One of the hardest things to figure out about microaggressions is why people are saying these things to each other in the first place.
Clark University, in Worcester, Massachusetts, is training its incoming freshhumans on the avoidable tragedy of microaggression. The New York Times has a list of sample microaggressive utterances which students are counseled to police themselves for:
Clark, a private liberal arts college that has long prided itself on diversity and inclusion, is far from the only university stepping up discussions of racism and diversity in orientation programs this year.
What ‘Microaggressions’ Sound Like
A sampling of language and behaviors called “microaggressions,” provided to Clark University students, that universities are urging students to avoid.
- “Of course he’ll get tenure, even though he hasn’t published much — he’s black.”
- “What are you? You are so interesting looking.”
- Telling a nonwhite woman, “I would have never guessed that you were a scientist.”
- When a nonwhite faculty member is mistaken for a service worker.
- Showing surprise when a “feminine” woman says she is a lesbian.
- “You are a credit to your race.”
Adapted from “Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation,” by Derald Wing Sue
I wonder this about the Millennial student population: do they think their elders have been out here saying things like this for years, and only now is this scourge of human relations finally being attended to?
Microaggression is treated like a killer pandemic, requiring both inoculation and cure. But most of the time, when I see what is considered a microaggression, it’s either a ridiculously unaggressive saying like “the key to success is hard work,” or a ridiculously rude question or statement that has always been, well, ridiculously rude.
There was never a time when some mythical privileged majority thought it was perfectly fine to go around asking people probing personal questions, or telling them they looked racially unqualified to be high-achieving.
Millions of us can assure you that anyone who was reared properly has always known not to interact with people that way.
If someone springs these unseemly statements or questions on you, you are at liberty, behind your pleasant demeanor, to assume the obvious: that the person was raised by a pack of feral hogs on the edge of a swamp somewhere, and doesn’t know any better.
I’d hate to think this sort of interaction is considered commonplace now, at least among the young. But maybe it is?
There were other social conventions that minimized the opportunity for questions and reactions of this kind. No one was encouraged, for example, to go about proclaiming her sexual orientation to everyone who crossed her path. If a woman hasn’t told you she’s a lesbian, there’s no occasion to even think about whether her deportment seems lesbian-like to you, much less to comment on it.
It’s only logical that the more things we insist people “share” and “dialogue about,” the more likely everyone is to say something that someone else won’t like.*
The other point worth making is that human life didn’t get to where it is due to a colossal lack of sensitivity or perception in all the generations that came before us.
People’s feelings have been getting hurt by ill-considered comments for millennia now. The overwhelming consensus of the preceding generations has been that none of these hurt feelings needs to be redressed with the same vigor we’d apply to redressing, say, the evils of slavery, the exploitation of children, or what ISIS is doing to its victims in Iraq and Syria.
There are things it’s important to do something about. There are other things there’s no point in trying to do something about, because the cost to our own psyches and precious time far outweighs the very unrewarding payoff.
Consider “correcting it forward”: teaching your children to be more thoughtful and polite. That’s what your grandparents and great-grandparents did.
Meanwhile, here’s really good advice. Don’t let rude people live rent-free in your head. If you insist, you can spend a lifetime trying to retaliate and hold them at risk – but you’re only going to remain miserable yourself, and your chosen priority will steal time from doing things that make you happy. After 20, 30, or 40 years, you will learn the hard way a universal human lesson you could have accepted for free, right now, today.
* Regarding the “faculty being mistaken for service worker” situation, this was less likely in the days when faculty didn’t dress like service workers. Dress however you want, faculty, but don’t try to make other people’s reflexive reactions into felonies.