The “Microaggression” Concept

It’s useful and describes a real phenomenon. Those who mock it should try listening more and talking less…

For critics of Campus Social Justice Identity Politics, no concept better exemplifies what’s wrong with young activist-types than “microaggression.” Just about every time you see a rant about hypersensitive “snowflakes,” you will see some derisive remark about how on today’s college campuses, “microaggression” analysis is used to treat perfectly ordinary behavior as egregious bigotry. Here, for example, are Lenore Skenazy and Jonathan Haidt in Reason on “the fragile generation“:

[On campus today, it] no longer matters what a person intended to say, or how a reasonable listener would interpret a statement—what matters is whether any individual feels offended by it. If so, the speaker has committed a “microaggression,” and the offended party’s purely subjective reaction is a sufficient basis for emailing a dean or filing a complaint with the university’s “bias response team.” The net effect is that both professors and students today report that they are walking on eggshells. This interferes with the process of free inquiry and open debate—the active ingredients in a college education.

Here is Heather Mac Donald in City Journal calling “microaggressions” a “farce” and a “fiction” that have prevented young people from learning to grow up and deal with the real world:

The adult indulgence of this fiction is far from innocuous. Any student who believes that the university is an “unsafe,” racially hostile environment is unlikely to take full advantage of its resources and will likely bear a permanent racial chip on his shoulder. Becoming an adult means learning the difference between a real problem and a trivial one.

Steven Pinker, in his new book Enlightenment Now, cites university guidelines about microaggressions in his effort to prove that thanks to “social justice warriors,” a “hard left” “faction of academic culture has become aggressively illiberal” so that now “anyone who disagrees with the assumption that racism is the cause of all problems is called a racist.”

Some have suggested that campus discussion of microaggressions is not just overzealousness about racial offense, but represents a fundamental transformation of American moral culture. Jonathan Haidt quotes from a paper by two sociologists arguing that the microaggression concept signifies the rise of “a new culture of victimhood in which people are encouraged to respond to even the slightest unintentional offense.” The Atlantic‘s Conor Friedersdorf cites an instance in which a Hispanic student at Oberlin got upset when a white student encouraged her to play “futbol” instead of going to a Latino Heritage Month talk, writing that:

Unbeknownst to the white student, the Hispanic student was offended by the email. And her response signals the rise of a new moral culture America. [sic] 

A whole new moral culture! One we can discern from a single email by a college student in Ohio. This whole microaggression business sounds deeply troubling.

Let’s try, first of all, to figure out what this slightly awkward neologism actually refers to. According to Haidt and Greg Lukianoff:

Microaggressions are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless. For example, by some campus guidelines, it is a microaggression to ask an Asian American or Latino American “Where were you born?,” because this implies that he or she is not a real American. 

What critics of Politically Correct Identity Social Justice Activist What-Have-You are upset about, then, is that a new concept has been devised to refer to small (“micro”) race and gender-related slights. These critics lament the fact that these imagined slights are blown out of all proportion, treated as a kind of violence, with the term wielded as a weapon in order to deride innocent and well-meaning people as racists and sexists. This excessive offense-taking creates a culture in which everyone is a victim simply waiting for some trivial act that they can denounce as an affront to their identity, and it turns everyone into immature cry-babies who think everything is racist.

What’s strange to me, although not exactly surprising, is that not a single one of these critics seem to have bothered to try to understand the arguments of the people they are critiquing. Pinker’s book, for example, is a manifesto in favor of “reason” and the scientific method, and yet he gives an entirely un-reasonable and unfair caricature of anti-racist activists. Instead of adopting the fair-minded and evidence-based approach of the scientist, he uses the idealogue’s tactics of mockery (“social justice warriors”) and the erection of straw men. (For example, by positing the existence of people who think refusing to acknowledge that “racism is the source of all problems” makes you a racist, even though I’ve never met a single person who would affirm the proposition “racism is the source of all problems.”) Haidt has devoted himself to trying to understand the psychological roots of political ideology, and yet he doesn’t seem interested in listening to the perspectives of the people whose motivations he wants to diagnose.

