Microagressions: Quelle Horreur

I first heard about Microagressions from Sally Haslanger at a workshop at Rice University.  The term seem to me to collect together all the various kinds of actions, verbal and other, that express directly or indirectly the negative stereotypes someone falls under.

it turns out that microagressions can bring out a lot of aggression on the part of critics.  A (silly)writer in the CHE (behind a wallmaintains that claims about being the target of microaggressions are creating a victimhood culture.  And the discussion at Daily Nous is fraught enough that it could fracture whatever peace of mind one has before reading it.

So what is happening?  Here’s one take that seems plausible.  We all now know that there are a lot of implicit biases lurking below our usual self-awareness.  A lot of microaggressions are signs of these biases and/or other more explicit ones.  And taken together, their targets are at least fatigued by these mini-assaults.  We want this stuff to stop.  Among other things, they are harmful.  But guess how the perps feel!  THEY ARE OFTEN UNHAPPY.  Free speech, don’t ya know. Check out the CHE or Daily Nous.


If you’re new to the topic of Microaggressions, the following might be helpful.

To some extent the examples and indeed discussions reflect that the fact that in many areas white middle/upper class men are the source of relevant norms and Microaggressions may place some members of the rest of humanity below that.

For example, a woman who warms to a philosophical debate may be told to calm down.  White men are cool headed, while women are emotional in a way that can threaten the quality of a philosophical discussion, the stereotype has it.  But there are certainly areas where white guys can be the target of microaggressions.  For example, a white guy trying out for a basketball team may hear snickering from players of color as he tries to shoot a basket.  Or a father with his 6 year old daughter who is trying to buy a birthday party outfit for her may find assumptions of his incompetence are clearly communicated to him and his daughter.

These incidents can be harmful.  It is harder to shoot well when people are snickering.  No one needs to leave a clothing store with a child worried about her parent’s competence.

in the arenas where white men form the stereotype of the good performer, others may find these microaggressions abound.  You might, if you are like me, be treated like the madwoman who has escaped from the attic.  Or you may find that the graduate student on whose work you coomented failed to see you had given arguments to back up your criticisms.  (These are true cases; the second has happened twice at professional meetins.  The first too many times to count.) Such cases are not going to ruin one’s career, but they are professionally harmful and sometimes just appalling.


31 thoughts on “Microagressions: Quelle Horreur

  1. Afaik “microaggressions” refers exclusively to remarks or behaviour towards marginalised groups, not white males in the U.S. / Europe etc. It’s about racism / sexism ablism etc. in homeopathic doses, which when seen in total become toxic. The micro aggressions project which chronicles such examples is quite devastating to read: the first one or two seem harmless (was that really so bad?), but try reading 100 or so of these examples.

    The Nous commenters don’t seem to understand this, nor the fact that it is meant to describe instances of non-deliberate discrimination (regardless of implications of the term “aggression”, it’s about effects, not intent). We’re back in “offense culture” territory, a term nearly always wielded as a weapon to protect privilege.

  2. Yes indeed. When my kids were sick, pre-school called me until I made a very strong case that they should call my husband. And a colleague who shared parenting with her husband had to get special permission from the local moms so that he could participate in kid stuff. I made it clear that I wasn’t the primary parent, didn’t deal with my kid’s affairs, and didn’t want to be bothered. But that was tough and I got lots of disapproval. My view was that I was a female father and would not do anything for my kids that a traditional father wouldn’t do. I was hiring other people to ‘mother’ them. End of story. But it’s hard!

  3. I’m not sure it’s a micro aggression if you’re a parent and other people expect you to be involved in care taking. It might, however, be a micro aggression to imply that men (“traditional fathers”) do not engage in such care taking activities.

  4. Anon @3
    The opposite is true. The disapproval HB got was sexist: men showing identical behaviour get no disapproval (or nothing like it) – so it’s a micro aggression. Implying traditionally most men don’t engage (much) in childcare, is not only true, but it’s certainly not an example of sexism, racism etc. which are gender /race /etc. bias against the marginalised group, or the group without systemic power – they are not symmetric!

    Microaggression is not simply anything that’s slightly unpleasant, mean, hurtful, or can be taken as such. It’s a small dose of widespread cultural discrimination. It’s problematic not because it’s unpleasant in itself, but due to the sheer weight of thousands and thousands such incidents that mount up disproportionately for the marginalised, and that carry the reminder of their role in society.

