T oday, we are forever scrutinising our dialogue and conversation, looking out for offensive and insulting content. Of course, words, especially demeaning or degrading ones, have always had the capacity to hurt people’s feelings. But it’s different today. Words don’t just insult; no, today they inflict verbal violence, they traumatise.
While words are considered to be incredibly powerful today, it’s also true that people are deemed massively vulnerable, and unable to deal with hostile words. Even everyday verbal exchanges, no matter how casual, can be indicted for causing offence. This inquisitorial attitude towards everyday speech is perfectly captured by ‘Everyday Racism’. a video produced by BBC3.
‘Everyday Racism’ offers numerous examples of so-called microaggressions. Its message is that racism is so banal that just about anything a white person says is likely to contain traces of prejudice. A typical example of an everyday, racist microaggression is the question, ‘where are you from?’. According to microaggression experts, this question is a covert way of saying ‘you don’t belong here’.
Watching this inane video, which the Daily Mirror described as a ‘shocking’ expose of the ‘unbelievable racial stereotypes ethnic minorities face’, I was reminded of the first time I encountered the conceit of microaggression. Ever since I’ve been able to afford taxis, I have always asked cabbies with unusual surnames, ‘where are you from?’. I’m fascinated by people’s names and origins, and enjoy discussing cabbies’ personal stories with them. But it wasn’t until last November that I discovered my curiosity regarding people’s origins can now be condemned as an act of microaggression. I was in New York and, after a five-minute exchange with an Ethiopian taxi about our mutual origins, a Boston-based academic told me my questions could be perceived as microaggressions.
Until then, I had always dismissed microaggressions as too silly to take seriously. But these are strange times. Microaggression refers to the allegedly subconscious offence that your words cause to individuals and cultural groups. According to ‘Tool: Recognising Microaggressions and the Messages They Send’. the Orwellian-sounding guidelines circulated by the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), I was indeed guilty as charged. Apparently, asking ‘Where are you from or where were you born?’ conveys the message that ‘you are not a true American’. Presumably, if I repeat this question in London I am saying, ‘you are not a true Brit’.Must-reads from the past week
What’s fascinating about the UCLA guidelines is that anything that is said to someone from a different cultural group may constitute a microaggression. So, declaring that ‘America is the land of opportunity’ could be construed as a microaggression because it implies that ‘race or gender does not play a role in life successes’. There seems to be a veritable industry producing guidelines, running sensitivity seminars and creating microaggression-awareness websites. At the same time, the number and variety of words and expressions castigated as aggressive and threatening are constantly expanding. The Inclusive Excellence Center at the University of Wisconsin declared that the latest addition to its list of censored terms is ‘politically correct’. Without a hint of irony, it said that PC has become a ‘dismissive term’, used to suggest that ‘people are being too “sensitive”, and police language’. By attempting to censor the phrase ‘politically correct’, microaggression-watchers proved they were indeed in the business of policing language.
Campaigns designed to tackle microaggressions have spread far beyond American campuses. In the UK, the denunciation of microaggressions has seamlessly meshed with the obsessive search for harmful gestures and words associated with everyday sexism and everyday racism. It is only a matter of time before the ‘everyday outrage’ movement is launched to cover the entirety of everyday life.
The performance of outrage is a central feature of the moral crusade against microaggression. There is a mushrooming of microaggression websites where likeminded victims are encouraged to air their grievances and broadcast their concerns in order to raise the awareness of those who are blind to the pandemic of microaggression enveloping the world. Typically these websites feature individuals holding signs with a message of studied defiance directed against the microaggressor. So, students from Oxford have copied the I, Too, Am Harvard campaign, which highlights the unintended slights and insults suffered by black students. On the I, Too, Am Oxford website, individuals post pictures of themselves holding signs advertising perceived insults addressed to them. One sign reads, ‘“Wow your English is great.” “Thanks, I was born in London.”’
Some of these scenarios are likely to have been made up for effect. One young woman holds a placard stating, ‘“I’m really happy I’m going out with you and you’re brown… it proves I’m not racist.” Ummm.’ Did her partner really say that? What the pictures on the I, Too, Am Oxford website offer is not so much outrage but the performance of outrage.
Yet, despite its incoherence, the publicity campaign against microaggressions has had remarkable success. Val Rust, a professor of education at UCLA, was humiliated and disciplined by his administrators for his alleged ‘racial microaggression’. His crime? Changing a student’s capitalisation of the word ‘indigenous’ to lowercase. Rust was found guilty by UCLA of disrespecting his student’s ideological point of view. Given this climate, it was unsurprising to hear from numerous academics that they now practise self-censorship for fear of being accused of uttering a microaggression.
