyday acts of violence.  We need to talk about both trauma and microaggressions. 

The term "racial microaggression" was coined by Chester Pierce to name common and often-unintentional slights directed at people of color (Pierce, Carew, Pierce-Gonzalez, & Wilis, 1978).  The category has since been expanded to look at microaggressions against other marginalized groups--a sexist image that depicts women as animals, the experience of being followed in a store, or being mistaken for the only other person of your race at your job.  They are experiences that, when isolated, are more likely to be described as annoying than traumatic.  But over time they take a toll.  (If you'd like to look at more examples, or share your own, check out this tumblr).   

Dr. Derald Wing Sue summarizes recent research:

microaggressions are constant and continuing experiences of marginalized groups in our society; they assail the self-esteem of recipients, produce anger and frustration, deplete psychic energy, lower feelings of subjective well-being and worthiness, produce physical health problems, shorten life expectancy, and deny minority populations equal access and opportunity in education, employment, and health care (Sue 2010, 6).   

Despite their demonstrated negative impact on people's health and well-being, microaggressions can feel difficult to fight.  They are ubiquitous, but on their own, each instance might be dismissed as "no big deal" or "not intentional."  It's impossible to avoid them, and it's exhausting to call them out on your own.  If you've experienced microaggressions, you might know that it can make big difference to have someone with you who is also noticing the offense, also angered or annoyed.  A recognition of humanity can offset some of these small devaluations of our humanity. 

When I see trigger warnings, they are often being used to identify microaggressive content.  For example, someone might say, "Trigger Warning--racist language" or "Trigger Warning--slut shaming".  Rather than helping people to avoid content that triggers a traumatic flashback, the function of these warnings seems to be solidarity.  It's a way of saying, "I see that microaggression too, and I don't agree."  Hopefully, the sense of shared critique defuses some of the microaggression's corrosive impact on the reader's well-being.  Microaggressions are damaging in part because they happen all of the time, without ever being called out or named.  Trigger warnings shift this power dynamic and say, "that's not okay", even as we continue to engage with the content.  

Trigger warnings are one way of acknowledging the pervasiveness of violence in our lives, and to incorporate recognition of the powerful emotional toll of oppression into educational practice.  As a response to trauma, trigger warnings on syllabi probably won't be very effective, because they can never anticipate all of the different things that might trigger traumatic flashbacks.  But as a critical intervention into a microaggressive environment, they may be a useful tool.  

Although I can see their usefulness, I do have a serious concern about trigger warnings.  I fear that using trigger warnings might promote a misunderstanding of the psychic life of oppression.  When people think in terms of PTSD, they focus on oppression as manifested in actions like "hate crimes"--assaults and attacks in which there are clear perpetrators.  The ill effects of experiencing microaggressive environments don't typically manifest as PTSD.  Rather, they show up as anxiety, stress, depression, or relationship issues.  Because there is no one discrete event, the link to oppression can feel harder to make.  People are more likely to see their suffering as de-linked from their social environment, a private issue.  Using the language of trauma to talk about all forms of social violence makes the impact of more subtle structural and interpersonal violence harder to talk about.    

Out of this felt need for a more expansive language, I have been thinking about using "microaggression alerts" in my classes.  It is impossible to label them all, and I will likely commit a few unintentional microaggressions of my own over the course of the semester.  But the point here is not to cleanse the classroom of harm--the point is to communicate to students, in every way possible, that they have entered a space in which racism, sexism, and homophobia will be interrogated. 

As an early college student coming from a school in which textbooks spoke in the unquestionable voice of Knowledge, I initially thought that professors were unequivocally endorsing texts by assigning them.  Marking some of the books' weaknesses--sexist language or the exclusion of non-Eurocentric perspectives--would have quickly communicated to me that the perspectives being presented were not the only way of seeing things.  Rather than protecting students from harm, the practice is one of many that can encourage them to think critically about the texts. It is this critical thinking, participation in an imaginary community that speaks back to our texts, that offers a level of emotional protection.  Helping students to avoid getting "stuck" on some of the more obvious failures, content warnings can promote access to the other parts of the text.  Having a content warning makes reading a problematic text a little bit less alienating.  It also avoids other options that strike me as more akin to censorship--editing the author's original words to make them less offensive, or leaving a worthwhile text off the syllabus entirely. 

In marking the possibility of feeling emotionally impacted by a text, content warnings and microaggression alerts emphasize the transformative power of education.  A book can change us, can touch us deeply, and can wound.  This isn't something that should be chased out of the classroom--it's this emotional presence and connection that makes classrooms feel alive.  Some degree of emotional vulnerability isn't simply acceptable in a classroom--it's necessary.  Our felt experiences are the only locations we have from which to speak our histories and make sense of the world.   

**Edited to change an example of trigger warnings naming microaggressions from "rape joke" to "slut shaming." I made this change after a productive exchange with a friend about the ways that rape jokes can both trigger traumatic flashbacks and be microaggressions in the context of rape culture. All microaggressions might also be trauma triggers, especially since explicit attacks are often paired with other less explicit forms of violence.  But there are some things, like jokes that make fun of or make light of violence, that  that are much more likely to trigger specific and painful memories of attackers and bystanders who did the same thing.**