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Some Thoughts on Microaggressions

You may have noticed the surge in popularity of the term microaggression this year in the public’s lexicon. From Buzzfeed lists of typical microaggressions to entire campaigns launched to fight the expression of these microaggressions and from people asking if microaggressions are even a real thing to questioning the importance of the topic in the first place, it was a very popular point of discussion.

Yesterday my friend sent me this article from The Atlantic titled The Coddling of the American Mind. I was incredibly excited to read about America’s seemingly growing aversion to intelligence, the piss poor education system we find ourselves in, or something of the like.  I found something a little different, but good nonetheless. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s core point is one that I agree with –  college students are getting weak and whiny, causing professors to censor themselves from using certain words or broaching certain topics that might offend or traumatize students. After recently writing on the topic of a professor at my alma mater being demonized for her own words, I wondered where this article might go. Also because of the many cases like the one they cite:

“Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law–or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress.”

For many of my formative years I attended public school in Virginia. I know. And during those years, Virginia was still pushing for science textbooks to highlight that evolution was just a theory. So I totally get this idea that maybe we’re coddling students a little too much and underestimating their ability to think critically and instead opting to allow them to think comfortably.  That’s also the argument this article makes.. And it makes it well. But along the way it threw out this questionable definition:

“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.”

Framing microaggressions in such a cavalier way suggesting it is just a perseverance of a false belief in the face of damning evidence to the contrary. This rhetoric equates an individual perceiving a microaggression to someone being told it’s rainy outside and even when being pushed out into the pouring rain, maintains that the sun is shining. It reduces offended minorities to delusional psychotics.

“The worst thing to call somebody is ‘crazy’. It’s dismissive. ‘I don’t understand this person, so they’re crazy.’ That’s bullshit because people are not crazy. They’re strong people. Maybe the environment is a little sick.”

Dave Chappelle, per usual, is right. When you have scores of people telling you that microaggressions exist and that they hurt and otherwise negatively impact minorities, and you still think they’re imagining it, you just gotta step aside and realize you’re on the wrong side of this discussion.

If one cares to do the painstaking work of googling the four-word sentence “what is a microaggression” the first thing that comes up is the definition by Columbia professor Derald Sue: Microaggressions are “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.”

You can find other definitions but the important part here is that it is a communication of something. I’d describe microaggressions as brief, commonplace, negative communications which reflect an oppressive society. The reason it’s important to frame it in such a way is culpability. Defining microaggressions as random offense taken from an innocent action makes –let’s be honest– white people look incredibly innocent and leaves Black people (or other minorities) looking incredibly stupid. However this proper context and framing removes sole culpability from the white kid asking the Black kid “no but where are you from” and factors in the system that makes the white kid think his americanness is more american than anyone else’s. It redefines him from just an evil racist to still a racist, but one who is the product of a racist society. And it nonetheless admits that the action taken is incredibly offensive.

This example isn’t a unique one. Many people have used this paradigm. The Atlantic also used this example of true Americanness:

“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.”

Microaggression eligibility doesn’t vary from campus to campus and it would be a mistake to relegate them to just a college problem.  It’s important to consider the source of the microaggression and examine who is asking these questions. I doubt a Latino American approached by another Latino American with, “Where were you born?” instantly thinks “Microaggression!” instead of “We might be from the same country.”

But there’s that word again. From. Where are you from?

Here’s what we need to acknowledge when discussing extremely complex constructs such as race, ethnicity, and nationality: language is not one size fits all. That’s not how any of this works. And while it’s cool or whatever that Lucifer’s many advocates will spark discussions on why equality means we must all treat each other the same way, with the same language, they are ultimately spewing distracting nonsense. It’s the same logic they use for opposing Affirmative Action – we need to just treat everyone equally now, as to completely ignore centuries of practices and their repercussions. It’s the same argument they use when discussing the N word – if you can say it, why can’t I; we should all be able to say it. It’s strange when these people feel moved to invoke rhetoric of equality.

Microaggressions, and the students they are targeted at, aren’t the issue. The issue is the microaggressor. Even as we frame these discussions we hardly talk about the actor or executor of these aggressions. No, we must always analyze the minority’s role in disrupting the fragile ecosystem of white superiority.

The article goes so far as to claim the recipients of these microaggressions are operating in some kind of “vindictive protectiveness”. They somehow managed to vilify victimhood and paint the victims as violent aggressors. In his seminal work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire points out the faultiness of this logic:

“With the establishment of a relationship of oppression, violence has already begun. Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed. How could they be the initiators, if they themselves are the result of violence?… There would be no oppressed had there been no prior situation of violence to establish their subjugation.”

The important note here is that individuals on the receiving end of microaggressions are not being “vindictive” in their instant reaction to an offensive statement or action – they are responding to violence. Freire also predicted that the microaggressors would try to flip the script and claim that they are being attacked.

“On the contrary, [former oppressors] genuinely consider themselves to be oppressed. Conditioned by the experience of oppressing others, any situation other than their former seems to them like oppression. Formerly, they could eat, dress, wear shoes, be educated, travel, and hear Beethoven; while millions did not eat, had no clothes or shoes, neither studied nor traveled, much less listened to Beethoven. Any restriction o this way of life, int he name of the rights of the community, appears to the former oppressors as a profound violation of their individual rights –although they had no respect for the millions who suffered and died of hunger, pain, sorrow, and despair.”

As if on cue, the article offers:

“It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.”

I would argue that it’s creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before expressing their problematic beliefs that reinforce oppressive hierarchies, lest they face appropriate charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse. Although, I’m not sure what is worse than that. These people who walk around terrified they’ll say something that will offend a minority should consider that maybe they are the problem.

Microaggressions are real. They exist. They’re dangerous. They’re not just casual miscommunications or the pet peeve of overly-sensitive minorities. It may be an overly used buzzword but it still names a very real occurrence.

3 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Microaggressions”

  1. Simply wonderful and very informative. Thank you for putting into words what I could not express. Love your work on ChanceTheRapper, too.

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