Sexism and racism (and homophobia and classism and ableism—add your own identity oppression here) are so woven into the fabric of our daily life that that the barrage wears even the most open-hearted member of a disadvantaged group pretty thin. Think of it as a sort of space dust: it's not a huge meteor that will smash your little space ship to pieces; it's tiny fragments of sand and rock that will, at the speed of life, fatigue and erode even the hardest metals. Or, if you like to keep your feet on Planet Earth, it's the wind and water erosion of the mental world, that wears away even stalwart mountains. This constant wear and tear on the psyches of members of oppressed groups has a name: microaggressions.
The term was first defined and expanded on in the 1970s by Pierce (Pierce, C., ed., Television and education. Sage Press, 1978), and gained currency in 2007 when Deborah Wing Sue and her colleagues published "Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice) in the American Psychologist. I recommend you read the paper, but I'll summarize the concept here, with some quotes:
[M]icroagressions are brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to people… because they belong to a… minority group…. Microaggressions are often unconsciously delivered in the form of subtle snubs or dismissive looks, gestures and tones. These exchanges are so pervasive and automatic in daily conversations and interactions that they are often dismissed and glossed over as being innocent and innocuous. Yet… micro aggressions are detrimental… because they impair performance in a number of settings by sapping the psychic and spiritual energy of recipients and by creating inequities (p.273).
Sue points out that microaggressions are not always a product of human-to-human interaction, but can be embedded in the environment (think, for example, of the profusion of sexualized female bodies on billboards, or the way we are inundated with media stereotypes that portray non-white characters as criminals). Sue and her colleagues describe three forms of microaggression: microassault
Microassaults are explicit low-level derogations, "a verbal or nonverbal attack meant to hurt the intended victim through name-calling, avoidant behavior, or purposeful discriminatory actions" that do not rise to a level that members of the dominant population would find exceptional, or perhaps even notice. This can range from derogatory remarks that generalize about ethnic groups, to common verbal forms of dismissal or attack. Wolf whistles or the judgmental comments of random passersby are microassaults on women. Assumptions that dressing well or owning an expensive car are signs of drug dealing, or that hoodie wearing indicates thuggishness are microassaults on nonwhite people. An insulting comment to someone's face about the inconvenience that their disability causes is a microassault. Members of non-dominant populations do clearly recognize micro assaults as racist, sexist, or other identity-based attacks.
Microinsults are are more subtle: often the perpetrator will have no conscious idea that what they are saying is offensive to the minority group member. They can be either verbal of non-verbal. Often members of the dominant group will assume that minority group members conform to stereotypes (the way many white women grab their purses and step way from black and latino men in an elevator) or when male workers at a home improvement store patronize women customers by assuming they don't know what they want.
Microinvalidation is "characterized by communications that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality" of members of oppressed groups. One example of verbal microinvalidation I see in play all the time in Switzerland is the automatic question, "Where are you from?" directed at nonwhite people. When nonwhite Swiss say, in perfect Swiss German dialect, "I'm from Switzerland," the automatic response from their questioner tends to be, "But where are you from?" A nonverbal form of microinvalidation is well known to women in technical fields. In a meeting with a client, techie women who are accompanied by male colleagues often find all questions directed to the man. And even when the woman answers, the client often looks at to the man for verbal or non-verbal confirmation. Transpeople often have to face outright denials of their identities by members of the dominant culture, who simply insist that only two sexes, assigned at birth, exist. (My personal favorite microinvalidation is the insistence by majority group members that testimony and research by minority group members about minority group members is "biased.")
Constant low-level and mid-level stress take a terrible toll on health, which may account for the recent raft of research that shows that perceived discrimination is associated with increased morbidity and lowered lifespan (for verification, just type "effect of racism on health" into your favorite search engine). They also lower resistance to repeated microaggressions. You can understand this pretty well if you have a relative who makes the same stupid joke or comment about you every time you see them. For example, I have an uncle whose only judgment of a person's value is how much money they earn. Hearing it ten times made me annoyed; hearing it a hundred times made me angry and resentful. The 101st time, I decided I never wanted to talk to him again, and... I never did. I mean, enough is enough. But I could elect not to talk to my uncle. What I can't elect is never to hear a stupid racist or sexist comment again. That shit Just Wears You Down.
I'd like to say that DK and other progressive spaces are significantly more free of microaggressions than other spaces, but sadly I cannot. The fact that microaggressions are so common makes them seem "normal" even among majority group members who like to think of themselves as feminist or antiracist, etc. Reactions to these low level assaults, insults and invalidatons are often seen by majority culture members as "over-reacting," "not being able to take a joke," and (horrors!) indications of identity politics. The presumption that members of any oppressed group will put their feelings aside for a "greater" purpose is a microaggression, as are the attempts of majority group progressives to define which battles are major, and which are minor. (Feminists came up with term mainsplaining to describe the tendency of men to tell women how things really are, and this is a term nicely expanded to all other sorts of 'splaining.)
This diary is a call for progressives to think hard about the environments we create and maintain, and to try and make our own hang-outs, at the very least, spaces in which we encourage and support our allies from non-dominant groups to rest, heal, and regroup. Pretty much everybody is microaggressive to the members of some non-dominant group, and we need to realize that we reduce the combined effectiveness and resilience of the progressive community when we treat each other with such lack of regard.
Feel free to share your stories of microaggression in the comments. I hope that your exchanges will reflect the spirit of the diary.
UPDATE: It's four in the morning here in Switzerland (9 hours later than the West Coast of the US), so I'm going to retire for the evening. I will check the comments in the morning. Thanks for putting me on the rec list, and for taking part in such a great discussion!
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