  5. Delft’s comments 1& 4 are spot on. And I think the clearest account of microaggressions is Marilyn Frye’s in Politics of Reality. Each microaggression is a bar in the birdcage. This also gets at the umbrage expressed by those who are called on it: if all you’ve contributed is one bar, of course it looks trivial.

  6. Let mepick up on the point that the reason for paying attention to microaggresions is mainly the cumulative effect. It usually doesn’t matter much if you are not called on in a discussion at an APA session, but if you are usualy at best able to get in a last word as a session closes, then your participation as a member of the profession can seem marginal. And indeed probably is.

    I was thinking that one alone never matters, but the most recent entry in what it is like to be a woman in philosophy contains a great counterexample to that.

  7. @annejjacobson
    To take the example “you would make a good mother”: if there were no stereotypes of women as caregivers, women as more suitable for domestic chores than intellectual rigour etc. – would it feel as bad? Does “you would make a good father” sound as dismissive? Or carry the same implications of “the workplace is not for you”?

    I tend to think not. It’s the whole background of an unequal society, and all the sexist tropes, attitudes and behaviours that make it sting. So it’s never really “one alone”, it’s systemic sexism, a thousand thousand messages absorbed over years and years, and then “just one more”.* The subject of micro aggressions brings into focus how dreadfully common these messages are. :-(

    I find it terribly frustrating, how people who are completely oblivious to their own privilege can then blithely go on to discuss whether it’s really an “aggression”, or wether it’s really so bad, the person “probably meant it as a compliment”, and anyway *free speech*.

    *I don’t mean to imply the “one alone” or “just one more” can’t stand out as the absolutely last straw…

  8. Anon, I am not approving most of your comment. I don’t think you have understood the issues. It isn’t just that there are negative stereotypes. Rather, it is that they are used to effect harmful exclusions. You do not address this issue.

  9. Anne, I do understand the issue. But I think if we’re going to have conversations around micro aggressions we must be willing to recognize when we ourselves are the guilty party. Asserting that fathers take little interest in care taking of their own chdren effectively excludes them from participating in a deep and meaningful way. It’s a systemic problem, and marginalizes the role fathers play in the home to befuddled incompetence. So, it might be the case that traditionally marginalized groups can, in fact, commit micro aggressions against a more “dominant” group in certain circumstances–as you aptly pointed out in your post. As for the difference between how BH was treated and how a random father might be treated were he to make the same preference for parental involvement know – I don’t think reactions would be much different. So I don’t think the anecdote is a particularly effective example of micros reasons that women face regarding their role as care givers.

  10. Anon@9
    No, you misunderstand the meaning of the word sexism. It is not symmetric. There may be gender bias against men, but not sexism in our culture. In a culture that systematically considers males inferior and treats them as such, there could (and would) be. It is bias against the marginalised group, or the group with less systemic power. In our culture the systemic power lies with men, not with women, therefore there is no sexism against men.

    This is not a trivial difference. Some people explain it as the difference between punching down and punching up.

    The cutting power of “white people can’t dance” is simply not the same as a similar-sounding insult to black people because white people are not taught to think of themselves as inferior due to the colour of their skin. They are not gunned down by trigger-happy U.S. policemen when they walk down the street intending no harm, and if they were, the media would not describe them as thugs etc. Cf. reverse racism.

  11. @13 without getting in to the politics a simple definition of sexism reads thusly:

    1. : prejudice or discrimination based on sex. 2. : behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex.

    There are, of course, spheres in which men are treated as inferior to women. See my comments under #11.

    Anne mentions how traditionally dominant groups can in fact be the recipient of micro aggressions of which sexism and racism are two major components.

    I’m not particularly comfortable making comparisons between racism and sexism as you’ve done. While they both share some similar characteristics, I think the differences are significant. I will say that I don’t find the exams you provide: white people cant dance to be an insult. A gross generalization, yes–but not something that rises to the level of insult. I’m not sure what a corollary would be for black people…maybe black people win all the Olympic track events? In which case–this is just a stereotype, but not insulting–which is how I conceive of the dance example.

  12. ‘sexism’

    prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex.

    Merriam Webster
    1: prejudice or discrimination based on sex; especially discrimination against women
    2: behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex

  13. The term “sexism” was coined by feminists, and then appropriated. A (descriptive) dictionary will today include bias against men in the definition because that is how some people use it. In circles of people interested in social justice and in disciplines studying it, the narrower definition is generally used, cf .Enc. Brit..

