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July 9, 2014 12:02 AM   Subscribe

A microaggression is defined as "a question, a comment, even an intended compliment, sometimes, that nevertheless suggests something demeaning." (More from NPR.) The Microaggressions Tumblr publishes experiences with all kinds of microaggressions.

The APA provides a primer on racial microaggressions. Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice (PDF Link) was published in American Psychology but does a fantastic job of providing an in-depth description of microaggressions and examples of microaggressions faced in daily life as well as their implications on therapeutic settings.

BuzzFeed collects 21 racial microaggressions heard on a daily basis and 19 for LGBT folks.

Shakesville addresses the "feminists look for stuff to get mad about" argument commonly made when feminists bring up microaggressions; Guerrilla Feminism talks about some similar microaggressions and the dismissal of same in the Magic: The Gathering community.

The Gloss shows some highlights from the December #fatmicroaggressions Twitter hashtag; Bustle has more.

Transanarchism writes about his everyday experiences with microaggressions as a transman. Transgender Studies Quarterly has more information on microaggressions and their effect on the lives of trans people.

The Oregon State Disability Access Blog talks about ableist microaggressions.

Microaggressions tumblr previously. The specific "no, where are you REALLY from" microaggression previously.
posted by NoraReed (98 comments total) 101 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is a great collection of resources and pieces on microaggressions; thank you!

If you were able to harness all that energy people expended into dismissing microaggressions or talking about how they aren't a big deal, we wouldn't even need to figure out fusion. The eschaton would be immanentized.
posted by Ouverture at 12:23 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


This kind of reminds me of what I've noticed in my everyday life: Japan is a place where white men are sometimes mildly inconvenienced, and then decide that they Understand Racism.
posted by DoctorFedora at 12:28 AM on July 9 [6 favorites]


(Seriously, though, this is a good post)
posted by DoctorFedora at 12:39 AM on July 9


Oh, God. The good old 'Smile, sweetheart, it might never happen!'

*gnashes teeth and hulks out*
posted by Salamander at 12:43 AM on July 9 [4 favorites]


Great post, I'm looking forward to working through the links. I've only got as far as the microagressions tumblr but it's really good, and so very infuriating.
posted by billiebee at 12:44 AM on July 9


I suppose these are "micro" in the sense that no-one is actually being clubbed, but some of them seem pretty medium-sized.
posted by Segundus at 1:19 AM on July 9 [19 favorites]


A lot -by no means all, but a lot -of microagression examples posted on the tumblrs etc. seem to be straight-up overt racism, sexism etc. (so why not call it out like that) - which would seem to undermine and confuse the original intention of the concept? (While also diluting critique of the overt aggression by labeling it "micro"? )

I think the original concept could be refined into a useful and important tool of critical practice addressing real problems more precisely but the fast-and-looseness with which the current form has been often used fills me with unease . Including the "original" or at least commonly retold Ur incident with the aircraft stewardess that Derald Wing Sue highlights. I wasn't there, but the way Sue describes it makes me feel think it was probably just about numbers and well, poor stewardess.
posted by Bwithh at 1:24 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


Japan is a place where white men are sometimes mildly inconvenienced, and then decide that they Understand Racism.

A ridiculous statement. Foreigners in Japan are routinely denied access to housing, bank credit, employment, etc etc the list goes on and on. But this is systematic discrimination not microagression.
posted by dydecker at 1:34 AM on July 9 [12 favorites]


It's micro aggression when I mean to wound, micro ignorance when I cluelessly offend, micro insensitivity when my lack of civility snags the flow. Three different types of social grit, though the difference in my intention doesn't signify to someone getting ground down.

Thanks especially for the link to Melissa McEwan's article on courting offense. I come to your post just after reading Jack Halberstam's article on Harm, Triggering and Trauma, which brought me here hungry to find out what MeFites have to say about the possibility of conversing in good faith.
posted by ssr_of_V at 1:48 AM on July 9 [7 favorites]


I personally prefer the microassault, microinsult, etc. versions that the PDF linked used-- there's a useful level of specificity in them.
posted by NoraReed at 2:37 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


For Teachers College, Columbia University psychologist Derald Wing Sue, PhD—the Asian-American colleague on the plane, incidentally—the onus falls on the flight attendant. In his view, she was guilty of a "racial microaggression"—one of the "everyday insults, indignities and demeaning messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of the hidden messages being sent to them," in Sue's definition.
In other words, she was acting with bias—she just didn't know it, he says.

Well, "for" him, maybe that's what it was--but that just means: seemed that way to him. And that doesn't mean that that's what it was.

Pretty weak sauce. And that's the paradigm example?

Do flight attendants normally take boarding order into account when asking people to change seats? Does precise seating position matter? (Of course you'd think that it would be fine to ask people forward of their position to move...but I don't know how such balancing tasks really work). Did they need two people to move rather than three, and not want to break up the new group of 3? (were the 3 white dudes one group?)

There's nothing "micro" about this. If the flight attendant asked them to move because they were non-white, then the flight attendant was being an asshole. And not a microasshole, for those in love with coining such terms.... Just a regular one.

But it's not clear whether she was or wasn't. Seems like "micro" gets inserted here not because the act was small, but, rather, because it is uncertain. It's a hypothesis. This, of course, gets left out. We simply don't know whether or not the flight attendant was being racist; though we do know that she was accused of it...

Seems like a couple of very different phenomena are being conflated. There's (a) people being assholes (that's an intentional thing (e.g. the "smells like rice" comment)). There's (b) people doing things that really aren't that bad, and don't indicate bad intention, but are kinda insensitive, and that, apparently, end up forming the latest node in a pattern that is, overall, upsetting and shitty (e.g. "no, where are you really from?"). The latter can't plausibly be called "aggression." You'd think that people obsessed with coining terms would be better at it... These are really instances of thoughtlessness or some such.

But then there's an orthogonal category: comments that may or may not be bigoted, but the intention of the speaker is unknown. (And, contrary to efforts to wash that out as irrelevant, it's decisive). That covers many of the cases. Then the fourth category is: obviously innocent things that bug people (e.g. "Dr. and Mrs. Rivera").

Oh, but also a fourth category: the indeterminate without context, e.g.: "I'm not being homophobic, you're being too sensitive." Well, that's sometimes true and sometimes false. We don't know which it is here, because we don't know what happened...but Buzzfeed represents it in a way that suggests that such claims are inherently bad. Which is, obviously, false. (Oh and: Buzzfeed? Really?)

On the bright side, there are sensible rebuttals in the first piece, so the overall picture there is reasonably balanced...

Overall, there's no doubt that people are sometimes assholes, and sometimes thoughtless, and sometimes say things that are fine by themselves, but annoying the fiftieth time you have to hear them. And almost everybody has to put up with this--but some have to put up with it more. All obvious. It's good to have a public discussion of all this...but, as usual, there's a kind of internet (in)activism that wants to make the problem seem worse than it is, poison the well against anyone who points that out, decree that feels are inviolable, and so on.