In fact, if you actually listen to the explanations of people worried about “microaggressions,” rather than citing ludicrous caricatures or some hyperbolic email from a 19-year-old, you’ll find a very serious and important idea. Ironically, those who profess themselves to believe in “reasoned argument” are making every effort to avoid having a reasoned argument about microaggressions: they will find some list of supposed microaggressions that included a statement like “America is a melting pot” and use this to conclude that student activists have lost their minds. But they won’t look at the other items on those lists, or address the most serious claims by those who have suggested microaggressions are an actual problem.

The idea behind “microaggresions” is actually reasonably clear and not at all paranoid. It is this: because nearly everyone has internalized a variety of racial and gender stereotypes, even in an age where explicit racism and sexism are frowned upon, women and people of color face dozens of small daily slights based on their gender or race. Derald Wing Sue, in his book on the subject, has explained what this means. It’s not abstract, and it’s not mushily subjective. Among the first examples he gives are: a woman being uncomfortable that a male employer seems to refer to male employees as “Mr. X” and female employees by diminutives of their first name (i.e. “Kathy” instead of Kathleen), and a professor patronizingly praising a black student for how articulate he is. I say these are not subjective because they are measurable: if a professor praises black students for being able to string a sentence together, but doesn’t do the same for white students, it is not “imaginary” to think that race is operative here. If a boss treats female employees differently than male employees, even in a small way, that’s not some made-up illusion. It can be difficult to identify when these little race and gender based differentiations are occurring, because they are subtle, but they are no less real for being small.

One of the central points made by those who developed the concept is that many remarks and actions, seemingly innocent in themselves, have hidden premises. Asian Americans, born in the United States, who are praised for their good English or asked where they are from, have claimed that these can be considered microaggressions. The well-meaning white people responsible might be shocked that they have been “accused of racism,” but it’s obvious why praise for “good English” is necessarily racial: nobody would have made the remark were it not for the recipient’s race. (I’ve never been praised for my good English, for obvious reasons.) Some other examples of behaviors cited as “microaggressions”:

  • “A female physician wearing a stethoscope is mistaken as a nurse.” 
  • “A White man or woman clutches their purse or checks their wallet as a Black or Latino man approaches or passes them. (Hidden message: You and your group are criminals.)”
  • “An African American friend once asked an academic advisor for information about majoring in biology and, without being asked about her academic record (which was excellent), was casually directed to ‘look up less-challenging courses in African American Studies instead.'”

We can see here that these aren’t complaints about nothing. Being a female doctor and having everyone call you “nurse” would be exasperating: you’ve worked your ass off for years in medical school only to remain the prisoner of gender stereotypes. Being a black man, and watching purses being clutched (or people pressing the “close” button on elevators as you approach) is a depressing reminder that whatever you do, you are still your race. And the history of black students being patronized and pressured into abandoning their ambitions is a long and depressing one (I just watched Gordon Parks’ The Learning Tree, which contains a typical example: a teacher who thinks she is helping tells her black student that, realistically speaking, a college education won’t be in his best interest as he’ll end up a porter either way. She sincerely doesn’t believe she’s being cruel or racist, and can’t understand why all her black students hate her!)

I know these exist because I’ve done them, and anyone who is being honest with themselves instead of defensively insisting that they’re “the least racist person you’ll ever meet” should admit the same. I once assumed that an Asian man that I had met was a physics major, and was surprised when I found out he wasn’t. (He actually majored in Asian American studies.) For a while, I thought to myself “Well, I must have had some reason for thinking he was a physics major. Perhaps someone told me that, or we talked about science at some point.” Eventually, I realized that I had never had any reason to think it. It was just the operation of a subconscious racial stereotype. I wasn’t at all happy about that conclusion; nobody likes to accept that their brain is racist. But it was true.

