The article linked above, sent to me by Hannah, “unmasks” what a racial microaggression might look like. However, “microaggressions,” can, and do, cause meta-violence based on a number of other social differences, such as gender, sexuality, ethnicity, socio-economic status, ability status, etc. Wikipedia defines microaggressions as such:
“Microaggression is the idea that specific interactions between those of different races, cultures, or genders can be interpreted as small acts of mostly non-physical aggression; the term was coined by Chester M. Pierce in 1970. Micro-inequities and microaffirmations were additionally named by Mary Rowe of MIT in 1973, in her work she also describes micro-aggressions inclusive of sex and gender. Sue et al. (2007) describe microaggressions as, “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.”
Microagression usually involves demeaning implications and other subtle insults against minorities, and may be perpetrated against those due to gender, sexual orientation, and ability status. According to Pierce, “the chief vehicle for proracist behaviors are microaggressions. These are subtle, stunning, often automatic, and nonverbal exchanges which are ‘put-downs’ of blacks by offenders”. Microaggressions may also play a role in unfairness in the legal system as they can influence the decisions of juries.”
More examples of common microaggressions from Fordham University students (via Heben Nigatu, firstname.lastname@example.org).
As I understand it, two of the most important features of microaggressions, that obscure and perpetuate their occurence, are the following:
1) Subtlety: Microaggressions can be explicit, but more often consist of what I might call violence-under-the-radar, for example, a white person’s cozy social use of the n-word, or the iconic Mean Girls aphorism, “Boo, you whore.” The slippery quality of the offense makes microaggressions particularly painful and paralyzing for those on the receiving end of them, because one finds it difficult to articulate precisely what was offensive or why an ostensibly friendly statement was hurtful (and indeed intolerable).
(N.B. Melissa correctly notes that use of the n-word by any non-black person is less of a micro-aggression, than it is a macro-assault, because it demonstrates a blatant disregard for the personhood, histories, and well-being of black people.)
The compounding problem that then arises is that due to the subtlety of the violation, the onus for explaining, policing, preventing and protecting against future violations falls upon the violated, rather than upon the violator or on society as a whole. In my opinion, this paradigm is unethical and unacceptable. To use the illustrative analogy of two more explicit examples, a) Victims of rape should not have “dressed differently.” Rapists, rather, should NOT RAPE. b) Trayvon Martin should not have “not worn a hoodie at night.” Rather George Zimmerman should NOT HAVE MURDERED. To me, such incidents are morally unambiguous. Period. Likewise, it is our responsibility to understand and “unmask” microaggression in our society, so that the concept becomes more widely understood and the burden of defending against it ceases to fall exclusively upon those who are targeted. Men, white people, straight people, rich people, et al: this is where you come in.
2) Intent: The other problem I have encountered in my own life with microaggressions is that people frequently do understand the concept that INTENT DOES NOT EQUAL IMPACT. This means, although you did not “mean the n-word in a racist way” or just because “the rape joke was supposed to be funny,” it literally does not matter. If your speech or body language or actions cause violence or hurt someone else, regardless of your intentions, regardless of you “not being a racist” or “not being sexist” or “having a gay best friend,” you have committed a microaggression, it is your fault, and it is your responsibility to rectify the situation and change your lifestyle such that you cease to violate others’ personhood inadvertently. As Rumi says, “Be melting snow/ wash yourself of yourself.” That is to say, decenter your ego. It is not about you and your intentions or your feeling bad and needing to make sure everyone knows that “I’m really not a racist, I promise!” That would be a textbook case of #missingthepoint.
I post all this because two days ago, a male friend of mine, intending it as a “joke,” made a comment that was exceptionally hurtful, and I had trouble articulating to him the complex web of problems embedded in what he had said. So I thought that I would try to articulate my thoughts in writing, and hopefully in so doing provide some clarity both for myself as well as for others.
I was wearing a pair of black stockings with an intricate mesh design and some partial runs in them: a look which to some evokes a sort of grunge-chic, although in my case, these just happened to be my favorite pair of stockings, ones that I cannot easily replace and so continue to wear despite their imperfections.
Anyways, upon seeing the stockings, the individual, buckling with laughter, remarked, “Wow, did you get raped in those!?!” I almost could not BELIEVE that anyone, much less a friend of mine, could have uttered such a thing, so I assumed my ears were deceiving me. “Excuse me?” He repeated his statement, even louder and accompanied by more laughter than before.
As any man – and certainly any woman – might imagine, this incident was extremely upsetting/disequilibrating/infuriating/insulting/threatening/#thelistgoeson. Yet how to explain to him what had happened? In some instances, admittedly, we gauge that it is not worth our time to go into the intricacies of deconstructing some fool’s bigotry. (As Ciara recently wrote on her blog, “I could pick this person apart so bad but what for?”) And, as I mentioned before, at least in my opinion, it is not our responsibility to do so (for alternate opinion on this question, see the linked article, “A Feminist Kant” from the New York Times Opinionator).