So: there's something mixed in all these links that's worth saying to those who haven't thought about this stuff...but a lot of nonsense and exaggeration as well. Nonsense and exaggeration are bad, especially in this context where they lead to false accusations. But, since some people don't care about those things: nonsense and exaggeration here also hurts the cause. There are plenty of good examples, if you just throttle back and stop exaggerating. For the purposes of winning the battles against "smells like rice" and "so who's the man in the relationship" (if for no other reason), don't try to pretend that "won't I get hit on at a gay bar" or "you're being too sensitive" are inevitably in the same category.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 3:44 AM on July 9 [7 favorites]


Wow. Now the dismissal is because the microaggressions are insufficiently micro.

*slowclap*
posted by Etrigan at 4:11 AM on July 9 [36 favorites]


I think it's fine, F'o'Fury, to approach this from a perspective of fair mindedness and honest discussion when dealing with it as a societal conversation, but I think part of what gets in the way of conversations such as these is that they flip rapidly between references to individual and societal contexts. For instance, you assert that benignly insensitive comments that emerge from a pattern of structural prejudice ("no, really, where you are from?") can't possibly be construed as aggression and that may be true for certain individual instances ("I was genuinely curious about where they were born! I may have visited their homeland when I was doing a semester abroad!") but the structural factors that make such statements normalized is a result of a societal bend towards aggressive marginalization ("you do not look like you belong, and we must always remind you that even if you are born here, you will always be an outsider.")

So, in this context, the questioner is true and correct in saying that they did not intend insult or offense, but the receiver is also justified in feeling aggrieved, not necessarily by the questioner, but by the culture that the questioner has blithely reinforced by their insensitivity. False accusations may be hurtful if they target an offense that did not exist, but can also be useful if they reveal a bias or prejudice that the questioner did not believe that they had. Patriarchy hurts everyone, as does racism, as do many other forms of social bias.
posted by bl1nk at 4:23 AM on July 9 [15 favorites]


Also the metaphor that I favor when illustrating why "micro" aggressions are important to consider comes from the What Would Yellow Ranger Do? web comic (previously)

"If I get coffee spilled on me once, it is no big deal. If I get coffee spilled on me nearly every damn day, then don't be surprised when I get pissed off if you spill coffee on me too."

Being asked "where are you from? No, where are you really from?" dozens, if not hundreds, of times from a direction of Othering Classification rather than a place of curiosity means that I am now psychologically programmed to suspect you and raise my shields if you ask me that, even if you mean no offense. I will begin my base relationship to you with an assumption that you are a racist, even if you are probably a nice person, and this is how the pattern of micro aggressions in society hurts both of us.
posted by bl1nk at 4:41 AM on July 9 [29 favorites]


I think it's fine, F'o'Fury, to approach this from a perspective of fair mindedness and honest discussion when dealing with it as a societal conversation,

Well, except, in any issue of oppression, "fairness" always means that the dominant side wins, because "fairness" (and "balance")never means "equality," it means "everyone has the same rhetorical options, never minding that the dominant side has all the cards in the first place.

As for not "intending insult or offense," it's a bit like stepping on someone's foot in a crowded room -- you say "oh, crap, I'm sorry" and try to be more careful at navigating the space; you don't blame the other person for having their foot in that spot (well, some people do, but they are jerks, and everyone knows it. Owning that brief moment of shame is better than resorting to anger).
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:46 AM on July 9 [15 favorites]


The airline incident: The attendant didn't ask for volunteers. It's quite likely the attendant asked the minority guests to move unconsciously thinking they would be less likely to object. It's almost certainly a very small plane, and the attendant most likely had a pretty good idea who boarded last. The seats in back are likely a lot noisier. The attendant shouldn't tell people to sit where they choose unless they can.
posted by theora55 at 4:46 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Seems to me that most dismissals of microaggressions of stuff proceed from the premise that some or all grievances are trivial if they fail some sort of "due diligence check" for intention. Which means that to feel aggrieved, people should expend a bunch of energy and time on discerning the motives of their interlocutors.

The reasons such dismissals never place much responsibility on interlocutors to expend any energy identifying and avoiding patterns of speech or behavior that aggrieve others are fairly screwed up when examined. Somewhere in there are two deeper, and damaging default assumptions.

The first of these is that groups who have not historically experienced racial or gendered aggressions and oppressions can nonetheless safely, clearly, and accurately identify some objective body of practices that are Always Racist and another that is Always Benign.

This amounts to telling people in the aggrieved group that the sort of people who have historically oppressed or demeaned them are somehow more knowledgeable and rational about racism and sexism and heterosexism than actual historical victim groups. In other words, it tells non-white minorities, or women, or QUILTBAG people who get upset when they recognize a pattern of aggression or racism that they are being irrational or hasty.

Of course, that is itself an especially damaging pattern of stereotype, and is in fact one of the foundational maneuvers of racism, sexism, and heterosexism. White straight dudes are rational, everyone else is oversensitive and irrational and therefore needs the judgement of white straight dudes, or at least the rhetorical style thereof, to be right about anything.

Second, it inherently treats the immediate intention and self-perception of the actor as more important than the life history and perceptions of reactors. Again, this only seems possible if the default assumption is always that actors are likely to be in the right and reactors -- by definition, in these instances, historical minorities -- are likely to be wrong. More generally, it also means that the concrete effects of reactive perception -- stereotype threat and its measurable impacts, stress and pain, and so forth -- can sometimes or often be blamed on cultural or social minorities themselves, handily absolving majorities.

Really, it's the old "you're being defensive/oversensitive" gaslighting trick. Once I tell you that, any response you make other than agreeing with me can be spun as evidence of defensiveness or oversensitivity. So dismissing the notion of microaggressions objectively operates as a malign response, a tacit support of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and the like. And it operates as such irrespective of anyone's precious intentions.
posted by kewb at 4:48 AM on July 9 [30 favorites]


Microaggression is a misnomer. Many of these are just plain aggressions. Some are small aggressions. A few are probably misunderstandings Micro = tiny. Mini = small. So, is labeling them "microaggression" a microaggression or miniaggression? Also, now I am angry, and I'm not even caffeinated yet.
posted by theora55 at 4:50 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Sometimes those hie closer to plain old aggro, not the micro kind.
posted by clvrmnky at 5:11 AM on July 9


Microaggression is a misnomer.

Bingo. Most "microaggressions" are either not micro or not aggressions. But it's a great term to use to mark yourself as part of a hip and trendy "in" group. As a result, there's been mission creep because everyone wants to be the first to label something a "microaggression," whether it actually fits the word or not.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 5:12 AM on July 9 [8 favorites]


Geeze, I know that the internet loves that stuff, but arguing with whether a term is the correct term rather than addressing the concepts beneath it is kind of the last first refuge for the scoundrel, or at least those who would give the scoundrels cover. As the first link says:
So you've defined racial micro-aggressions as, quote, commonplace daily indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate racial slights and insults toward people of color.
This term was coined, at least in part, to deal with the fact that people from the dominant culture (the first link focuses on race, but the term has spread more widely) reflexively deny that aggression short of assault is aggression. It's like the way that nothing short of violent sexual assault (preferably by a hulking stranger) counts as "real rape." Microagressions are the constant background noise of oppression; individually maybe not much, but grinding in aggregate. And whether or not the people inflicting microaggressions "intend" it, the society in which they exists certainly promotes and benefits from it.

