One of my mentors recently introduced me to the term microaggressions, which are defined as “brief and commonplace regularly occurring verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults toward people.” She explained the concept of microaggressions using an example familiar to many middle-class, educated African Americans: “you speak so well.” When someone, particularly of a different ethnic background, compliments an African American person for speaking well, the common interpretation from the African American community is that the expectations for African American intellect were so low that it is surprising that an African American could speak well. This is a microaggression; the racism in the comment is subtle (micro), but still damaging (aggression). I found this notion stirring because this concept suggests that the legacy of power versus powerlessness in the United States has led to an implicit cognitive approach among majority Americans that is characterized by hostile, derogatory or negative attributions to minority Americans.
Having a word and a definition provides an opportunity to view these “verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities” within a set of parameters that will allow for scrutiny of what has been otherwise dismissed as cultural paranoia. Minorities, women and other non-mainstream groups, some would say, are just too sensitive about these things. Instead, though, we might say that those perpetrating microaggressions are too insensitive about these things. Recently, I attended an awards ceremony hosted by two student organizations primarily composed of African American college students. One of the award recipients was unable to attend the event, so another staff member attended to accept the award on her behalf. When they announced the winner’s name, her proxy approached the podium with a bottle of non-alcoholic champagne and a glass. The woman raised the glass and bottle and said:
“I brought these so I could spill some out for my OGs (i.e. original gangsters). You all know how this goes. You gotta spill some out some for the homies that ain’t here or the people that came before you…I’ll say it again: you gotta pour some out for the ones that came before you and the ones that ain’t here no more.”
The students responded with gasps, embarrassed looks, and few chuckles. A young man near my table, who was obviously angered by this display, said, “White people think they can just say anything to us.”
Even after she returned to her seat, the staff member was apparently unconcerned or unaware that the students were offended. As she stood next to her table speaking with some African American women, she would periodically strike what I might call a B-Boy stance (leaning with both arms crossed, often associated with the breakdance era). The pose was interpreted as an inappropriate and derogatory caricature of African American people, particularly in a room full of high achieving African American college students. It was obviously in bad taste for this woman to imitate stereotypical images of African Americans; however, in perspective, this example demonstrates that microaggressions demonstrating a view of culture operate as a cognitive construct, an established a pattern of thinking.
It’s important to note that during a previous gathering of this same group of students, the staff person who made these comments acknowledged, during a forum on racial tolerance, that being human means she carries certain bigotries. In isolation, her actions at the awards event could be construed simply as misplaced ignorance and an ill-assumed familiarity with this group of about 100 Black students. But when you combine the events, it demonstrates that micro-aggressions are not simply random slips of the tongue, but more likely a pattern of thinking about certain groups as an exotic or inferior “other.”
The goal of the microaggression project (microaggressions.com) is to show “how these comments create and enforce uncomfortable, violent and unsafe realities onto peoples’ workplace, home, school, childhood/adolescence/adulthood, and public transportation/space environments.” However, I suggest a second goal. We must establish a constructive method for confronting and recalibrating the naïve thinking that fuels this phenomenon. So what exactly shall we do with a person whose meta-cultural epistemology™ fits the rubric of a microaggressor?