People like Haidt and Pinker are refusing to acknowledge something that is not just real, but is an incredibly common part of people’s experiences: in their interactions with white people, people of color are constantly being reminded in tiny ways of their racial difference. But what’s worse is that it’s so often denied that these reminders are about race. The reason the word “gaslighting” has attained such currency recently is that it describes one of the most important and frustrating aspects of discrimination: not only are there constant tiny prejudiced slights, but these are followed up with a furious denial that the slights were in any way based on prejudice, in a way calculated to make the offended party feel as if they must be crazy. We know that people with “black-sounding” names get far fewer follow-ups on job applications than people with “white-sounding” names, yet few employers would ever admit that they are discriminating. Instead, they will do what Pinker does, and create some totally unfair caricature of the position of people concerned about racial injustice, saying they clearly must think racism is the source of all the world’s problems.

Of course, it’s perfectly possible that these people are unaware of what they are doing; I doubt the employer notices that he is calling women by their first names and men by their last. (I once realized well into a group conversation that I was making far more eye contact with the men than with the women.) But that’s exactly why those who have put forth the microaggression concept are asking us to pay attention to the subconscious ways in which race and gender based premises affect what we say and do. Social justice commentators have been clear that what makes them angry is not the act itself, but the defensive refusal to listen and the instant insistence that because no offense was intended, no prejudice could have been involved. Former Oberlin student Simba Runyowa, in discussing his experiences of microaggressions, says it’s not that they made him furious or that he thought the people doing them were bad people, it’s just that those people didn’t realize their own biases:

I wasn’t particularly offended… I found it amusing at best and tone deaf at worst….I, too, have sometimes made what turned out to be deeply offensive remarks unintentionally. So I am in no rush to conclude that any of these people harbor ill intent. In fact, they’re probably well-meaning and good-hearted people.

Of course, this might suggest that the concept’s name is not entirely helpful, because “aggression” implies intention, and thus leads people to believe that if they did not feel consciously aggressive, they must be being accused of something they didn’t do. And it’s true that because it is impossible to figure out what subconsciously motivates people, the concept can end up leading one to suspect that a vast number of things are subconsciously racist. At its worst, this leads to a worldview that sees possible hidden racism behind everything, which, regardless of its truth, makes life very difficult to live. (There have been strong critiques of the concept that I think have some merit, but importantly they suggest we should find a more precise way of talking about subtle slights rather than laughing at people who bring up their existence.) There’s a sense in which, even if it’s true that many acts are microaggressions, in that people would act or speak differently if you were of another race, it might be healthier to pretend that’s not the case. Imagine that when you arrived at a party, someone at the door said to you: one out of every ten statements made to you at this party will be because of your race (or “one out of every ten people here is secretly a racist who despises you.”) That information might actually make your experience far worse even if it’s true. I can see why microaggression analysis has led to certain reactions that seem “excessive”: once you realize that these things exist, you may start seeing them everywhere.

Yet I think in many cases they are everywhere, or at least they are quite common. Women and people of color are constantly being treated differently in subtle ways by those who insist they don’t see race or gender and treat everyone equally. And while you may ultimately conclude that there are bigger injustices in the world, or that the word “microaggression” imperfectly captures the phenomena it seeks to describe, or that it’s difficult to actually test, I don’t see any grounds for being as derisive as critics like Haidt and Mac Donald, who seem to enjoy explaining why the concept is nonsense without having carefully listened to the people espousing it. You might believe, and I do, that the excessive policing of language inhibits our ability to be honest with one another and creates a feeling of “walking on eggshells” that is corrosive of warm and healthy social relations. You might also believe, as I also do, that we should be careful about unfalsifiable and subjective concepts that become all-encompassing. But I don’t see any grounds for snorting with derision at the microaggression concept itself, which seems like a highly imperfect but useful attempt to capture a very real series of slights that people experience every day. And instead of spending their time diagnosing the ills of “victimhood culture,” perhaps critics could should actually try to understand why people find it aggravating to be regularly subjected to endless small forms of everyday prejudice.

Photo: from Kiyun Kim’s 2013 series “Racial Microaggressions.” 

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