So, I don't know. Is it worse to have to "put up with" a term which maybe feels imprecise on the internet or just get told over and over that you have a thin skin?
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:16 AM on July 9 [41 favorites]


Great links, thanks.

Big, noticeable things are in a different category, but a lot of microaggressions are like the tech sexism cartoon that was a recent FPP: because the person can never be sure about intent, it makes it incredibly hard to discuss and address the pattern of bias, because each individual action is so small and deniable, and yet the overall pattern is so hostile.

Giving it a name, even if imperfect, is a step in being able to at least name it if not stop it.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:34 AM on July 9 [17 favorites]


Guys really you don't need to try to be That One Guy Who Successfully Refutes The Premise. If you don't know much about this topic read the links and learn from other folks who know more than you. That's how self-improvement occurs.
posted by shakespeherian at 5:50 AM on July 9 [26 favorites]


shakespeherian: "Guys really you don't need to try to be That One Guy Who Successfully Refutes The Premise."

You are opposed to MeFi's Site Mission?
posted by Bugbread at 6:03 AM on July 9 [5 favorites]


If you don't know much about this topic read the links

I read the links, and saw a lot of examples that were perfectly legitimate, but that I already knew about. The novelty here is in the word "microaggressions". The behavior being described as "microaggressions" is assholery that's been going on forever.
posted by gimonca at 6:07 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


The behavior being described as "microaggressions" is assholery that's been going on forever.

Yes, it's assholery directed at oppressed groups that's been going on forever.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 6:12 AM on July 9 [14 favorites]


The behavior being described as "microaggressions" is assholery that's been going on forever.
I think the point of the word "microaggressions" is to point out that seemingly little things add up so that they eventually become big things. So, for instance, at the university where I work, black male students constantly get asked if they're athletes. The first time a black male freshman gets asked whether he's an athlete, it's not a big deal. The fifteenth time in his first week at college? He's going to start to get the impression that nobody thinks there's any reason for him to be in college if he doesn't play a sport. And when you point this out to non-black students, faculty and staff, they say things like "it's an innocuous question: nobody means anything by it," or "it's a compliment! They think you look fit!" or "someone once asked me whether I was an athlete, so I don't understand what the big deal is." You have to understand the pattern to realize why it's hurtful.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:27 AM on July 9 [51 favorites]


The behavior being described as "microaggressions" is assholery that's been going on forever.

Rather I would say it is cluelessness, not assholery. It's ignorance, indoctrinated into folks by a culture that is inherently sexist and racist.

To be ignorant of a thing doesn't make one an asshole. Though it is very tempting to think so.

It's a really bad thing to feed ducks bread. But I watch people of all races and ages and sexes do it all the time. If i try to explain that it's bad, they either get pissed off, or dismiss me as some kind of crank. They're just feeding ducks, for gosh sakes, and their kids love it! Heck, their mom and dad used to bring them down to the canal, and let them feed the ducks when they were kids!

But it's bad, and there are signs posted all over the place telling them not to do it, but they don't notice the signs.

And c'mon, it's just a little bread. It can't be that bad.

Still, these people aren't assholes, they just don't know it's bad. And they can't for the life of themselves see whom is being hurt by their behavior. It's human nature. Trying to explain to them their ignorance only makes them defensive.

But I still try to explain why it's bad, and I'd say maybe one out of twenty is convinced. They'll actually read the signs, try and understand the reasons why it's bad, and maybe they'll teach their children that feeding ducks is bad. I think of these people as remarkably well-adjusted. They'll actually question their own ignorance, try and erase it, and change their behavior. But it's rare.

Okay, so maybe people who refuse to release their ignorance are assholes. But ignorance of something by itself is not assholery. So i guess what I'm saying is they're assholes if you explain why something is bad and they continue to do it anyway.

So this term microaggression has value if we can use it educate folks on why some behavior is wrong.

Also, please don't feed ducks bread.
posted by valkane at 6:57 AM on July 9 [12 favorites]


If a minority group has an experience, and chooses language to describe that experience, and you are not part of that group or have not shared that experience, and you come in and tell them they don't understand their own experience and that they chose the wrong word, then you're part of the problem and you should really think about what you're doing, why you're doing it, and why you assume you have the authority to do it.
posted by maxsparber at 7:01 AM on July 9 [33 favorites]


If a minority group has an experience, and chooses language to describe that experience, and you are not part of that group or have not shared that experience, and you come in and tell them they don't understand their own experience and that they chose the wrong word, then you're part of the problem and you should really think about what you're doing, why you're doing it, and why you assume you have the authority to do it.

Words have meaning; pointing out that something that isn't aggressive is being labeled an aggression is in no way being part of the problem. But being the self-appointed language police is indeed being part of the problem.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 7:06 AM on July 9 [4 favorites]


I agree, one more dead town's last parade. The word "microaggression" has a meaning. So by "language police," I take it you mean the people who object to it use?
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:11 AM on July 9 [7 favorites]


I agree that words have meaning, but words have meaning in the ears of the behearer. If I say something and other people disagree, then I can use my cultural capital to overpower them and demand that they understand things my way, or I can take a step back and say to myself "Well, they are using words differently than me but I understand what they are saying. How can I change what I'm saying to improve communication?"

I love to know where people are from because I like talking about food, especially location-specific food.

Over the past few years, I've come to acknowledge the "where are you from" micro-aggression and therefore have (perhaps unintentionally) shifted from asking "Where are you from" to "Are you from [current town]?" It's an incredibly easy shift, and it clarifies that I'm interested in the person's lived experiences, and not their ethnic background.
posted by rebent at 7:12 AM on July 9 [9 favorites]


I think it's easy to skip over children as an unprivileged class of people. Childhood is the time when we are first exposed to oppression and there is no better way to learn to emulate something than to experience it.

This is complicated by the protections that children need as they grow up, but even a blatant type of oppression, institutional corporal punishment, is still legal in 19 states. In 2014! Despite both intuitive and scientific proof that it is harmful.

The US is one of two countries that refuses to ratify the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child.

Which is all to say, maybe it shouldn't be too surprising that grown adults quickly dismiss the idea of microaggressions with replies like, "stop complaining," since another common aggression against boys and girls is the idea that emotions should be bottled up and the idea that, "you're a big girl, start acting like it, big girls don't cry."