However, many of us have encountered situations where someone dear to us – a partner, friend, family member – has hurt us with their behavior and we felt invested enough in the relationship that we felt obliged to challenge, correct and educate that person in order to keep them in our life without compromising our personal ethics and identity. Hence the need to thoroughly understand what microaggressions are, so that all of us can work towards comporting ourselves in a more respectful way, among loved ones and strangers alike.
The first response of my friend the other day, upon seeing my anger – and I would wager of many “friends,” that is to say non-intentionally-hostile offenders in such instances – was a) to apologize (“I’m sorry”), b) to cite intent rather than impact “that was just a joke,” “I didn’t want to hurt or disrespect you” c) to continue apologizing, specifically for “making you angry” or “spoiling your mood” rather than endeavoring to correct the ignorance that underpinned the initial comment.
My reaction, after the initial shock and disgust, was not to desire an apology (which had already been profusely given, unsolicited, because the individual concerned was a genuinely caring friend). Rather, my principal wish was for the person to understand why and how exactly what he had said was inexcusable, so that it (and its ilk) would never be repeated. That is part of why I am writing this piece, obviously.
So there’s another takeaway for all of us: if you accidentally take part in a unintentional microaggression and subsequently perceive how hurtful it was, by all means apologize. But also ask politely, after some time and after making clear that you respect the person’s right to not have to carry the cross of deconstructing your own prejudice for you, whether they would like to talk about what was said/done and whether they can explain to you how/what it made them feel. If they are generous enough to talk to you about it, listen and absorb. And for heaven’s sake, also educate yourself on your own! The internet has ALL THE INFORMATION YOU SEEK. Not offending someone in the future, ultimately, should not depend on a friend’s willingness to take time and energy out of their day and instruct you out of your ignorance. White people: your friends of color have enough nonsense on their plates to deal with (interpersonal, internalized, institutional AND structural racism definitely pack a punch, no?) without having to explain your white privilege to you. (Extrapolate that example to help conceptualize the experience of others belonging to oppressed social groups.)
The next sentiment I felt in the wake of the incident I have described was indignation at the prospect that my friend thought I was angry only (or more so than I would have been otherwise) because he suspected that I was myself a victim of sexual assault, and thus directly targeted by his comment and unable to “see the humor” in it. Certainly, a microaggressive action or speech act that implicates one’s personal experience can be especially painful. HOWEVER: I would argue that whether one is offended by a rape joke actually has very little to do with whether they have themselves been raped, whether one has a mental disability** to bristle at the use of the word “retarded,” whether someone is black or “has black friends” to refuse to tolerate the use of the n-word by white people. In my opinion, the logic of attributing offense-status to identity-status misses the point. I prefer to subscribe to the Archbishop Desmond Tutu school of social relations, one axiom of which is
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
I understand this to mean that if I am in a position of power or privilege, and free of oppression in some way, I am morally obligated to actively resist the oppression of others around me who lack the power that I enjoy. As Toni Morrison succinctly puts it,
“I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.”
This practice is conventionally known as “being an ally.” Despite legitimate criticisms of its androcentric, Eurocentric, and heteronormative assumptions, John Donne’s celebrated 17th-century poem “No man is an island” evinces the same core philosophy:
“No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.”
In Sheryl Sandberg’s best-seller “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead,” she describes a sort of stiff-upper-lip approach to women struggling to manage sexism and rape culture in the workplace. This is all fine and good, and certainly has been a successful strategy for the author so far. Similarly, the article I linked at the beginning of this piece quotes Dr. Kenneth Thomas’ opinion on microaggressions. He suggests that focusing on them risks
“Enforc[ing] a victim mentality by creating problems where none exist…”The theory, in general, characterizes people of color as weak and vulnerable, and reinforces a culture of victimization instead of a culture of opportunity,” he says.
Kenneth Sole, PhD, whose consulting firm Sole & Associates Inc., trains employees on team communication, agrees with Sue that microaggressions are pervasive and potentially damaging. Indeed, clients talk about them all of the time, he says. But instead of encouraging their anger, he works with them on ways to frame the incidents so they feel empowered rather than victimized, he notes.
“My own view is that we don’t serve ourselves well in the hundreds of ambiguous situations we experience by latching onto the definition of the experience that gives us the greatest pain”—particularly in one-time encounters where one can’t take more systemic action, he says.
For instance, if a white person makes a potentially offensive remark to a person of color, the person could choose either to get angry and see the person as a bigot or to perceive the person as ignorant and move on, he says.”
While the parallel arguments made by Sandberg, Thomas and Sole have some validity, psychologist Derald Wing Sue, PhD
“believes it’s important to keep shining a light on the harm these encounters can inflict, no matter how the person of color decides to handle a given encounter.