Such accusations are no longer confined to university campuses. Recently an American television interviewer, Melissa Harris-Perry, scolded one of her guests for describing Paul Ryan, the recently elected speaker of the House of Representatives, as a ‘hard worker’. She claimed that calling Ryan a ‘hard worker’ demeaned slaves and working mothers ‘in the context of relative privilege’. Typically, those individuals accused of uttering a microaggression backtrack, and implicitly accept the moral authority of their accusers.
What’s significant about the concept of microaggression is that it targets not just words, but the imputed meaning behind words. The question ‘where are you from?’ is denounced not because the words are offensive in themselves, but because the words’ implication is offensive. Microaggressors are being denounced for what they allegedly think, not necessarily for what they say. This is an open invitation to police our thoughts.
In the end, what matters is not the significance of the words exchanged but whether the individual claims to be offended by them. Neither the content of the words nor the intention behind them is important. All that matters is whether the alleged victim feels that the words disrespected his or her identity. Here, the meaning and status of a statement is defined by the victim. To ignore or question someone’s claim that they have been offended is to indulge in the unforgivable crime of ‘victim-blaming’.
Underpinning the microaggression-hunters’ crusade is the conviction that the victim is always right. The American comedian Louis CK has clearly internalised this ‘watch your language’ etiquette. ‘When a person tells you that you hurt them’, he said recently, ‘you don’t get to decide that you didn’t’. The arrogant intolerance of Louis CK’s position is striking. He is saying that individuals do not get to decide the meaning of their words or actions.
So what are microaggressions?
The term microaggression was defined by Derald Wing Sue, professor of counseling psychology at Columbia University, as ‘the brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, and sexual orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group’. What’s important about Sue’s definition is that these indignities need not be the outcome of intentional behaviour. He argues that ‘perpetrators of microaggressions are often unaware’ of the indignities that they inflict on others.
The focus on the unconscious or unwitting dimension of microaggressions is crucial. People accused of committing microaggressions are not indicted for what they have done or or said, or even for what they consciously think; they are indicted for their unconscious thoughts.
According to Sue, ‘microaggressions are often unconsciously delivered in the form of subtle snubs or dismissive looks, gestures, and tones’. But how does one prove an act of microaggression? After all, if these are sentiments buried deep in the psyche of the microaggressor, how can their existence be verified? As far Sue and his collaborators are concerned, there is no need for a complex psychoanalysis of the perpetrator. Why? Because, according to Sue, ‘nearly all interracial encounters are prone to the manifestation of racial microaggression’. In other words, there is little to prove. The same holds for encounters involving women, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals, and disability groups. In every case, microaggressions are all but inevitable.
In all these cases, the presumption of guilt precedes the words or gestures of the unconscious aggressor. This is a secular theory of original sin from which no white, heterosexual man can possibly escape. According to Sue, even ‘well-intentioned whites’ suffer from ‘unconscious racial biases’.
The crusade against microaggressions plays a central role in the elaboration of Western identity politics. The performance of outrage featured on microaggression websites, complete with numerous photos of placard-holding individuals, transforms the ‘micro’, banal insults and misunderstandings of everyday life into examples of major social injustice. The sign-holders’ outrage is inversely proportional to the scale of the slight suffered. Hence a poorly phrased compliment can incite the angriest of reactions, followed by a complaint to the relevant authorities.
The concept of microaggressions resonates with a wider mood of distrust among and between adults. Over recent decades, society has increasingly felt uncomfortable with leaving people to manage their own personal interactions. As a result, rules and codes of conduct covering bullying, harassment and conflict have proliferated, and interpersonal tensions and misunderstandings are now often managed by professionals.
Now, a whole new dimension – unconscious behaviour and its unintended consequences – has been brought to the attention of rulemakers and lawyers. Human communication has always been a complicated business. The reading of body language and the interpretation of words and gestures have always involved misunderstandings. In an enlightened environment, it has been recognised that it is difficult, if not impossible, to hold people responsible for the unintended consequences of their actions and words. If people are held to account not for what they do or say, but for what they unconsciously think, then the idea of moral responsibility becomes incoherent. What is truly tragic about the myth of microaggressions is that it makes genuine dialogue impossible. The micro-policing of human relations is the inexorable consequence of the project of criminalising unconscious thought and behaviour.
One of the achievements of modern, open societies is that people are free to make choices about how they express themselves, the language they use and the attitudes they exhibit in public. Unlike in pre-modern communities, people do not have to watch their language or conform to the prescribed language of traditional culture. But anti-microaggression crusaders want to turn back the clock. They loathe tolerance and seek to impose a new regime of conformity on contemporary public life.