In that view, it's not surprising that grown adults carry this attitude forward and project it on to others, especially in the case where grown men dismiss microaggressions that are experienced by women.
posted by Skwirl at 7:13 AM on July 9 [9 favorites]


Words have meaning;

Yes they do. And it's neither your job nor your privilege to police that meaning.
posted by maxsparber at 7:13 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


Microaggressions are aggressive. The aggression, though, isn't in the conscious intent of the speaker but rather in how systems of prejudice and oppression operate in discourse. A microaggression is a speech act whereby patterns of dominance are reinforced, not because a speaker is mean and wants to treat his/her interlocutor poorly but because our language has a history of operating to keep certain groups of people "in their place."
posted by audi alteram partem at 7:13 AM on July 9 [9 favorites]


the questioner is true and correct in saying that they did not intend insult or offense, but the receiver is also justified in feeling aggrieved, not necessarily by the questioner, but by the culture that the questioner has blithely reinforced by their insensitivity

Some of the things at the links seem like old-fashioned racism, with nothing micro about it. And a lot of others don't seem like microagressions, since the speaker isn't being aggressive, even though pain is caused. What they are in microinjuries, and microinjuries can certainly add up.

Calling them "aggressions" is both untrue, and unhelpful, since people can quite rightly respond that they weren't being aggressive. Calling them "microinjuries" is both accurate and helpful, since it communicates that even if you didn't intend harm, you caused it.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 7:14 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


You guys do know that at least one of the links discuss the terminology, right? NoraReed even pointed it out in-thread.
posted by zombieflanders at 7:14 AM on July 9 [4 favorites]


So by "language police," I take it you mean the people who object to it use?

No, I mean the people who insist that "microaggression" includes acts which are not aggressions at all. If I invented something, called it the pastamobile, and people were surprised that had nothing to do with pasta or cars, which party doesn't understand word formation?
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 7:15 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Welp, I guess RingTFAs is not going to happen, since the usual rules-lawyering and nitpicking (and simultaneous accusations of and engaging in language policing) is already in full swing.
posted by zombieflanders at 7:16 AM on July 9 [18 favorites]


If I invented something, called it the pastamobile, and people were surprised that had nothing to do with pasta or cars, which party doesn't understand word formation?

"This is my food truck -- I call it the Pastamobile."
"Wait -- you also serve bread. So it's not just pasta."
"Well, no, but--"
"And it's not currently moving. It's just sitting there."
"No, but--"
"So it has nothing to do with pasta or cars."
"Actually, it really--"
"LANGUAGE POLICE! LANGUAGE POLICE!"
posted by Etrigan at 7:19 AM on July 9 [16 favorites]


Yes they do. And it's neither your job nor your privilege to police that meaning.

But it's your job and/or privilege to redefine the word "aggression" to mean something it doesn't, I see.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 7:21 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Calling them "aggressions"

They didn't. They called them microagressions. Which is a different word.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:22 AM on July 9 [9 favorites]


Also, someone should do a post like this but call them nanoagressions , and see how the people come out of the woodwork to rules-lawyer that. "This isn't that offensive, it should be more like picoaggression, amirite?"
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:24 AM on July 9 [10 favorites]


'I'm not homophobic because I'm not afraid of gay people.'
posted by shakespeherian at 7:24 AM on July 9 [26 favorites]


They didn't. They called them microagressions. Which is a different word.

Ah, right, I forgot that English word formation follows no patterns at all.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 7:24 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Do people really not understand what terms of art are?
posted by kmz at 7:26 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


'I'm not homophobic because I'm not afraid of gay people.'

To be fair, I really think there needs to be a different word used to differentiate between people who are afraid of X people and thus can maybe be reassured that actually X people aren't coming for their babies, and people who actively hate X people and want them all to die in a fire.
posted by corb at 7:26 AM on July 9 [6 favorites]


Solorzano, D., Ceja, M., & Yosso, T. (2000). "Critical Race Theory, Racial Microaggressions, and Campus Racial Climate: The Experiences of African American College Students." Journal of Negro Education, 69(1/2), 60. [pdf]
posted by audi alteram partem at 7:27 AM on July 9


Ah, right, I forgot that English word formation follows no patterns at all.

I forgot that English word formation

that English word formation

word formation

like I said, a new word. which is different. than the other word.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:27 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


New words have meaning when they're coined. Meaning is not fundamentally logically derivable from roots. This is semantics 101 stuff; English, for one, is a language rife with idioms and fixed phrases and derived words that stray from some or all literal-minded word-part constructions constantly, and no one (save the occasional bored pedant or enthusiastic semantician) tends to blink an eye about it.

And yet English speakers will at times make great fun out of the fact that German compound words describe a thing for which we have one word with a combination of three other words that are not that word we use, as if their language is somehow not very well-established as a functioning thing.

The thing here is, people in general are pretty crap about being realistic about the structure of language and the way that meaning becomes attached to words. It's pretty actively silly to hear someone say "I'm using novel term x to signify concept y" and then spend time insisting that that coinage is broken or wrong because by parsing out the roots as if 1 + 1 = 2 is how language works.

Conversations like these would be way less tedious if people could more consistently cope with the newness of words and their personal dispreferences for same in some more productive fashion than turning the conversation to their insistence about logic and root word arithmetic. If you can understand the concept, discuss the concept and quit doing the Yeah But Logically dance about a coinage.
posted by cortex at 7:31 AM on July 9 [30 favorites]


I am a member of at least a couple of groups that are subject to "microaggressions." I'm not heterosexual, for instance. I'm a white woman parenting an adopted black kid. Our family of five includes two transgendered members. I homeschool. I'm fat.

All of these things, and more, subject me to the kind of small irritations that add up to big stresses. The 10,000th iteration of the well-intentioned question or the clueless comment.

(On the other hand, I'm white, middle-class, and mostly able-bodied, and I have been clueless, awkward, and irritating as well.)

But I don't like the word "microaggression." I think it does a good job of describing what it feels like to be on the receiving end, and that's useful. On the other hand, it seems to me to ascribe hostility to a confluence of factors like cluelessness, bad manners, and honest curiosity.

I know that we can spend eons talking about intent vs. affect, and I support the idea of holding people accountable for the bad effects of their actions even if their intentions were neutral or good. But I'd love to come up with an alternative to "microaggression" that still captures the experience of being on the receiving end, without turning every careless assumption, dumb question, or moment of insensitivity into an assault.

I also think sometimes that coining the idea of microaggressions is a way of clinging to an identity as a victim, parsing smaller and smaller offenses into "oppression." There's a certain perverse satisfaction in being part of an out-group, and if you've formed your identity and built community around that, it's hard to let go of.

I know that the cumulative effect of these stresses is real. All my adult life I've had the experience of walking into, say, a roomful of lesbians and feeling the tension I'd stopped noticing fall away. But I have my doubts that cataloging small injuries in encyclopedic detail is a good response to this experience.
posted by not that girl at 7:34 AM on July 9 [12 favorites]


If a minority group has an experience, and chooses language to describe that experience

If you look at the original Dr. Pierce who coined the term way back when....interesting guy. It looks like the word came from his early efforts to do actual clinical studies and quantify the problem. When you look at it from that point of view, the word has a lot of utility. It makes sense.
posted by gimonca at 7:37 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


There's no question that "microaggression" implies "aggression." This ascribes an intent to the speaker that is pretty much never actually there.

