On microaggressions

Via Daily Nous, I came across this post by Steve Horwitz on microaggressions. Horwitz suggests that the ‘fuss’ about microaggressions is unjustified, and that – while annoying – such social interactions really aren’t a big deal. Those who complain about them are just being – of course! – too sensitive.

The examples Horwitz draws on are from his own experiences of being Jewish in a small, largely non-Jewish town. People routinely assume his family celebrates Easter, ask his children what they’re getting for Christmas, etc. And while he wishes people were more reflective about their assumptions and more aware that not everyone celebrates Christian holidays, he’s always just reminded himself of their good intentions and shrugged these interactions off. If only we could all be so magnanimous.

It’s hard, though, to draw a general moral here about microaggression theory. To begin with, most the examples he mentions wouldn’t actually be classified as microaggressions according to many popular ways of understanding microaggression. It’s often – not always, but often – taken to be a necessary condition of a microaggression that it implies something demeaning about a person’s social group, reinforces a negative stereotype, etc. So, e.g., if you said to an male acquaintance you saw wearing a wedding ring “What does your wife do?”, that wouldn’t, on many versions of microaggression theory, be a microaggression. It would be an unfortunate instance of heteronormative assumptions, but microaggression is often – again, not always, but often – taken to be something more specific. Contrast to the case in which, e.g., you say to your male acquaintance “Wow, I’m surprised how normal of a couple you and your husband are!” That’s a microgression.

Internal debates of microaggression theory aside, Horwitz’s main concern is that micoaggressions just aren’t a big deal. But here he just seems to be missing the point of talking about microaggression. No one thinks individual microaggressions are a big deal. The entire point of talking about microaggressions is talking about the net effect of their continued, repeated patterns, especially for groups who are already structurally disadvantaged. If you’re followed by a security guard when you go into a store one time, it’s a nuisance. If you’re followed by a security guard almost every time you go into a store, and you’re also always picked out for ‘random’ security checks, and you’re also forever getting asked to show ID at your workplace when your colleagues aren’t, etc, etc, etc then the overall pattern is much more than a nuisance. Each individual microaggression is almost insignificant. The repeated relentlessness of them, over and over each and every day, is very significant. (Lots of very small things can add up to a very big thing. It’s not that complicated.)

Horwitz feels he wasn’t particularly harmed by the comments and assumptions his fellow townspeople made. And he probably wasn’t. By his own telling these were occasional comments centered around holidays, and given his social status as a white male professional he wasn’t in a particularly vulnerable position when these comments were made. The situations where microaggression theory has been put to the most useful work – the daily experiences of black Americans, of women in male-dominated fields, of visibly disabled people seeking accommodation – are very different, so it’s hard to see why Horowitz thinks there is a close parallel.

But Horwitz insists that the very fact that we are talking about microaggressions is a sign of just how little oppression we actually face:

I do not deny that microaggressions are real. I simply question whether they are really so important as to justify the fuss. When we can afford to spend so much energy worrying about nuances of language and how much space people occupy, it’s probably because we’ve made significant progress on the much bigger and far more dangerous problems. And living in a society in which that is true is the invisible privilege of those who think they are the constantly microaggressed against victims of the privilege of others.

Now Horwitz’s broader point is undoubtedly right – it only makes sense to start talking in detail about microagressions in certain social contexts. But he seems to slide from that to the view that microaggressions, and their cumulative effects, are not important. We should all just shrug our shoulders, be less sensitive, and disappear into a Taylor Swift dance montage (haters gonna hate, etc.) But this slide is absurd. Yes, things could be worse. But it doesn’t make any sense to tell black Americans not to complain about structural racism because, hey, at least they aren’t slaves. And it doesn’t make any sense to tell women not to complain about sexism because, hey, they can vote now. Yes, social conditions are worse in other places and at other times. That doesn’t mean it’s not okay to talk about structural inequalities – of which talk of microaggression is one piece of a very complicated puzzle – that exist here and now.

3 thoughts on “On microaggressions

  1. I’m glad you wrote this, magical, because I was actually planning to myself, so you’ve saved my the trouble! A friend and I were talking about this earlier, and we also thought the comments on intent were strange (particularly the idea that a tone of accusation can only really be made sense of if there was ill-intent); I was just having a conversation, for example, with someone else recently who believes its sinful for women to not take an attitude of submission towards their fathers or male partners. I don’t think this person had any ill-intent at all. I think they are in fact sincerely concerned for my soul — and that’s quite nice in a way, but it also doesn’t preclude me from accusing them of having said something sexist.

    Don’t get me wrong though — I do love a good Taylor Swift dance montage!

  2. Thanks for writing this! I would not have been able to be so civil in discussing the article.

    Something else I noticed in Horwitz’s post: He quotes a fellow “Austrian” economist as saying “Civil people learn to ignore most of the negative externalities that others inflict on them, and try to be sensitive to the unintended costs that their own actions impose on others.” Yet his conclusion, “I do not deny that microaggressions are real. I simply question whether they are really so important as to justify the fuss,” is precisely a declaration that he shouldn’t have to be sensitive to the negative externalities that he inflicts on others, and others ought to ignore the negative externalities that he inflicts on them.

    Also, the column of his he links at the start of that blog post is an amazing piece of work, where he comes very close to making the “tell black Americans not to complain about structural racism because, hey, at least they aren’t slaves” argument that you parodied. He analogizes the focus on microaggression to 19th-century outrage at child labor as child labor was growing less common. So microaggression… is like child labor? I don’t think this helps his point. There’s also a “But we have a black president!” for your bingo card, and an awful discussion of rape, so anyone who doesn’t want to deal with that shouldn’t click through.

  3. With the proviso that I know little about the relevant theoretical literature, my concern with ‘microaggression’ talk has always been the meaning/connotation of ‘aggression’. It seems to me that it is difficult, if not impossible, to be unintentionally aggressive. Or more modestly, that whether asking “what does your husband do?” is aggressive properly-speaking depends, not only on how it is experienced, and which social context it is experienced in, but also on the mental state of the asker. My feeling is that asking this ‘innocently’ is not aggressive-properly-speaking, however bad (misogynist, injustice-perpetuating, etc.) it might be in other ways.

    Many, I think, have (somewhat) parallel concerns with the terminology of ‘structural violence’. ‘Violence’ and ‘aggression’ are important moral categories; part of their importance lies in the fact that they require a certain sort of ‘mens rea’. Structural injustice and micro-oppression are also important categories; part of their importance, I would suggest, lies in the ways in which they occur even though no one is intentionally producing them.

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