UCLA professor emeritus Val Rust believed he was just correcting grammar and spelling mistakes of students in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, but according to students who staged a sit-in protest Nov. 14 he was displaying a form of racial “microaggression” against minorities in his class.
Microaggression is a term first coined by Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Chester Pierce in the 1970s that, at least in original meaning, describes situational, spoken or behavioural slights (especially unintentional) that convey ignorance, hostility or dismissal toward individuals belonging to minority or marginalized groups.
Pierce is also quoted as saying that all children of five-years-old entering school are mentally ill. The reason they’re mentally ill, according to Pierce, is the children’s loyalty to their parents, the Founding Fathers, and belief in God or a Supernatural Being. The education system must seek to correct these mental illnesses, Pierce argues. Which is all to say that Pierce is certainly not one to overstate matters or let his rhetoric get away on him. (Not that anyone was worried about that, right)?
To look at how subtly microaggression may manifest, let’s take an example.
A middle-aged, white male in a city with a white majority offers his seat to a kindly-looking black lady of an older age on a crowded subway train; nobody looks twice, perhaps the lady even smiles as she accepts the offer.
But did you know that the male individual may well have committed microaggression?
Well anyway, he likely wouldn’t know if he had, by definition.
In offering his seat to the kindly-looking older black woman (or even, God forbid, thinking of her in those stereotypical terms), the white man has made hurtful assumptions about her needing the seat more than him including her identity as a woman, older individual and member of a minority. Even if none of these thoughts or impressions crossed the man’s mind or the woman’s, they have subtly-imbued the interaction with a harmful aspect, potentially causing or contributing to long-term feelings of marginalization, ‘otherness’ and psychological damage for the woman.
A number of other variables including the woman’s sexual orientation, socio-economic status and religion could make the seemingly-harmless and chivalrous interaction a double, triple or even quadruple microaggressive whammy.
You won’t know it when you see it
According to the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), “One of the most harmful things about microaggression is that it’s very difficult to point out when it’s actually happening. Frequently people realize that microaggression threats have happened only in retrospection.”
Microaggressive individuals not realizing they’re being that way is the whole part of what makes it so oppressive for those on the receiving end, dude.
The AAPD lists microaggressive instances against people with disabilities that include focusing on their disability as a defining characteristic of the individual, showing undue concern for their disability, or assuming an ability based on outer appearance of said ability.
“Why do you need a wheelchair? I saw you walk… You can walk, right?” to a person who uses a wheelchair for traversing longer distances is given as an example of microaggression.
There are a number of other ways to commit microaggression in a racial sense, according to Fordham University’s information guide for professors on its Center for Teaching Excellence webpage.
According to the guide racial microaggression in the academic environment may include continuing to mispronounce a name after being corrected, assuming Latinos speak Spanish, disregarding religious holidays, assuming a knowledge of American culture among students, assuming the gender of any student, assuming students use or are familiar with social media and giving assignments based on any assumptions of heterosexual orientation or a traditional family background.
Microaggression also includes using examples in the classroom that push “heterosexist” terminology such as “magnets are attracted to each other like males and females.”
Apparently electricians engage in heterosexist oppression daily when asking their coworkers to pass a female or male connector.
Heck, plugging a lamp in the wall is basically a hate crime.
Professor Derald Sue of Columbia University, who tackled the topic in his book Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation makes the following claim:
“The invisibility of racial microaggressions may be more harmful to people of color than hate crimes or the overt and deliberate acts of White supremacists such as the Klan and Skinheads.”
That sounds like a reasonable assertion. About as reasonable as a brick through your window in 1960s Selma, Alabama.
So in other words, direct physical and social persecution is less traumatic than subtle, unintended slights that may happen inadvertently and accrue long-term devastating psychological effects.
Where do we turn to for wisdom in times like these but the ever-leftwards-winding corridors of Academia? Why, even that masculine-looking bro-merang on your face may be microaggressing the crap out of someone without you realizing it.
You guessed it, chump. Those who grew a mustache recently for Movember may be a witting or unwitting party to what has become a veritable cauldron of microaggression boiling with “sexist, racist, transphobic, and misinformed” characteristics, according to Ralph Haddad, student Health and Education Editor at the McGill Daily, the student newspaper at one of Canada’s most prestigious universities.
Then again, as anyone following the political culture up in the Great White North would know, political correctness and aggression by the radical left has reached a veritable art-form in Canada, particularly on university campuses.
