“Microaggression”: To Be or Not to Be Offended Featured

by on Monday, 27 October 2014 Comments


The term "microaggression", coined in 1970 by an American psychiatrist Chester Pierce, has taken on a new life in recent years after a Columbia University professor Derald Wing Sue, a Chinese American, published a book on the topic in 2007 with several collaborators. It is used to refer to small non-physical acts – verbal or non-verbal, intentional or unintentional, ranging from ignorant, annoying, ridiculous, slighting, insulting to hateful - that offend people because of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability, or any other perceived marginalizing factors. Viewed individually, each act may seem small, subtle and harmless, but cumulatively, they can create an unpleasant, hurtful or even hostile environment for their target. By far the most explosive topic is that of race and ethnicity, which constitutes a large percentage of reported microaggressions. Statistics also show that minorities are much more likely than whites to think racism exists in the US. There is tremendous amount of anger both from those who think they suffer from them and those who dismiss them as "leftist whining" or conspiracies.


One question offends a significant number of people: Where are you from? This may seem surprising. I personally feel completely comfortable talking about where I come from, and have had numerous enjoyable conversations that include the topic. Are some people overly sensitive? The finer point is that, the question is seldom posed to a white person, but disproportionately to minorities, especially Asian Americans, and even to Native Americans, whose ancestors had come here before any others did! If you tell them you are from any place in the US, some insist on asking where you are really from, prior to that... Minority people who were born in this country can understandably feel upset about being perceived as perpetual foreigners. They may have reason to believe it is not an innocent question.
When my daughter was about 7, a girl in her dance class asked her:


- How could you be American since you are Chinese?


My heart ached when she tearfully told me about the incident. I was upset enough to tell the teacher that she should have taken it as a teachable moment by explaining to the class what it meant to be an American. The little girl somehow thought that only people who looked certain ways were Americans while excluding others. That bias must have come from somewhere, and the underlying environment adds to the challenges that children like my daughter have to face when they grow up. It is therefore natural that she is much more sensitive and angered by the instances of racial microaggression than I. The sheer number of microaggressions reported by Asian Americans may not be a coincidence, even though their struggle tends to be masked by their "model minority" status.

Some of the reported "microaggressions" definitely do not seem micro to me, because they mean to insult, such as the white boy who "whispered loudly" that an Asian girl smelt like rice: that's bullying. Others might not be universally perceived as offensive, like asking Asians whether they can read certain Chinese or Japanese characters, or seeking help with math from an Asian student, assuming that Asians are good at math. American mainstream discourse tends to condemn any kind of stereotypes, even when they are complimentary or statistically true, because each person is supposed to be viewed as a unique individual.

Because microaggressions can be so insidious and few people would consciously recognize their biases, Derald Wing Sue believes that those who are disempowered are in the best place to identify them. While it is important to respect the perspective of those who feel themselves wronged, we may not want to live in a society where accusers are automatically validated. There must be ways to analyze the occurrences case by case. It is also not always easy to determine who is more disempowered. Doctors may be perceived as having more power than patients, but they can be hurt by patients' biases as well, as in a case reported on the Tumblr Microaggressions Project website: upon hearing the nurse announce the Asian name of the anesthesiologist, the patient became visibly upset and loudly asked if he spoke any English. In a consumer society where patients are customers, doctors do not always hold more power, because some patients may avoid choosing them due to their races or consequently rate the quality of their service lower in online anonymous surveys.
When I go through the numerous postings on microaggressions, I realize that there are so many different perspectives to choose from, and so many reasons to be offended. In case anyone thinks he or she can only be on the receiving end of microaggressions, think again. We all have our own blind spots. Microaggressions can be so subtle and so elusive that some college multicultural offices choose to publish a long list of examples to help identify them. Some acts are clearly ridiculous and I cannot imagine anyone minimally professional would commit them, but some others can be difficult to avoid: Assuming all students fully understand English is a microaggression, because international students might not, but thinking that they might not is also wrong because it is a microaggression to underestimate people. On top of that, college textbooks do assume that students fully understand English. If you ask students from a certain ethnic or cultural background to do a project about that group, you commit a microaggression by singling them out; if you do not allow them to work on such projects, then you are discouraging them from exploring their identity; if you assign projects regardless of students' background, it can also be viewed as denying the reality of their experience. When you discuss issues related to a specific group, do not lock eyes with a student whom you think belongs to that group: it is a microaggression to make anyone representative of a group. But have you ever tried not to lock eyes with anyone? The more you try not to do it...


The concept of microaggression may help us develop a fine awareness of our unconscious biases, but it lumps together a full spectrum of different behaviors. It is surely useful to distinguish between ignorant and hateful acts. When we become offended because other people do not know enough about our culture, are we so sure that we are knowledgeable about all the other groups in the world? In a society where people get easily offended, there can be little curiosity to get to know those from other groups. If well-meaning words can be perceived as offensive, people may choose to tiptoe away, say nothing, or only superficial things, especially with those who belong to different racial or ethnic groups. The lack of contact can lead to more harmful even if unspoken prejudices. That is precisely one of the major problems in American society. A migroaggression, when it is really "micro", begs the question: What is more aggressive, an unintentional "invalidation", or a disproportionately angry reaction? While it is laudable to strive to be more sensitive to other people's susceptibilities, the danger is we may become increasingly susceptible ourselves. As years go by, I have become so much more "sensitive" that, ruminating past events, I have caught myself retrospectively offended.

Since it is conceivable that we may have unintentionally offended other people, perhaps it is a good idea not to be so vehemently offended when others clearly do not mean to offend us, even if we do not like what they say. Furthermore, it is useful to view the issue of microaggression through an international lens, otherwise when we come into contact with people from other countries, we may find ourselves easily offended, because they do not necessarily share American sensitivity. That can even happen to those who dismiss microaggresion as leftist political correctness, when they become "others" in another country.

The term microaggresion reminds us, sadly, that we live in a world where people are divided into countless visible and invisible groups that can constantly offend each other. Instead of confining ourselves to any rigidly predetermined or self-identified group, I dream of a poetic understanding of the Buddhist idea of reincarnation, of which I cannot ascertain the truthfulness but appreciate the beauty and goodness. We can infer from it the fluidity of our group identity, the haunting reminder that whomever we hate we might have wronged, the mysterious possibility that "I" could be someone else, the ultimate realization that no matter how much past can weigh us down, our greatness consists in our ability to free ourselves to create a better future. Where are you from? Let it be part of the conversation, but not the only thing we care about.

Jin Lu (魯進)

Born in Sichuan, China, I have studied French literature in Beijing, Boston, and Paris. I am currently a professor of French at Purdue University Calumet, USA. Joséphine Baker has two loves; I have three, or perhaps more? If you do not want to tear yourself apart, you need at least three things, and that gives you balance. I enjoy dreaming, reading and writing, among others.

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