    Microaggressions, a recent coinage, was very specifically created to emphasise the difference.

    By trying to appropriate the term, you are again moving to erase the fact that cultural context plays a role in the meaning and effect of actions or words. A minor dismissal, a small insult, a seemingly harmless comment can have very different effects depending on how you are generally treated in society.

    It is true that the negative stereotypes against whites (can’t dance, big noses) are harmless compared to the stereotypes against PoC (shifty, lazy, and worse). Much the same as stereotypes of men (no good at housework, always want to fix things) are harmless, sometimes even hidden boasts, compared to those against women (no good at math, science, or rationality).

    Btw. Deflecting the discussion of pervasive discrimination or mistreatment of women by saying “it happens to men too and we need to talk about that” is so common a phenomenon that it’s been named, see here, or <a href=https://finallyfeminism101.wordpress.com/2007/10/18/phmt-argument/<here.

  14. So one interesting thing I’ve learned from reading this and related blogs is that sexist and racist behaviour gets a lot of its harmful consequences from the wider societal norms in which we’re all embedded, and that as a consequence the impact of sexism towards women, or racism towards non-whites, has major features not shared by sexism towards men, or racism towards whites (quite apart from the fact that the former is much more prevalent than the latter). Fair enough: that case sounds persuasive; it sounds important. (I’m not sure I’m persuaded that the right way to conceptualise this is in terms of an overall oppressive patriarchy, but I’m not sure I need to be so persuaded to take the practical point.)

    I do, though, find it a bit offputting to be told (as Anon@9 is told in comment 13) not merely that I’m misunderstanding aspects of the *impact* of sexism and racism, but that I’m misunderstanding *what the words mean*. Whatever the etymology of “sexism” and “racism” – and I assume that the etymology is complicated, tangled, and controversial, because the etymology of almost every word is complicated, tangled, and controversial – these are very widely used words in common Anglo-American discourse, they have a pretty clear meaning as determined by general usage and recorded in descriptive dictionaries, and while “circles of people interested in social justice and in disciplines studying it” are welcome to use whatever technical terminology they want, I don’t see that they’re thereby licensed to prescriptively redefine these terms in standard usage. (Both on general grounds of how language works, and because we do still want and need a word to describe, e.g., sexist behaviour to men even if we grant that it’s not a systemic problem in the way that sexist behaviour to women is a problem.) I’m not sure what’s gained in making these conversations into semantic disputes rather than substantive discussions of the disparate impact of forms of behaviour on disadvantaged groups.

  15. David, of course words in common discourse can lose the subtle qualifications. When I was first introduced to ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’, they were clearly distinguished from ‘prejudice,’ and I think that that’s a very good thing. Racism, so understood, is prejudice plus power. I think that black people who are prejudiced against all whites because of the bigotry they’ve encountered should’t be considered racists.

  16. The term “sexism” was coined by feminists, and then appropriated.

    No, that is not true.
    The OED has a citation for ‘sexism’ from 1866. It must have been ‘appropriated’ by feminists.
    The meanings of words are often affected by appropriations. Today ‘sexism’ has a very different meaning from the one it had in 1866.

  17. I find the discussion of appropriation obscure because it seems to suppose some view about word identity.

    According to the OED the current use can be found in the early 1900’s.

  18. Yes. Indeed, I meant to indicate that I was rejecting the very idea of ‘appropriation’ of a word — as if someone or some group owned the word to begin with!
    Your dating of the first citation of current use depends on a difficult view about ‘usage’ identity! The OED’s own judgment seems to be that there is one word (= lexical entry) whose citation history begins in 1866. I would not count the 1906 entry as an example of modern usage, myself, but really this is the same problem as the ‘word identity’ problem that you mention.

  19. Anne, I worry that saying black people can’t be racist against white people is paternalistic. And, a simple reading of racism simply states that: the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races. So, for example if a black person says–I hate white people–that is more appropriately characterized as Xenophobia as opposed to prejudice or racism. However, if that same person were to say–I hate white people because they are incapable of higher order thinking–that would be racism. Maybe what you want to do is make a distinction between individual racist beliefs and institutional racism. If you were to say black people cannot engage in institutional racism,I would agree with that as it takes in to account the power dynamic you mention in your comment. Or to put it another way, is it possible all individuals could be free from racist thoughts, but institutional racism could still exist? Intuitively I think the answer to that is yes.