The policing of statements and words is deeply intolerant. The statement ‘watch your words’, which is so casually used in the crusade against microaggression, is a call to close down discussion. So ignore the likes of Louis CK – we all should be free to decide the meanings of our words.
Frank Furedi is a sociologist and commentator. His latest book, Power of Reading: Socrates to Twitter. is published by Bloomsbury Continuum. (Order this book from Amazon (UK) .)
For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan .
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Nadra Kareem Nittle is an experienced journalist and essayist who's reported on a wide range of issues, including race, education, fashion, business, health and religion.
Updated June 11, 2016.
When some people hear the word "racism," the subtle forms of bigotry known as racial microaggressions don't come to mind. Instead, they imagine a man in a white hood or a burning cross on a lawn.
In reality, most people of color will never encounter a Klansman or be casualties of a lynch mob. They won't even be killed by police, although blacks and Latinos are common targets of police violence.
Members of racial minority groups are much more likely to be the victims of subtle racism, also known as everyday racism, covert racism or racial microaggressions.
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This sort of racism has a pernicious effect on its targets, many of whom struggle to see it for what it is.
So just what is subtle racism?Defining Everyday Racism
A study conducted by San Francisco State University Professor Alvin Alvarez identified everyday racism as "subtle, commonplace forms of discrimination, such as being ignored, ridiculed or treated differently." Explains Alvarez, a counseling professor, "These are incidents that may seem innocent and small, but cumulatively they can have a powerful impact on an individual's mental health."
Annie Barnes further illuminates the matter in her book "Everyday Racism: A Book for All Americans." She identifies such racism as a "virus" of sorts exhibited in the body language, speech and isolating attitude of racists, among other behaviors. Due to the covertness of such behaviors, victims of this form of racism may struggle to determine for certain if bigotry is at play.Examples of Racial Microaggressions
In "Everyday Racism," Barnes tells the story of Daniel, a black college student whose apartment building manager asked him not to listen to music on his earphones while strolling the premises.
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Supposedly other residents found it distracting. The problem? "Daniel observed that a white youth in his complex had a similar radio with earphones and that the supervisor never complained about him."
Based on their own fears or stereotypes of black men, Daniel's neighbors found the image of him listening to earphones off-putting but made no objections to his white counterpart doing the same thing. This gave Daniel the message that someone with his skin color must adhere to a different set of standards, a revelation that made him uneasy.
While Daniel acknowledged that racial discrimination was to blame for why the manager treated him differently, some victims of everyday racism fail to make this connection. These people only invoke the word "racism" when someone blatantly commits a racist act such as using a slur. But they may want to rethink their reluctance to identify something as racist. Although the notion that talking about racism too much makes matters worse is widespread, the SFSU study found the opposite to be true.
"Trying to ignore these insidious incidents could become taxing and debilitating over time, chipping away at a person's spirit," Alvarez explained.Ignoring Certain Racial Groups
Ignoring people of certain races is another example of subtle racism. Say a Mexican American woman enters a store waiting to be served but the employees behave as if she's not there, continuing to rifle through store shelves or sort through papers. Soon afterward, a white woman enters the store, and the employees immediately wait on her. They help the Mexican American woman only after they wait on her white counterpart. The covert message sent to the Mexican-American customer? You're not as worthy of attention and customer service as a white person is.
Sometimes people of color are ignored in a strictly social sense. Say a Chinese American man visits a mostly white church for a few weeks but each Sunday no one talks to him. Moreover, few people even bother to greet him. Meanwhile, a white visitor to the church is invited out to lunch during his very first visit. Churchgoers not only talk to him but supply him with their phone numbers and email addresses. In a matter of weeks, he's fully enmeshed in the church's social network.
The church members may be surprised to learn that the Chinese American man believes he was the victim of racial exclusion. After all, they simply felt a connection with the white visitor that they lacked with the Chinese American man. Later, when the topic of increasing diversity at the church comes up, everyone shrugs when asked how to attract more parishioners of color. They fail to connect how their coldness to the people of color who do occasionally visit makes their religious institution unwelcoming to them.Ridiculing Based on Race
Subtle racism not only takes the form of ignoring people of color or treating them differently but of ridiculing them. But how can ridicule on the basis of race be covert? Gossip writer Kitty Kelley's unauthorized biography "Oprah" is a case in point. In the book, the talk show queen's looks are excoriated--but in a particularly racialized way.
Kelley quotes a source who says, "Oprah without hair and makeup is a pretty scary sight. But once her prep people do their magic, she becomes super glam. They narrow her nose and thin her lips with three different liners…and her hair. Well, I can't even begin to describe the wonders they perform with her hair."