“My hope is to make the invisible visible,” he says. “Microaggressions hold their power because they are invisible, and therefore they don’t allow us to see that our actions and attitudes may be discriminatory.””
Ultimately it is the prerogative of the individual targeted by a microaggression to choose their personal response; yet it is the obligation of the rest of us not to tolerate the direct or indirect dehumanization of another person, whatever our capacity for or medium of resistance may be.
Let me draw another instructive example of such responsibility from my alma mater, Dartmouth College, where a controversy has simmered for decades regarding the prevalence of the college’s former mascot, the Dartmouth Indian. (In the interest of full disclosure: during my first two years of college, I held politically conservative opinions and served as an editor of the Dartmouth Review, the principle institution on campus that persists in using and distributing the Native mascot.) The arguments often made in support of the Native mascot follow the same pattern as that of the microaggressions described above (focusing on intent/self-interest of the oppressor rather than impact/the personhood of the oppressed). Here are a few justifications that I have heard/received personally:
1) “The image is a transitory element of comedic entertainment,” and thus “too much outrage in its direction can denude one of the humanity of simple humor and thereby defeat any effort toward diminishing truly offensive images.”
2) Much more offensive are the images of depravity and hyper-sexuality commonly trafficked in the popular culture of America’s film and music industries.
3) “The concept of the image was to be an example of an enthusiastic fan, complete with the silliness that that entails…entertainers of all ethnicities, whether people or images, are allowed and encouraged to be funny, odd, over-wrought, doltish and different. The idea that a mascot would be an enthusiastic and goofy fan of a sports team (you know, might put on face paint and wear silly shirts and hats the way fans do!) would seem to indicate that the purpose of the image was not to demean, but rather to exemplify an excited, engaged fan of the team.”
4) “The Dartmouth Indian is a native American that is an attractive, dignified man of courage and formidable presence, who presents, at face value, fewer concerns (if any) with offensiveness than [the Cleveland Indians’] Chief Wahoo. There is no question that the Dartmouth Indian is no fool or lackey or self-abasing servant, and he is not to be trifled with.” Ergo he cannot be offensive.
5) The Dartmouth Indian represents an integral part of the college’s historical legacy and identity which will be lost if the mascot itself ceases to be used.
One obvious, and relevant problem with these arguments is that they acknowledge and validate only the feelings/ethics/intentions/worldviews of those who created and disseminate(d) the Native mascot, a group overwhelmingly composed of rich, white men. They deliberately ignore the protestations of many First Nation members who have repeatedly campaigned for the removal of the mascot, which they esteem to be highly offensive. Opportunities for allyship on Dartmouth’s campus regarding this issue vary, from actively choosing to not wear the Native mascot t-shirt, to not associating with people who do, to not attending fraternity parties where brothers wear mascot shirts, to actively protesting the Dartmouth Review, to joining NAD (Native Americans at Dartmouth) or an explicit opposition group such as Savage Media.
Ultimately, we must all make such decisions about those with whom we associate, and where our personal limits lie as far as tolerating microaggressors (and I would wager that all of us have at some point fallen into this category). None of us can eradicate every petty violence, and in the interest of self-preservation we are often forced to pick our battles. We must learn how to be friends with people who disagree with us, but also how to set our own boundaries when compromising our beliefs in the interest of friendship. For instance, some of my Ghanaian friends resolutely believe that homosexuality is an abomination. They have explained to me that they were raised in a society where heterosexuality is the highly preferred, and understand that opinion to be heavily informed by their Christian faith. I was likewise raised as a Christian, but was culturally educated to believe that, to the contrary, homophobia and the intolerance of sexual fluidity were ‘abominations.’
Similarly, I have a friend here in Oman who recently told me, describing a good friend of his: “He’s ridiculously racist against Indian and Pakistani people, but overall he’s an incredible guy.” Sometimes it helps, in such relationships, to simply avoid the subjects on which you know you disagree. But in certain cases, we feel that that is not enough, depending on, I think, the emotional depth of our aversion to the micro-bigotry in question. We must keep in mind that our ability to tolerate and live with various microaggressions may depend largely on our privilege – which biases are largely abstractions to us, and which hit unbearably close to home. I try my best to err heavily on the side of the latter assessment, à la Tutu and Morrison and Donne.
Therefore, I suppose, we conclude that vigilant opposition to quotidian microaggressions is no easy task; the battlefield is unstable, the motivations for resistance misunderstood, the confrontations unpleasant. But I submit that in whatever way, to whatever degree, we choose to stand up, we cannot afford to let such violences go unchallenged.
**This line initially read “one who has a loved one with a disability,” which eleanor-lynne correctly points out is itself a microaggression, because it denies those with disabilities the right/ability to be offended by/for themselves and thus characterizes them through ableist language as implicit non-agents.
Also important/related reads: What is “RAPE CULTURE”?