  20. @ deflt: I wasn’t attempting to derail. Rather, I was responding to Anne’s original post where she mentions things very similar to what I referred to, and attempting to draw attention to the subtle ways in which we (women and feminists) might be unwitting perpetrators of microagressions. Self-reflection in these conversations never seems like a bad thing to me.

  21. Saying that black peoplecan’t be racist is really not paternalistic. I myself think it is absurb to say that black people who complain about white racism are being racist. If racism involves power differences then people with less power can’t be racist toward the more powerful, though they can be biased and prejudiced. Lots of abilities depend on social position; e.g., I can’t decide supreme court cases, issue meter violation or sell items from a neighbor’s house, absent permission.

  22. gopher@22
    I see your point about nobody “owning” words.

    But there is a clear pattern here: someone comes up with a term not commonly used (which does not mean there is no previous lexical appearance), to describe a widespread phenomenon that causes considerable harm to a discriminated group (example microaggs). There are similar (though usually much less common) phenomena that cause minor inconvenience to other non-discriminated groups. Then the term is – insert verb of your choice – watered down, say, to mean the latter as well as the first.

    After that two things happen:

    1. It becomes virtually impossible to have any kind of public discourse on the harmful issue without someone coming in with the “it happens to [other group] too, let’s talk about that instead”.* Go on any website where sexism or racism are discussed, and I guarantee that someone will bring in the “whatabouttery” – though on very heavily moderated sites, you may not actually see them as they don’t get approved.

    2. There is the automatic assumption that both phenomena are equally important, equally harmful, and that having experienced (the harmless) one enables you to fully comprehend the impact of the other: “White people can’t dance” doesn’t bother me, so why should “Black people eat watermelons” be a problem? And surely “Asians are hardworking and academically successful” is a compliment, right?

    There may be no value in semantic disputes, but this particular semantic dispute hides the deeper problem, that systematic oppression brings with it consistent pressure to prevent people from talking about it. What cannot be referenced, cannot be discussed, and what cannot be discussed cannot be changed. For me this is a reason to stick with and defend the narrower definition. In my experience, most people unwilling to accept terms like racism and sexism as applying only to the discriminated group, are in practice unwilling to admit that society treats people unequally.

    * Or “why aren’t you talking about that”, or “the fact that you are not talking about that means you are demanding special treatment for [discriminated group]”, cf. #alllivesmatter

  23. I agree, Anne, that the claim that black people who complain about white racism are racist. It fundamentally misunderstands the definition of racism– The complaint doesn’t represent any claim of inferiority of whites. But, I’m not talking about statements like that. A black person, however, can make the following statement: white people are inherently evil and that is a racist statement. The power you talk about is most appropriately applied to institutional racism as any individual may not be able to exercise any power over any other person. There are just too many exceptions to your power rule when talking about individuals to deny that a black person cannot be racist even if their individual power dynamic doesn’t reflect the overall social dynamic.

  24. Anne,
    Well, I don’t think the undeniable authority does clearly agree with you. I think you have misread the 1906 quotation, and I don’t think the OED says anything at all about the borderline between that use and earlier uses.

    I don’t think the ‘only the oppressors and not the oppressed’ sense of ‘sexism’ did come first. But perhaps this is not the important aspect of the semantics. (I fully agree with you that aspects of semantic questions are very important, as Robin and George Lakoff have explained beautifully; but at the same time David Wallace seems to have a point that etymology may be distracting us from more important issues.)
    In any case, I am pretty sure the broader sense of ‘sexism’ does not prevent anyone from talking about systematic oppression.

  25. @delft ibthinknthere is some virtue to using the words in a broader sense. Here’s why: it draws attention to how fundamentally enmeshed we all are in subtle and not so subtle forms of stereotyping and prejudice. I’m not sure how we can talk about the issues Ina more narrow form without also talking about them in their wider context. racism and sexism are not problems with men or white people, per se, but rather problems with society at large. even if we destroy dominant group racist attititldes/beliefs racism will still exist among other groups and even within groups. And to deny that racism cuts both ways, diagonally, and upside down ignores its roots–which is simply a fear of the other. I say this because it’s easy to identify instances of racism among groups of equal dominance. This may, however, simply reflect my. Belief that people, by and large, identify themselves in opposition to others.

Comments are closed.