Never leaving aside an opportunity to bash the immensely-successful prostate-cancer awareness and fundraising campaign, Haddad attacks Movember for its supposedly implicit racial microaggression due to higher rates of prostate cancer among black men than white (this seems to suggest Movember is not for black men, an odd claim, but maybe it’s just in the in the fine print on the website), exclusion of Mo Sistas, indication of class or demographic privilege (not elaborated on, just clearly true), and insufferable insult to women with mustaches or who wish to grow mustaches or not shave their legs in a No-Shave November alternative to Movember. Most of all, by catering only to “cisgender” males Movember stratifies individuals according to the concept of gender, which is the biggest crime of all.
According to the Feminist Hub Tumblr page: “If a person is cisgender (most people prefer that the ‘-ed’ on the end is dropped, same thing with ‘transgender’), it means that they are comfortable identifying with the gender they were (coercively) assigned at birth … Gender identity is how a person relates to those assigned genders; when there is no dissonance, that person is cisgender.”
No detail is provided on the nature of the at-birth coercion process. Presumably a small baby boy or girl is brainwashed with incantations or rituals by an evil white, Christian male heterosexual authority figure of some kind into believing he is a boy or girl and will grow up to be a man or woman, thus making this awful event occur as he or she ages. It’s not, you know, these babies differing male and female biological makeup or any of that guff.
It’s all a construct, dude. Open your eyes.
The comment board of the “Movember as Microaggression” certainly got into the spirit of things. Quite near the top one comment-leaver remarks that “I’m offended by the fact that you’re offended by the fact that he’s offended.” and another commenting “Why is the list written in a BLACK font? #LatentRacism.” Mr. Haddad did not draw quite the swell of impassioned protesters he may have dreamed about. It’s almost as if there are real problems in the world or something. Regardless, they’re probably mustache-related problems, so I’m sure he’s onto something.
There’s no doubt, however, that some items considered as microaggression are unacceptable, but its growing popularity as a concept is problematic.
A Buzzfeed piece by Heben Nigatu in which Fordham students display cards of examples of microaggression they’ve faced contains examples of disturbing ignorance and in some cases blatant racism, but roundly fails to convince that all cases, including where no offence or slight was intended were examples of the mysterious plight of microaggression. Also, some examples are upsetting, some moreso humorous (see the young man displaying a caricature of laughing as he holds a sign reading “You’re Not REALLY Asian,” (13). Other examples are quite compelling, such as the young man holding a sign reading “The limited representation of my race in your classroom does not make me the voice of all Black People”) (15).
So, to be clear, in the example of the laughing student microaggression can occur anytime, anywhere. Students of various ethnic backgrounds may have worked happily together in a study group with this individual, believing they were wholly-free from the blight of microaggression, only to realize upon seeing their friend show up on Buzzfeed, that he had felt insulted by not *enough* proper recognition of the uniqueness of his ethnic and cultural identity. Got mind-reading? The next study session must have been fun. Talk about awkward.
The piece gets truly close to undermining its own concept, however, when it includes number eight with a Caucasian young lady holding a sign reading, “No, you’re white.” The idea of unintentional racial microaggression in many instances depends on white people not realizing they’re being dismissive, ignorant or stereotype-forming about other ethnicities. Being told “no, you’re white,” by a minority presumably to mean you can’t understand, appreciate or fully take part in a certain activity, interaction or topic seems to be precisely what Dr. Sue et. al are saying is the reality.
Professor Sue will this be on the test, or can students just turn in an interpretive, multicultural-themed quilt instead?
Cornell University details how many university students of Asian background have experienced microaggression in a report “Racial Microaggressions and Daily Well-Being Among Asian Americans,” published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology (Vol. 60:2). The report is authored by Anthony Ong, associate professor of human development in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology, Anthony Burrow, assistant professor of human development at Cornell, Thomas Fuller-Rowell, Ph. D. ’10 University of Wisconsin-Madison, Cornell graduate student Nicole Ja and our old friend Dr. Sue.
Professors (presumably white, heterosexual professors in particular, and certainly not Dr. Sue or associate professor Ong, one would hope) are also alarmingly at risk of the heinous misdemeanor of microaggression, especially ones who don’t know about microaggression. The non-condescending message here to professors of all disciplines trying to teach students about any number of other subjects is: educate yourselves, microfelons.
But thankfully not all the professors have been playing hooky at a keg party with the politically-correct Kool-Aid.
Critics of the theory such as Professor Kenneth Thomas of the University of Wisconsin – Madison point out that microaggression reinforces a victim mentality for people of colour, and is likely to actually decrease candid interaction between people of different racial groups, not increase it.
“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 said.
The American Psychological Association notes that Thomas is white after quoting him, but does not refer to the ethnicities of any of the other individuals quoted or mentioned in its article “Unmasking racial micro aggressions.” Apparently it was only relevant to mention in his case.
