Invented and defended by psychologists, the concept of “microaggressions” has established itself as the generational driver of demands by millennials. All American universities are in tune with the concept, occasionally triggering resounding controversies in the U.S. What exactly does the concept of “microaggressions” cover and what is it used for?
What is it?
The concept of “racial microaggressions” was highlighted in the 70s, but it was psychologist Derald Wing Sue (Columbia University, New York) who brought it to the spotlight in 2010 in his reference book: Microaggressions in Everyday Life. Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation. He defines it as follows:
Insults or attitudes, “intentional or not”, which “send denigrating messages to certain individuals on the sole basis of their belonging to a marginalised group”.
Microaggressions manifest oppressive worldviews which in turn “create, encourage and reinforce this marginalisation”.
This concept is a kind of bet for the psychologist: its success will have to make it possible to define significantly varied themes and examples, to discuss them, and to act against abuse.
With “micro-aggressions”, activists from different backgrounds have a new common language and can come together around common struggles. They then become “intersectional” activists; they will fight equally against racial, origin, gender, or sexual preference inequalities (all the groups concerned by micro-aggressions).
Types of microaggressions
To help us identify and detect microaggressions, Derald Wing Sue (DWS) has defined three categories: microassaults (➊), microinsults (➋) and microinvalidations (➌).
➊ Microassaults are intentional; they are considered acts of discrimination and clearly identified as such: psychologist Flores Niemann, of the University of Texas, cites the very explicit example of the graffiti of swastikas or confederate flags (the emblem of the slave states during the war of Secession).
Explicit racist insults are therefore pertinently present in the field of microaggression.
Yet, according to DWS, the vast majority of assaults on minorities are not so easily detected. In fact, the concept of microaggression is therefore most often used to evoke the two other categories described by DWS:
➋ Microinsults are most often unconscious. At first glance, they often appear as a compliment. However, this compliment is based on a demeaning stereotype. “You don’t seem Jewish”, “you don’t look gay at all”, “you look beautiful for a black woman”, so many remarks that might only seem awkward but which are a part of racism. Clichés that are sometimes expressed in a more subtle way.
➌ Micro-invalidations are defined as comments or actions that fail to consider “the experience of historically disadvantaged groups”, according to psychologist Flores Niemann. For example, complimenting an American of Asian origin born in the United States on his mastery of the language returns him to a perpetual status of foreigner.
In practice, microinvalidations often consist of an excess of inappropriate subtelties, or with peremptory opinions which negate or nullify individual experiential realities.
At the time of Black Lives Matter, misunderstandings about the black experience have come to light. To say “we are all equal” is possibly to deny the existence of a background and an experience specific to people of color. In the same vein, proclaiming oneself “colorblind”, blind to the color of individuals, is to deny the uniqueness of an individual experience… and in particular the reality of discrimination.
Conversely, in a video by Flores Niemann, a student complains that she is systematically asked for her opinion by implying that she is the only representative of the black community: “They want the Black point of view, as if I was the black spokesperson. ” Community assignment can therefore constitute a microaggression, just like its opposite: the negation of any perspective specific to a minority.
Everything also starts from a context and an individual feeling, from an injury that sets in. Because many microaggressions are repeated multiple times, sometimes by the same person or the same group of people.
An armed concept to confront our unconscious biases
Today, racism is less and less tolerated, more and more repressed, and many people sincerely see themselves as tolerant and open. Now, the debate therefore no longer relates so much to explicit racism as to unconscious, “systemic” racism.
It is this repression that the concept of microaggressions aims to unveil. The objective is to bring out unconscious biases and bring this ‘unthinking’ to light. As the perpetrators of aggression are rarely aware of the shocking nature of their messages, those who are victims of them find it all the more difficult to point them out and talk about them. Complicated to do so without being accused of susceptibility. “Is subtle bias harmless?”, Derald Wing Sue often asks.
The answer is clear: these repeated aggressions cause, in people who are their victims, noticeable complexes, detailed by numerous studies.
From academic jargon to society
In 2017, the term “microagression” was added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, which states:
“Microaggression has shifted from academic jargon to common parlance only in recent years. It has not done so without some measure of controversy, which is not uncommon for words which deal with subjects that make people uncomfortable. Dictionaries do not pass judgment on the words they define; if enough people are using a particular word to mean a particular thing it will be viewed as a word that should be defined.”