The word "slight" has been around for centuries to describe this sort of behavior.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 7:39 AM on July 9 [5 favorites]


Well, we're discussing the *concept* of microaggressions. So you don't like the word - big deal - but your objection to it isn't relevant to the discussion.
posted by agregoli at 7:42 AM on July 9 [6 favorites]


This ascribes an intent to the speaker

No. It does not. The term is used in various communities (social justice activism, psychological counseling, linguistic and discourse analysis), and it describes the operation of power through discourse. It does not assign motive to individuals.
posted by audi alteram partem at 7:42 AM on July 9 [17 favorites]


There's no question that "microaggression" implies "aggression."

Except there is question if you step out of total personal autonomy in defining the words around you and instead look at what's being said by the people actually using those words. It's fine if you think that the coinage is inartful, but get over it. There are far bigger fishes to fry in the English language, and there have been many frycooks before you.
posted by cortex at 7:42 AM on July 9 [16 favorites]


But it's your job and/or privilege to redefine the word "aggression" to mean something it doesn't, I see.

I didn't create the word.

Listen, this has been a hard road for me too. I'm a guy with an opinion, like a lot of guys, and it's been a hard pill to swallow that there are a lot of situations where my opinion doesn't really need to be heard, because I don't have any expertise in the subject I am talking about. I live in a world where I am told my opinion has an assumed value, because, as a white dude, there is an assumed level of education and authority that isn't really based on anything I have earned. So I spent a lot of my life flapping my gums, because I could, and it produced no good, just wind.

I generally try -- and often fail -- to start from the presumption that people are the experts on the subjects of their own life. Or, at least, they have greater expertise on that subject than I do. So when they talk about their life, and use language that they choose to describe it, I try to remember that this is not really an invitation for me to argue with them, even when they describe something that feels like it implicates me. Because I really, really am not the expert here, and the only way I am going to learn about their experience is by listening to them and asking questions when I am confused.

The subject of micro aggression is not improved by privileged linguists coming in to demand perfect language use. That moves the subject from the real area of expertise -- people's experience of their own lives -- into an academic, privileged sphere where anybody with a dictionary and a presumption that they have an equally valid opinion about the subject, despite not having experienced it, gets to claim expertise. And gets to direct the topic to one of language, instead of oppression.
posted by maxsparber at 7:43 AM on July 9 [10 favorites]


To add: the term is about the effect on the listeners and on society at large.
posted by audi alteram partem at 7:43 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


A speaker's constantly nitpicking over a word has the sometimes-unintended rhetorical effect of making it look like the idea the word actually denotes doesn't matter to them.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 7:50 AM on July 9 [14 favorites]


Criticizing the term "microagression" strikes me as a version of the tone argument.
posted by johnofjack at 7:54 AM on July 9 [4 favorites]


No. It does not.

Aggression requires intent. (And if you're telling people that their intuition about their own native language is incorrect, you probably should step back and figure out what you got wrong.)
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 7:55 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


Dude, drop it. Rest comfortable in the fact that we're all wrong and you're right and go read some other thread.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:56 AM on July 9 [15 favorites]


Can we please ignore this derail and talk about the post topic?
posted by agregoli at 7:56 AM on July 9 [7 favorites]


Wow, what a derail to a great FPP. I want to QFT from above:

"If a minority group has an experience, and chooses language to describe that experience, and you are not part of that group or have not shared that experience, and you come in and tell them they don't understand their own experience and that they chose the wrong word, then you're part of the problem and you should really think about what you're doing, why you're doing it, and why you assume you have the authority to do it."
posted by maxsparber at 7:01 AM on July 9 [7 favorites −] Favorite added! [Flagged]


(Note - That's my flag - 'fantastic'.)
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 7:57 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


I had no idea that the APA used the term 'microaggression'. Fascinating. I couldn't find it in the links but where did the term originate?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:59 AM on July 9


Criticizing the term "microagression" strikes me as a version of the tone argument.

It's also kind of an example of a microagression in itself. Not necessarily driven by personal malice, it is using dominant culture as a way to undercut the ability of oppressed people to define their experiences (complicated by the internet veiled identity thing)....
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:00 AM on July 9 [12 favorites]


I find microaggression to be a super useful, eye-opening way to describe patterns of behavior. When it comes to individually classifying various events/slights/whatever, maybe it's harder but I feel the larger point is where the utility really comes in. Most of the debate here seems to be around the classification issue, and I can see why that could be tricky, but does anyone here deny the existence of the phenomenon, and the usefulness of giving it a word?
posted by cell divide at 8:01 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Yeah, this is a great post, thank you. It's helpful to learn about microaggressions I might be committing without being aware of how they are heard. And for the stuff I have been subjected to, it's comforting to see it called out.
posted by aka burlap at 8:02 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


cell divide, the people creating this debate are doing so specifically to deny the existence the phenomenon. They have no dog in this fight.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 8:02 AM on July 9 [5 favorites]


If you look at the original Dr. Pierce who coined the term way back when....interesting guy.

The paper I linked to above [pdf] begins with two quotes from Pierce. One from 1974 and one from 1995 which demonstrates just how long academic disciplines have been working with the concept, though as the author of the paper says, it remains under-studied, even in critical discourse analysis circles. Still, there's work done over decades about the phenomena that provides a good grounding for understanding for those willing to engage.

Part of respecting the idea that "words have meanings" is accepting the ways in which meanings change. Discourse is complex. There are discourse communities that use the same or similar words to mean quite different things. We navigate those differences uneasily even when we can keep in mind that they occur, and it is all too easy to slip back into the habit of thought that the way I use words is the way others use words.
posted by audi alteram partem at 8:06 AM on July 9


[A couple comments removed. This is at this point really baldly going around in circles; objections to the construction have been clearly stated, let the thread move on.]
posted by cortex at 8:24 AM on July 9 [4 favorites]


Man, if I had a nickel for every time someone told me I was "looking for stuff to get mad about," I could afford to quit my job and have the time to actually look for stuff to get mad about the way I was being accused of.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:44 AM on July 9 [16 favorites]


Also, I think the term "aggression" is a lot broader and covers a lot more territory than some people are giving it credit for.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:44 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


Man, if I had a nickel for every time someone told me I was "looking for stuff to get mad about," I could afford to quit my job and have the time to actually look for stuff to get mad about the way I was being accused of.

We all know that you'd just buy more underpants with those nickels.
posted by Etrigan at 8:49 AM on July 9 [11 favorites]


One of the stories in our 3rd grade reader was about a couple of little kids our age, one white and one black, and the friendship they formed at school. One day after school the white kid's mom sees them playing together and on the way home asks about her kid's new friend and says, "Good for you for making friends with a black kid!"

