Microaggressions Matter

Sunday evening, night of the Oscars.

I’m not watching TV, but Skyping with my friend and co-author Rasha Diab, as we work on an upcoming presentation and related academic article. The article’s focus? Proposing a rhetorical framework for countering microaggressions, or everyday and seemingly small, yet cumulative and consequential, actions.

Among others, psychologist Derald Wing Sue explains that microaggressions communicate denigrating messages to people of marginalized groups and typically take one of three forms:

  • microassault—verbal or nonverbal attack (typically conscious and intentional);
  • microinsult—insulting messages, rudeness, or other insensitivity (often unintentional); and
  • microinvalidation—interactions or communications that exclude, hide, make invisible, or otherwise invalidate people or their experiences (also often unintentional).

Sue and his colleagues find that microaggressions happen persistently in the lives of marginalized people—through slights, through lack of recognition, and through many other means. Microaggressions matter. They happen again and again. And they add up to macro-injustices, both resulting from and perpetuating systems of inequity and oppression.

Why the Microaggression “Hidden Fences” Matters

Against this background of writing about microaggressions and imagining the knowledges and practices we need to intervene, I take a break to check social media. It should come as no surprise that I see talk focused on the Oscars—and hope for what turned out to be historic wins. And, given the prevalence of microaggressions, it should come as no surprise that I see renewed use of the hashtag #HiddenFences:

Shaun King explained this racial microaggression back in January when multiple presenters/hosts at the Golden Globes combined two Black films (Hidden Figures and Fences) into the one name (Hidden Fences), essentially hiding or micro-invalidating both films and their casts and crews:

I’m glad to see real rhetorical engagement around microaggressions—calling out and calling attention to this phenomenon. I’m reminded of the ever-present need to name, identify, and teach about microaggressions. And I feel affirmation for a Sunday night spent with research writing, as we need truly to step in before, during, and after microaggressive moments if we are to intervene.

At the same time, I see on Twitter white folks wanting to excuse or explain away “Hidden Fences” as a misspeak; hence, the microinvalidations are now multiplying (with invalidations of the initial invalidation):

In terms of just thinking (or what’s in my head), I’m seriously confused about why there’s even debate about whether “Hidden Fences” is a misspeak. Sure, it could be a misspeak, but misspeaks are often microaggressions. Often microaggressions are unintentional. Still, unintentional + misspeak = microaggression … These aren’t mutually exclusive categories. Even if the intention is not consciously or overtly malicious, harm is done, and we need to acknowledge that harm. In other words, it’s important to focus on impact, not intent. To try to diminish or invalidate the harm perpetuates yet another microinvalidation.

In terms of feeling (what my heart understands), I can see how white fragility makes white folks feel so vulnerable that clinging to intent is a way to avoid (admitting) wrongdoing. It takes emotional intelligence, emotional literacies, and emotional resilience to realize that one can do harm and not be bad. As I was exploring in last week’s post, it’s a tricky thing to embrace the truth that “I am enough,” but believing that truth allows us to see and admit wrongdoing (e.g., to see and take responsibility for white supremacy and other forms of oppression). Therefore, I can feel (even if it makes no logical sense) that the need to explain away microaggressions as “misspeaks” is rooted in deeper, embodied emotions like guilt, shame, fear, and regret. And there’s much, much self-work to be done, including truth-telling to un-learn and re-learn histories, legacies, and local and (inter)national narratives.

One starting point could be watching Jay Smooth’s “How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Discussing Race.” Jay Smooth addresses emotional literacies (and the need to stop worrying) through a metaphor of simply having “something stuck in our teeth”:

From Thinking and Feeling to Doing:
Some Starting Points for Countering Microaggressions

In terms of doing (what my hands are aching to do), I can see the value of documenting microaggressions, as documentation speaks to skeptics, who still see misspeaking as small and insufficient. In contrast to seeing microaggressions as “small,” we need to recognize that “misspeaks” and other microaggressions compound (not just adding up, but exponentially growing like interest on a loan). When microaggressions are persistent, they undermine one’s credibility, confidence, and ultimately humanity.

A number of recent Twitter hashtags have tried to show the frequency (the widespread occurrence and widespread impact) of everyday microaggressions. Here are just a few examples:

These efforts help to show the complexity, variety, scale, and impact of microaggressions. Truly, they show that microaggressions are anything but micro.

Still, I’m wanting to do more than document microaggressions. I sometimes feel that we’re stuck in trying to convince others that microaggressions really do matter. In fact, I titled this blog “microaggressions matter,” as it’s fairly common that I’m asked—and sometimes in roundabout or coded ways—why I’m studying microaggressions.

What if we could already take as granted that microaggressions happen everyday; that they cumulate, feeding into large-scale injustice; and that truly they matter? Then might we train ourselves to see microaggressions when they occur? Might we begin to notice our participation in or perpetuation of microaggressions? Might we begin to rehearse and enact interventions?

To prepare, we might orient ourselves to actions like creating different institutional conditions and seeing our interests as aligned with others’—actions that can help to prevent microaggressions.

To respond, we might speak up/out in the moment or soon after a microaggression has occurred. We might also catch ourselves in “misspeaks,” “missteps,” or other mistakes and resolve to learn from these moments. Rather than moving on (failing to act or minimizing harm), we can slow down and build emotional intelligence, literacies, and resilience.

To process, we might step into the role of believer—not only validating the truth of and documenting microaggressions, but also imaginatively replaying and writing scenes as intervention practice. Here I’m thinking of the value of Augusto Boal’s theatre of the oppressed, particularly forum theatre.

These are only a few examples of the many sorts of actions needed. I invite you to think with me about what sorts of thinking, feeling, and doing are needed for intervention. What would shift if we were widely to assert “microaggressions matter”?

Author: Beth Godbee

I’m an educator living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with connections to many places, including East Tennessee, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C. I write from my identities as a white, feminist teacher and researcher; reiki and yoga practitioner; hiker and vegan. These commitments lead to me to think and write about intersectional identities, embodiment, power, and rights, among other matters. My deepest commitments are to equity, justice, and peace. In this blog, I document my ongoing efforts, struggles, and attitude of “try-try again” to align with these commitments.

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