The microaggressions.com blog created in 2010 (the initiative has a now inactive Facebook page which brings together more than 11,500 people) lists all kinds of accounts of microaggressions suffered and defines itself as follows: “This blog seeks to provide a visual representation of the everyday of microaggressions”.
We observe, moreover, a much more frequent occurrence of the word in the American media since 2015 and a particular resurgence since the Black Lives Matter movement which occurred this summer.
And many other initiatives exist, such as Psychology today, which has a blog dedicated to the subject.
The term has now left the field of research (which it was made for) and activism to join that of the media and everyday life.
A master-concept in American universities?
For about a decade, there have been a massive rise in the quantity of microaggression guides and lists put in place by American universities. Yale, San Francisco, Stanford, Columbia … from Texas to California, many American universities have today implemented “good practices” related to microaggression: guides listing the most common annoyances, awareness workshops, whistleblower mechanisms and even hotlines for reports.
Even if the psychologists who created the concept defend the dialogue with the “aggressor”, it is often very difficult for the one responsible to recognise a latent aggression. DWS and his fellow students therefore very quickly encouraged the establishment of anonymous complaints systems. Most American universities have Diversity and Inclusion Offices. Incidents can also be formulated in the course evaluation questionnaires, which are very common in universities. The paper will be read by the teacher – after the marks have been awarded – but also by the administration.
Other systems target the most frequent and repeated microaggressions. To avoid regular errors with students’ names, the NameCoach platform allows, for example, everyone to record the pronunciation of their name and to specify the gender to use when addressing them. Around a hundred universities have adopted it for their teachers.
Drifts and controversies
In the United States, many high-profile cases have resulted in the resignation of professors who opposed student initiatives. The students then denounce with virulence the reservations of their teacher, qualified as microaggressions. Orwellian drift or strict application?
These cases give rise to surprisingly similar “procedures”: denunciation, physical gatherings of students around the professor concerned, exercise of self-flagellation by the professors involved or the administration, until the final outcome: resignation or dismissal.
3 significant examples:
➊ Evergreen University has been the scene of such a succession of events. A case that has been the subject of detailed hearings before the US Congress, and many returns from the protagonists.
➋ As Halloween approaches, universities send out emails advising students to avoid inappropriate cultural appropriations, from Blackface to Mulan disguises. An initiative which in 2015 interviewed psychologist Erika Christakis, then lecturer at Yale. “If you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society”, she wrote in an email to her students, arousing their anger and her resignation.
➌ Interested by the article of a Mexican student feeling badly treated on campus, the director of tuition at a California university (Claremont McKenna College) replied by e-mail: “We are seeing how to better help students who don’t fit the Claremont McKenna mold”. Three words (“fit the mold”) that triggered student anger and led to the resignation of the person concerned.
In their academic article “Microaggression and Moral Cultures” (2018), sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Mannings regret the advent of a “culture of victimization”. “There is no definition for what qualifies as microaggression”, says Campbell in an interview with Le Monde, and adding:
“It is based on perception. The important thing is not what you wanted to mean, but how it was perceived. And if someone complains, it means that the aggression has taken place: there cannot be a false accusation”.
Thus, the concept, with its assertive scope, makes it difficult to set up safeguards, and would have authorised the losses of control observed and denounced in American faculties. It works as a closed circuit: many examples of microaggression use concepts that are themselves criticised. Often given as an example on forums, to express the idea that the notion of “white privilege” does not exist becomes a microaggression. An effective way to end the debate.
But can we really speak of a “culture of victimisation”? The term was criticised as early as 2015 by New York Times reporter Jesse Singal. For him, some administrators have simply gone a little bit too far in their application of the concept of microaggression. Complaints are often anonymous and there is, in most cases, no trace of true denunciation. Neither the aggressor nor the victim is cited. “How can you draw attention to yourself as a victim,” remarks Jesse Singal, “or get the authorities or the general public to help you, if all or most readers do not know who you nor your aggressor are ?” Anonymity that also prevails on sharing platforms, such as the microagressions.com site. Here again, it is the cumulative effect that is worth demonstration and awareness.
3 good links:
- Microaggressions Keynote, by Derald Wing Sue
- On American campuses, the denunciation of racist “microaggressions” is debated
- Linguistic microaggressions, Hermès revue article