Mom says and does a couple more small things like this (I can't remember -- it was the 3rd Grade), until eventually she gathers up a bunch of old used clothing, much of which needs mending, and asks her kid to deliver it to the black kid's family. After all, they can probably use the help, and everybody knows black moms can mend and sew. How nice!

Of course, the black family rejects the offer. And they seem a little PO'd about it. They have plenty of everything, including clothes, and mom can't sew. When white kid gets home with the bundle of rejected clothes and explains what happened, white mom clues in, becomes mortified, and heads straight for the phone to call up and apologize.

We kids in class were really stumped by that. We couldn't make sense of it during discussion. After all, white mom was just trying to be nice! That's what matters!

Eventually our teacher got tired of waiting for us to figure it out and explained it to us.

"Oh!"

They didn't call it "microaggression" ("sensitivity," I think?), but if I understand some of the comments above, "microaggression" tries to capture the way language and power speak through subjects a lot of times, while the word also speaks to the measurable psychological effects those actions and comments have upon victims.
posted by notyou at 9:00 AM on July 9 [9 favorites]


Conversations like these would be way less tedious if people could more consistently cope with the newness of words and their personal dispreferences for same in some more productive fashion than turning the conversation to their insistence about logic and root word arithmetic. If you can understand the concept, discuss the concept and quit doing the Yeah But Logically dance about a coinage.

It seems strange that this defence of "microaggression" as not really connoting aggression is coming up in a context where implicit meanings are widely recognized as a form of microaggression. The words "niggardly" and "chairman" aren't racist or sexist, by cortex's logic.

The concept of microaggression and its categorization does seem useful, though. I'm always on the lookout for ways to cause less disturbance to the people around me.
posted by Coventry at 9:20 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


The words "niggardly" and "chairman" aren't racist or sexist, by cortex's logic.

cortex's logic is pretty obviously against all logic-based prescriptive definitions of words that exclude nuance, particularly when such logic-based prescriptive definitions just happen to be used to deny marginalized groups the ability to define what offends them and/or to defend the non-marginalized.
posted by Etrigan at 9:33 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


[Seriously, though, let's drop it? That includes me along with everybody else.]
posted by cortex at 9:36 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


notyou, that is pretty deep for a 3rd grade reader! awesome.
posted by desjardins at 10:06 AM on July 9


It might have been 4th grade.
posted by notyou at 10:15 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


Amazing post! I've been waiting for studies linking these to health outcomes for ~20 years. Imagine being on the receiving end of these anywhere from a handful to hundreds of times a day. Depression & high blood pressure must be just the tip of the iceberg.
posted by sudama at 10:24 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Well 3rd or 4th grade, I still call seriously awesome. If more people had to think about things like this from the time they were 8-11 years old on, perhaps we'd get to have fewer instances of reinvent the wheel every time anyone wanted to talk about it as an adult.

And I don't just mean by making those who aren't aware they are committing microagressions without malice that they are doing it or even those who might be allied with the idea but opposed to the specific language used (though, Christ, seriously, you guys..)

Personally, I think it's far more useful to have language to describe the shitty ways you are constantly feeling. In fact, it's probably just about the most important tool you can have in dealing with it, especially if you're a hormonal ball of Pre-Pubescent and Pubescent Feeling.

It's a very imprecise metaphor but there was a "a-ha" moment when I realized what people actually meant when they used words like "gay" or "homosexual" or even related slurs, a moment when I actually got what that meant, and I realized that described me. Though it turned up all kinds of other issues, it was mostly just a revelation that suddenly made a part of me I didn't understand make sense. And feeling that way -- that the way you are feeling that you never see reflected in mainstream discussion -- is also someone else's experience so much that there is a word for it -- that feeling -- even if the word is a negative one that you don't think precisely identifies your experience -- is a god damn relief.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 10:31 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


I think "microaggression" can also be useful as a flexible term for marginalizing daily shit that people outside the effected group tend to dismiss, especially because it isn't aggressive or ill-intentioned enough.
posted by NoraReed at 11:16 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


Still working my way through the links and dropped back in to see how the thread was going. I'm disappointed but unsurprised that it was derailed by the old "you're using the wrong word for the thing you experience" chestnut. But it was worth it to see cortex get involved and then mod himself. Man, cutbacks lead to so much multitasking...
posted by billiebee at 11:36 AM on July 9 [8 favorites]


Amazing post! I've been waiting for studies linking these to health outcomes for ~20 years. Imagine being on the receiving end of these anywhere from a handful to hundreds of times a day. Depression & high blood pressure must be just the tip of the iceberg.

Aye. The more interesting topic for me is how *do* you react? How do you manage the pain of it? Getting angry is natural but carrying a lot of anger around isn't going to be a good outcome.
Retaliation may feel good temporarily but doesn't solve anything either. And also how do you avoid the trap of removing oneself from social interactions because of fear of hurtful remarks?
posted by storybored at 12:25 PM on July 9


Being asked "where are you from? No, where are you really from?" dozens, if not hundreds, of times from a direction of Othering Classification rather than a place of curiosity means that I am now psychologically programmed to suspect you and raise my shields if you ask me that, even if you mean no offense. I will begin my base relationship to you with an assumption that you are a racist, even if you are probably a nice person, and this is how the pattern of micro aggressions in society hurts both of us.

Yep, and since i'm biracial, i get the awesome double whammy of this of:

random fucker: that question
me: answer
RF: What, no you're not, you look way too white for that

So, got it. I'm nonwhite enough that people ask me this question probably 3/5 times i venture out in public to a place i don't regularly go which is conductive to smalltalk, but then they want to fucking argue with me about it? Fuuuuuu.

It's to the point that if i get the "what, but you don't look/no you're not" type response i just assume the person is a piece of shit. It's usually true too, since one time a guy returned with his friends and then asked all of them(everyone was white too, lol) what ethnic background they guessed/would think i had.

Yea, seriously.

A ridiculous statement. Foreigners in Japan are routinely denied access to housing, bank credit, employment, etc etc the list goes on and on. But this is systematic discrimination not microagression.

This is soooooo YMMV though. I've talked to white guys who have gone there for various reasons with permission to officially stay and work and not just visit, and walked right in to lucrative bartending jobs and networked really well from there. Their entire appeal and door opener most of the time was just the fact they were white. They then package up the few shitty experiences they had and decide they've experienced Real Racism.

What doctorfedora described is absolutely a thing. I mean disagree with it if you want, but it's not a universal experience. I just, personally, have never heard the narrative you're describing... while i've heard the one i and doctorfedora described more than once. Yea, if you're white and you can speak japanese you still get treated like, as some witty writer once said, a cute dog that can do a cool trick... but it seems to open just as many doors as it slams.

And, more importantly, even if it was as shitty as you describe for everyone... it still wouldn't change the fact that there's plenty of white dudes who go there for a few months and return saying/thinking/believing that exact garbage concept.