It used to be that a jerk was a jerk, but now a jerk has entire avenues of tripwires to watch out for, since any regular boorish behavior will be differently interpreted and scaled depending on whom it is directed towards or impacts. A white, heterosexual male boss with an aggressive leadership style, for example, may be given a full pass for putting extra pressure on his white, heterosexual male employees, but may well find other interactions fraught with a spiderweb of unintended tensions and unease. Or to take a different example, a female boss with a strong leadership style may create an uncomfortable work environment for some male employees, but fearing the spectre of microaggression charges a male employee may be less likely to speak up in case their complaints are characterized as an unfair reaction against their boss as a woman, specifically.
The problem with terms and concepts like microaggression is that they lend an academic, politically-correct air to the whole topic of prejudice and to the language around the resolution of prejudice. If growing a mustache or calling someone a man or woman is just as potentially offensive and marginalizing as saying ‘you’re really pretty for a dark skin girl,’ (see Buzzfeed piece) then by what scale is microaggression to be judged or assessed?
When fanatical social leftists earnestly pool actual, disappointing instances of prejudice and exclusion together with growing facial hair to support cancer research or a professor correcting spelling mistakes, you know some student body or college dean somewhere has crossed the Rubicon of ridiculousness (in a motorboat).
Academics like Pierce and Sue do a disservice to the real Civil Rights Movement and distort its progress in society today. Then there are other public figures, such as Oprah most recently, who continue to insist that there is significant opposition to President Obama based on his race among the voting public. What this means, ultimately, is that you cannot disagree with someone unless they are another member of your supposedly ‘dominant’ group and that evidence of racism by some in a majority group will be used as evidence of racism by all in that majority group.
This interesting video from 20/20’s ‘What Would You Do,’ turns the tables on the typical microaggression scenario, as it were, by seeing what happens when a black man brings his white girlfriend with him to his barbershop in Harlem and is faced with an actress playing a black woman who is racist against whites.
And it doesn’t just end at your run-of-the-mill microaggression. In his bumbling, privileged stumble through life the menacing white heterosexual male in particular, no matter how outwardly kind and decent-seeming, may also have committed numerous microassaults, microinsults and microinvalidations.
Some forms of microaggression appear to require magic spells and unicorn blood derived from a Harry Potter spell, while others may in fact exist in a parallel universe where breathing is a crime.
Shave that mustache
There’s also an issue with collectivism.
According to Daily Kos blogger Kali Tal (hepshiba), her “favorite” microaggression, or microinvalidation, specifically, is when a minority individual testimony or research on or about other minority group members is biased. Although unfair to assume, there’s no reason that the member of a minority group has any less chance of being biased about his or her own group than a white individual does whose research or testimony considers other white individuals, nor (as 15 points out) is there any reason to believe the member of a minority group is representative or expert on others of their same “group.” These sources need to work on co-ordinating their storyline a bit more here and resolve the revolving issues around collectivism and individualism that their microaggressionassertions bring up and potentially worsen.
As the UCLA students staged their sit-in, graduate student Emily Le, in addition to defending Rust on the charges of racial microaggression and creating a racially hostile climate in his classroom, was nonplussed that demonstrators were claiming to speak on behalf of all students of colour. Whatever happened to the whole don’t judge one person as representative of the whole concept?
The definition of microaggression expands microaggresively each working day.
According to the Sloan Centre on Aging and Work at Boston College, even joking to an older colleague at work by calling him “gramps” can be a subtle and ultimately very damaging form of microaggression. Like much of supposed microaggression it seems to be a matter of context, although intent presumably doesn’t factor in, as supposedly both aggressor and victim may be unaware of the self-esteem and psychological damage being done.
Other everyday situations at work may be fraught with microaggression too, according to Rick Haberstroh with the Birmingham Business Journal. Trying to treat everyone the same is supposedly the root of much of the suffering, with typical microaggressive statements such as “I don’t see your color,” to a black colleague (Chris Matthews had better watch out, it seems) and “I’m not homophobic, I have gay friends” doing great damage.
Asking something such as “You are Jewish right? You don’t mind me using Jesus’ name in our company picnic prayer do you?”of a colleague is also potentiallymicroaggressive Haberstroh claims, although its opposite in assuming a Jewish individual was comfortable with that scenario seems the more likely to potentially offend or alienate and fall under the category of microaggression.
But hey, if it offends someone, somewhere, especially the one claiming to speak on behalf of others, just call it microaggression.
That seems to be the message here.
In a society where curiosity or ignorance about the differences of others becomes an unpardonable faux pas that must be minutely-corrected and poor or potentially-condescending behavior is read with unintended undertones and injustices throughout, how much respect and understanding will really be built between individuals of different ethnic backgrounds, cultures, faiths or orientations?
Oh, and shave that mustache dude, it’s microaggressing me like you wouldn’t believe.