Why does this description reek of subtle racism. Well, the source isn't just saying she finds Oprah unattractive without the help of a hair and makeup team but criticizing the "blackness" of Oprah's features. Her nose is too wide, her lips are too big, and her hair is unmanageable, the source asserts. Such features are all commonly associated with African Americans. In short, the source suggests that Oprah is mainly unattractive because she's black.
How else are people subtly ridiculed based on race or national origin? Say an immigrant speaks English fluently but has a slight accent. The immigrant may encounter Americans who constantly ask that he repeat himself, speak to him loudly or interrupt him when he tries to engage them in discussion. These are racial microaggressions that send a message to the immigrant that he's unworthy of their conversation. Before long, the immigrant may develop a complex about his accent, despite the fact that he speaks fluent English, and withdraw from conversations before he's rejected.How to Cope With Subtle Racism
If you have proof or a strong hunch that you're being treated differently, ignored or ridiculed based on race, make it an issue. According to Alvarez' study, which appears in the April 2010 issue of the Journal of Counseling Psychology, men who reported incidents of subtle racism or confronted those responsible, lowered amounts of personal distress while boosting self-esteem. On the other hand, the study found that women who disregarded incidents of subtle racism developed increased levels of stress. In short, speak out about racism in all its forms for your own mental health.The Cost of Disregarding Everyday Racism
When we think of racism only in extremes we allow subtle racism to continue wreaking havoc in people's lives. In an essay called "Everyday Racism, White Liberals and the Limits of Tolerance," antiracist activist Tim Wise explains, "Since hardly anyone will admit to racial prejudice of any type, focusing on bigotry, hatred, and acts of intolerance only solidifies the belief that racism is something 'out there,' a problem for others, 'but not me,' or anyone I know."
Wise argues that because everyday racism is much more prevalent than extreme racism, the former actually reaches more people's lives and does more lasting damage. That's why it's important to make an issue out of racial microaggressions.
More than racial extremists, "I'm more concerned about the 44 percent (of Americans) who still believe it's all right for white homeowners to discriminate against black renters or buyers, or the fact that less than half of all whites think the government should have any laws to ensure equal opportunity in employment, than I am about guys running around in the woods with guns, or lighting birthday cakes to Hitler every April 20th," Wise says.
While racial extremists are no doubt dangerous, they are largely isolated from most of society. Why not focus on tackling the pernicious forms of racism that affect Americans regularly? If awareness about subtle racism is raised, more people will recognize how they contribute to the problem and work to change. The result? Race relations will improve for the better.4 Different Types of Racism - From Colorism to Racial Microaggressions
Microaggressions are committed constantly, among numerous people without them realizing it. I must say I am completely guilty of also playing part in this act. These acts are done constantly and no one understands the affects it has on people. Miller and Garran (2008) states, “Racial microaggressions are similar to aversive racism. They are “subtle, stunning, often automatic,” verbal and nonverbal putdowns and social assaults that wound people of color unbeknownst to the perpetrator” (p.97). This is what produces pain and anger inside countless of people. Many individuals need professional help in order to surpass the neglect they have been summited to.
In August of 2012, I was employed by Future Now, which I can say has been the best experience of my life. This program, that I can say I proudly work for, helps many young adults obtain their GED and enroll in college. The program began in Rikers Island, where they would help those that were incarcerated be able to seek the opportunity of having an education once completing their time in jail. The population we work with have various personal, social, and health problems and for many of them thinking about the future is unreal. Helping those that have criminal justice involvement is important for Future Now. We are located in Bronx Community College; moreover, our location has lead for us to have the opportunity in working with many clients that have participated in a criminal act at some point in their lives. However, we also serve the rest of the population. When male clients come to sign up for the program I constantly catch myself asking them if they have been criminally justice involved. I automatically assume this because of their appearance. Several times I tend to ask the.
. middle of paper.
. ” it can automatically put them down. This is something I have reflected on while writing my paper and that I have decided to be more careful when approaching my clients of color. I need to be more sensitive and understand the inequalities that this population faces on an everyday basis. I must also show empathy and place myself in the shoes of my clients. I know I am capable of changing and giving my all to not allow myself to continue assuming.
Miller, J. & Garran, A. M. (2008). Racism in the United States: Implications for the helping professions. Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks/Cole.
Miller, J. and Schamess, G. (2000). The discourse of denigration and creation of ‘other.’ Journal of sociology and social welfare. 27, 3, 39-62.
Wise, T. (2012). Dear white America: Letter to a new minority. San Francisco, CA: City
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