Oh, and to barely respond to a tiny little portion of the derail above

Most "microaggressions" are either not micro or not aggressions.

The aggressor does not get to decide what was or was not an aggression in these types of situations. If something comes off as aggressive, it's up to the person dishing it to figure out how to reframe or reorient(or just fucking stop) what they're doing until they can figure out how to do it in a non aggressive-seeming way, or just avoid it altogether.

This kind of thing needs to be processed by the people around the situation more like "Ok, so it came off to them as aggressive, lets examine why" rather than "I don't think it's aggressive, and the person who did it didn't think it was either, so you're the weird one with a problem" which is how it currently goes most of the time.

I agree that some are well above micro, but i also thought that was a fucking asinine derail. The point is that just because it doesn't seem aggressive to you doesn't mean it doesn't feel/read like it, especially if you haven't experienced something like it 1000 fucking times. The entire point is that it doesn't matter if it's a really minor thing if everyone feels ok doing it, and you feel a little more excluded every goddamn time.
posted by emptythought at 12:49 PM on July 9 [10 favorites]


"What are you?" dogged me for years, until I came up with my current standard response: I ask the person to guess. I say it in a friendly tone, everyone's smiling; I don't use it as a bludgeon or anything. But the question puts me off balance, and asking people to guess puts them back on the spot. Maybe they're worried that they'll get it wrong, or that they'll offend me somehow, or that trying to guess is somehow terribly gauche in a way that asking isn't. Well too bad, motherfucker. You wanted to talk about my ethnicity, let's talk about it.

Caveat: If the person has been talking to me for more than ten minutes, or if the question has come up organically, or if they say "Do you mind if I ask what your ethnicity is?" of course I dispense with the guessing game and just tell them. These are almost never the case, though.
posted by sunset in snow country at 2:29 PM on July 9 [5 favorites]


"What are you?" dogged me for years, until I came up with my current standard response: I ask the person to guess. I say it in a friendly tone, everyone's smiling; I don't use it as a bludgeon or anything. But the question puts me off balance, and asking people to guess puts them back on the spot. Maybe they're worried that they'll get it wrong, or that they'll offend me somehow, or that trying to guess is somehow terribly gauche in a way that asking isn't. Well too bad, motherfucker. You wanted to talk about my ethnicity, let's talk about it.

I hate the guessing game. Most people just start with the guessing and don't even ask. It's just so arrogant to me to assume that I want to partake in the guessing, like what on earth could be in it for me. It's not like I put on an inscrutable costume and am egging people to guess and they win a prize. I feel like encouraging guessing wouldn't put anyone back on their heels at all, it would just encourage people because it would be like acknowledging I look "weird" and "exotic" and that I too enjoy helping people go through as many Asian and South American countries they can think of while staring intently at my eyes and hair.
posted by sweetkid at 2:46 PM on July 9 [4 favorites]


then they want to fucking argue with me about it? Fuuuuuu.


yes, this times 1000. The arguing is worse than the guessing.
posted by sweetkid at 2:48 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]


MCMikeNamara: Personally, I think it's far more useful to have language to describe the shitty ways you are constantly feeling.

I was thrilled to understand the "microaggression" concept, because it helped me get why some days I want to chew nails and bust walls.

I use a power wheelchair and I take public transit. Every day I have ample opportunity to hear these conversational openers:
  1. Oh, isn't it nice that they let you out today!
  2. Why don't your legs work?
  3. *wordlessly grabs something out of my hand and stuffs it in my backpack*
I have spent hours developing the right responses to these intrusions. Working with peers and a therapist, trying to get the wording just right so I don't make myself even angrier, convey a self-determined message without evoking the "Oh! you're an angry cripple!" response. Here's what I'm using this month:
  1. I close my eyes and turn my head away.
  2. "Long story, some other year." (Because actually, they do function, for various values of "work," but it's a complex medical story I'm not interested in sharing with a stranger who doesn't even bother to say "Nice day!" first.)
  3. "Hands off! I didn't ask you to touch my stuff!"
and that's before I do something inspiring like get off the bus and go to the library, where a whole new set of annoying stereotyped interactions await me.

TL;DR The concept of "microaggression" helps me comprehend my place in a disabling society. It permits me to recognize that I don't have to accept unsolicited help. Even though I am visibly different than most of the people around me, I can still have boundaries on my privacy and person.
posted by Jesse the K at 4:29 PM on July 9 [15 favorites]


I had just been looking up Dr. Sue's papers in another window. Very nice to see this here, especially since I'm trying to put together a hand-out on working with clients from cultures different from the counselor's.

From the paper:
For mental health purposes, it would be useful to explore the coping mechanisms used by people of color to stave off the negative effects of microaggressions. The fact that people of color have had to face daily microaggressions and have continued to maintain their dignity in the face of such hostility is a testament to their resiliency (D. W. Sue, 2003). What coping strategies have been found to serve them well?
It's fascinating, in a fucked up way, to start identifying the ways in which normal human responses to oppression create behaviors that the oppressors then use to justify further oppression. I'm reading about how racial minorities in the US are generally underserved by the mental-health community, and I'm thinking that I probably wouldn't want to put myself up for judgment to the White establishment, either.
posted by jaguar at 4:59 PM on July 9 [4 favorites]


My favorite answer to a question I think is inappropriate has always been a cryptic, conspiratorial, eyes-half-closed look, while saying, "Not what you'd think."

"So, what part of town did you grow up in?"
*Shifty eyes* "Not the part you'd think."

"What religion are you?"
*Shifty eyes* "Not the one you'd think."

"Which [Family Name] are you related to, anyway?"
*Shifty eyes* "Weeeell - not the one you'd think, actually."
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:25 PM on July 9 [7 favorites]


There was a lot of really bad argumentation on this thread, and I wish I'd been able to comment on it. But the basic "microaggression" concept is a useful one, I think, and hopefully it'll prove so to those who have to endure these sorts of slings and arrows.
posted by uosuaq at 8:22 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


I always love reading these because I always find something new I've been doing and not thinking of, or used to do and never realized it could be hurtful. I grew up in Texas and probably said "You don't speak Spanish??" to 5-10 different friends throughout high school who I assumed should given their families. Never til now did that seem like a bad thing, but I can definitely see that they probably got tired of it long before I pointed it out.
posted by DynamiteToast at 1:41 PM on July 10 [2 favorites]


I always love reading these because I always find something new I've been doing and not thinking of, or used to do and never realized it could be hurtful.

I love this attitude and have to say that I feel the same - I feel recognition for some of the instances of microaggressions toward nonwhites and women but it's not uncommon for me to be like "OMG have totally done that and will think harder about it now"with other things where I have privilege - body size/weight, able bodied, class privilege, cis privilege...
posted by sweetkid at 2:54 PM on July 10 [2 favorites]



I use a power wheelchair and I take public transit. Every day I have ample opportunity to hear these conversational openers:

Oh, isn't it nice that they let you out today!
Why don't your legs work?
*wordlessly grabs something out of my hand and stuffs it in my backpack*


What. The. Fuck.

