I was sitting in the library of an esteemed Jesuit university mostly minding my own business. Along came a professor and an undergraduate student. They sat down next to me and began to discuss the student’s writing (and to discuss loudly, by library standards).  I overheard, and was enlightened. The discussion went, roughly, like this:

Student: My essay isn’t very good because writing is just not my gift. It’s not my strength. I’m more of a creative person. So I can’t really write. But I like school. I want to get my PhD., probably in literature or something like that.

Professor: Don’t worry about it. I know it’s hard to write. I feel bad about grading students on writing. It’s not fair. They shouldn’t be evaluated on how well they can write. The problem is that our whole education system was shaped by a bunch of old, dead, white guys. And they were obsessed with writing and with beautiful prose. And they judged people based on writing. We need to get away from that. Now education is much more diverse, and we have black people, and we have women. We need to change the standards. Women and minorities shouldn’t be evaluated based on how well they can write or reason analytically. Analytical reasoning is what the old white guys valued, and that’s what they were good at. But it’s unfair to force minorities and women to be measured by that standard. Women and African Americans have different gifts in education. So, I want to apologize to you for the unfairness of our education system. It’s not fair that you get evaluated poorly just because you struggle with writing and with analytical reasoning. The system is just not set up for black women like yourself. Hopefully, we can change the system soon, and make it better reflect the diversity of our students.

Wow. I never knew that being expected to write well and to reason analytically is all just part of the network of structural, white, patriarchal oppression. I was even more surprised, however, that a progressively-minded professor would tell a young student to her face that she couldn’t write or reason analytically because she was a black woman. It shows how naïve I am. Here I was thinking that sexism and racism were bad. I don’t know what to make of it all. I just can’t keep up. Is it progressive to tell black women that their sex and their race prevent them from writing or reasoning as well as the old white guys?

Here is how I would have responded to the student:

Professor (in this case, me): If you want to pursue a PhD. in literature, learning to write well is a must. It’s not optional. But don’t worry. Writing is a skill. It’s something anyone can learn to do well with practice. Read a lot. Read good literature. Practice writing. The more you write, the better you’ll get at it. Also, there are good books that can help you develop the skill. Here’s a copy of The Lively Art of Writing.

I suppose, however, that my response would constitute an act of microaggression. I, a white male, would be forcing the patriarchal, white, male construct of writing onto this victim of intersectional oppression. I would be burdening her with an intellectual weight that she couldn’t carry given her sex and her race. A sobering thought, to be sure.