Beyond Microaggressions in 2014

By Dan S. Wang

As we turn into a New Year, I wish for a corresponding turn in progressive priorities, away from the current fixation on so-called microaggressions.

As readers undoubtedly know, microaggressions are the slights, subtle insults, unfair prejudgments, and commonplace insensitivities that people of color, queers, and women experience frequently, sometimes almost daily at the person to person level. The perpetrators are typically members of a differently privileged group; for example, white persons in relation to persons of color, or a straight woman in relation to a trans person. Microaggressions take the form of unwarranted assumptions, substandard customer service, imposed normalizations (“I think of you just the same as I think of myself”), or any of a thousand other unwelcome interpersonal behaviors or verbal remarks. Theoretically, as microaggressions are tolerated, unequal power dynamics are reinforced.

Microaggressions are exactly that—small, fleeting, and very often unintentional. This is the difficulty in confronting or calling out such behaviors. Sufferers are left with bits of confusion, hurt feelings, and resentments. And here is the problem: while microaggressions are often based in socially constructed identities like sexuality or race, these commonplace indignities most immediately and most clearly produce individual feelings. The emphasis given to identifying and contesting microaggressions in workshops on whiteness and men’s groups amounts to an overemphasis on courtesy politics. For too many diversity consultants, the project of addressing racism or sexism is mostly about sensitizing sufficiently so as not to offend.

We all wish for more sensitive behaviors on the part of, well, everybody. I myself am subjected to aggravating microaggressions all the time—I can’t tell you how many times (a week, a month, a year?) I detect prejudgment on the part of some white person meeting me (an Asian American dude) for the first time. And many of us strive to examine our own behaviors and patterns of speech to reduce any (un) intentional discomforts we may cause. Because we should, simply as the decent thing to do. Fine

Also, let’s remember where the concern for interpersonal politics comes from.  It is a legacy of the identity politics and culture wars of a generation ago. It was and is important stuff, but only came to the fore as a progressive priority during a time of retrenchment. Big government social initiatives were off the table, wars were fought by proxy, and movements had dissipated. In new battles, activists politicized intimate society.

But to overweight individual discomfort and personal offense as the measuring stick of justice —this is a fatal mistake. With our over emphasis on microaggressions and individual feelings, our legacy unintentionally paves the way for a chauvinist victimhood, mastered by right wing punditry.

The truth is, the chauvinist mindset is emotional, unstable, easily offended, and made deeply uncomfortable given the shifting realities of demographics, economics, and environment. Courtesy politics have legitimized a politics of resentment aimed at people of color, immigrants, the homeless, feminists, students, union members, and all other perceived weaklings, idlers, elites, and “un-Americans” from all angles, and always couched in terms of personally felt offense.

I am not arguing for a new stoicism, but rather a turn towards something else. Perhaps it is time to re-emphasize the macroaggressions?

Dan S. Wang is a writer, artist, organizer and printer.

1 Comment

  1. Cindy Garthwait

    These comments mirror my own almost exactly. I also see that the emphasis on courtesy and trying not to offend has had some negative consequences. It is definitely time to critique the concept of microaggression in terms of its emphasis and its consequences. I will use this posting as reading for my social work students.