What is wrong with people?
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 10:37 PM on July 10 [2 favorites]


Still working my way through the links, but wanted to respond, because this discussion comes up a lot and I always want to say something but never do because it's just so sickening and weird (I mean, how do people NOT assume that asking "what" a PERSON is will be offensive? A person isn't a "what"! How can someone not know implicitly that asking probing questions about someone's bloodline or personal characteristics will be CREEPY and BIZARRE? Those lines of questioning, especially coming from white people, to be frank, give me that same kind of shiver as those "recreational" genetic tests do, because all that interest just feels so eugenics-y to me even in the best of times):

yes, this times 1000. The arguing is worse than the guessing.

I think those ~conversations~ get worse and worse the longer they go on. I'm white, but for whatever reason, I get the "what are you?" and "where are you from?" and "you don't speak [whatever language]?!," etc, questions a lot. I don't really mind the (at this point, refreshingly blunt) "[startled pause] you're white, right?" question so much, because at least that's a clear-cut yes/no question for me. But usually how the conversation continues even after a very direct answer is that the person decides to have an argument: "but you LOOK [whatever ethnicity]" "but you must have [whatever] blood in you!" "[side-eye] Are you suuuure? Because you have [random attribute supposedly "from" a given ethnicity]" etc etc etc.

But even after the "argument" dies down -- even creepier are the long weird exoticization fantasies that some men like to then engage in right in front of me *while* holding some kind of guessing game/argument/~conversation~ about my ancestral bloodline. One moment that sticks out in my mind is when, back in high school, my behind-the-wheel driving instructor went into this whole long monologue about how I should become a Mossad mole in the Middle East that was basically a soft core Bond fanfic, and then he made the other students in the car (both boys) say aloud that they agreed. But for a lot of guys, "white chick" is fetishized and exotic enough to provoke some unsettling and inappropriately porn-y monologue even after they've accepted that I'm white and don't need them to "correct" or "inform" me of my own race.

I'm sure many women (and would guess especially Asian women) have to wade through way more of that fetishization than I do, and I frankly feel terrible for them, because it is just so fucking uncomfortable. You're not just objectified, it's like you're also starring against your will in someone's personal Racist Porn Fantasy. You're unwillingly reinforcing structural racism through your own objectification. I was conscious of racism before puberty, but puberty introduced this whole new component of structural racism. Blech.
posted by rue72 at 11:09 PM on July 12 [4 favorites]


RE: Feminist looking for something to be angry about.
So, anecdote time, and I guess this as good a thread to put this one, as it has been bothering me for several days since it happened:

So I was hanging out at my local bar. Just talking to some of the other regulars, meeting new people, as I like to do now (I used to be horrible at it, but I am learning).

So I was sitting with a table of women. At first it was just myself and there three women. Two of them had just come from a concert, and it was a performer I really like, who I did not know was playing in town, and I was having a great time just talking with them about this artist and a bunch of very civil and fun things. Earlier in the night I had run into one woman outside the bathroom (this bar only has one bathroom, so it's a shared unisex situation), and I was in line ahead of her, and she was commenting about how much she hates having to wait for the bathroom. I informed her of the funny trivia fact that for most humans, urination should only take about 21 seconds, due to a bunch of physiological reasons, etc, etc, and we made a joke about timing how long we peed, and many laughs were shared over this story later in the evening as I was talking with her and her friends.

Towards the end of the night, they invited another guy to join us, who at least one of them apparently knew in some regard, though it was never clear to me how.

So, anyway, I was still talking with one of the women, and the guy decides to tell a joke. As best I can remember it, it's the joke about Adam in the Garden of Eden, and how he's lonely, so he asks God to make him a partner, etc, etc. The set up involves God saying "well, I will need one of your arms, a leg, some teeth, etc, etc, etc", you know, the usual to make an "equal" partner. Of course, the premise is loaded with all sorts of cultural assumptions, many of them horribly sexist, appeals to supernatural authority, you can really go all out and just dump a bunch of critical examinations of the subtexts. So the "punch-line' of the joke is that Adam then says to God, "what can I get for just a rib?"

So the table goes silent. I look at each of the 3 women there, and we all look at each other rather dumbfounded, and those of us who had been in another conversation just kind of go "wait a minute, did I miss something in the context of this joke?" So I ask the guy to repeat the joke, from the beginning, in case there was something that I was missing in the context. But he repeated the joke verbatim, and nothing else was added to make it feel any better.
And his only defense of this was that "It's just a joke."

Just a joke. Right? It's funny because it's just a joke. I disagreed. As did the 3 women I has been sitting with having a very nice casual conversation with.

So, just in that small casual encounter, I had suddenly been subjected to some other guy telling a horribly sexist joke, one that reenforces a strong gendered power dynamic, basically equating the "creation of woman" as inferior, as she was only made from one of Adam's ribs, rather than being created as a full equal, etc, etc.

So I told the guy that the joke was not funny, and that I found it offensive. At that point, having been at the bar already for several hours, I decided that that was my cue to leave. I didn't want a confrontation, I didn't want to get into a fight (though I really, really, really wanted to put my foot in this guys ass, I was so angry). But as I was leaving, the guy stops me and tries to set up some other joke, which I did not follow at all, but it was something like one of those "gotcha" jokes where if you agree with their first statement, you automatically agree with some other bullshit. I just said no. The joke was not funny, and I turned and walked away, still fuming.

Sadly, I do not know the aftermath or outcome of the 3 women who were still there when I left. I will likely run into them on some other occasion, and maybe we can have more nice conversations about cats or silly television shows. But sadly, on that occasion, my night was ruined by some guy deciding that by telling a sexist joke and getting everyone to laugh at it, that his being funny made sexism and sexist ideas acceptable.

I have had several moments of L'esprit de l'escalier after the fact, but more and more I feel like it has really helped me to clarify my discomfort with this kind of social dynamic. It has also made me want to definitely be more assertive in not condoning these kinds of things.

I don't even think it's a matter of "punching-up" with jokes, really. The joke was not funny on so many levels outside of just the sexism (the normative Judeo-Christian creation narrative, the bad assertion of "natural order" of society, the framing that it claims to hold of "women's place" compared to men).

I know my reaction was not great, and I know I was angry to the point of not being able to respond with any composure or restraint, which is the main reason I felt the need to leave.


The Twist: I'm a 38 year old man. I know I have been blind to this kind of thing throughout my very privileged life, especially in regards to how most of the time, "jokes" like this are aimed at "not me" and thus I did not feel that I had any stake in the game, but the more I see it now, I see that I do have a stake in the game, as it puts me, be default, on the side of the people making the jokes/micro-aggressions/etc. I give tacit approval my NOT speaking up, and by not holding people accountable for saying really harmful things in my presence (IRL or even online).
posted by daq at 3:16 PM on July 22 [4 favorites]


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