As a group of students begins studying for a calculus exam, a white student turns to an Asian peer and says, “Hey, would you mind helping me solve this problem? It’s really difficult, but you can probably do it.” The Asian student agrees to help, but for some reason feels uncomfortable with the way the question was asked.
Is the Asian student being oversensitive? Was the white student subtly and subconsciously displaying racial prejudice against Asians? Could both be true?
According to Dr. Derald Sue, a professor of psychology at Columbia University, the Asian student may have been the victim of a microaggression — an “everyday slight, putdown, indignity, or invalidation unintentionally directed toward a marginalized group.”
“When you try to bring the issue of microaggressions to the attention of people who are completely unaware that they have delivered a microaggression, they get defensive and deny it and tend to say that you’re being paranoid or you’re being oversensitive,” Sue tells me. “Many microaggressions are so subtle that neither target nor perpetrator may entirely understand what is going on.”
According to Sue, there are many types of microaggressions, based on race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or any other factor that can make a group “socially marginalized.” These microaggressions can be expressed verbally (as with the white and Asian students), nonverbally (as with a woman clutching her purse when a black man walks by), and environmentally (as with an educational curriculum containing few books by female authors).
Originally coined in the 1970s by Chester Pierce, an African-American psychiatrist at Harvard, the term “microaggression” has made a comeback in recent years. “It has become one of the most researched areas in the professional literature of psychology,” Sue says. “It’s now going into popular literature as well.”
Racial minorities in particular have taken to the concept of microaggression because, Sue says, the taxonomy of his research “provided a language for how people of color could describe the experiences that they’ve had with well-intentioned white people unaware that they were delivering insulting putdowns.”
The term has become particularly popular on America’s college campuses. In November at UCLA, a group of minority students claimed that their professor committed a microaggression when he corrected a student’s grammar in a research paper by repeatedly changing the word “indigenous” from upper- to lower-case. At the University of Michigan, a member of the Black Student Union said that the group’s Martin Luther King Day protest last month was in part an effort to “combat microaggressions” on campus.
Fordham has a web page devoted to training educators in what microaggressions are and how to avoid them, and Fordham students have taken photos with signs on which they have inscribed the microaggressions they believe have been inflicted on them.
“My MCAT instructor keeps referring to the writer of our passages with male pronouns when they do not list an author by name,” one woman writes, citing this as a gender microaggression.
When a gay man’s sibling said, “You won’t have a normal family,” the man argued that saying a gay family isn’t normal is a sexual-orientation microaggression.
According to another respondent, saying, “You can’t be a woman if you can’t reproduce,” is a gender microaggression.
However, microaggressions are inherently ambiguous, Sue says, and therefore hard to identify. “There are things on the popular websites that I would not classify as racial or gender or sexual-orientation microaggressions,” Sue tells me. “I think that some people are misinterpreting what microaggressions are.”
When I asked Sue if he could provide me with an instance of a borderline racial microaggression, he disagreed with the premise of the question. “[Racial] microaggressions represent a clash of racial realities, and the question you’re raising is whose reality is the correct reality,” he says. “It’s an issue of power, the power to define racial reality.”
Generally speaking, when identifying microaggressions Sue considers it best to believe the one who perceives the bias. “Almost all of the studies indicate that the people who are most disempowered have the most accurate perception of a situation of bias because people who have power don’t need to understand the situation in order to do well,” he says.
So, for example, a woman employee has to understand the male mind in order to do well in the company, Sue says, whereas a man has no need to understand the female mind to do well. So the woman is a much better judge of the gender bias in her office.
Because these microaggressions go largely unnoticed by the alleged perpetrators, Sue thinks we must use education to end microaggression. For people with established biases, Sue recommends “remediation”: “You need to get people to begin to explore themselves as racial-cultural beings and to tap into the unconscious biases they have.” Showing people that they have these biases and that these biases hurt people is the first step, he says.
More fundamentally, Sue argues for preventive education: “If we had a pre-K–through–twelve educational system that was truly multicultural, that would nip these unconscious biases in the bud before they develop.”
So, without a “multicultural” education for the young and a thorough reeducation for the rest, all in the “empowered” class may be interminably consigned to unknowingly making racist remarks or unintentionally engaging in sexist and homophobic behaviors. For all they know, they already are.
— Alec Torres is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.