Wednesday, June 24, 2015

What are Microaggressions?

This past week I attended the Inclusive Astronomy conference in Nashville and there was an incredible talk by Kenjus Watson about microaggressions. This term gets brought up frequently in feminist and equity conversations, but a lot of people I've talked to don't really understand what it means, or how microaggressions manifest in everyday life. In fact, I was guilty of one of the microaggressions that Mr. Watson highlighted, when I recently asked a trans* woman what the trans* community thought about Caitlin Jenner's transition.

    What are Microaggressions?
    Psychologist and Columbia University professor Derald Wing Sue has the following definition:
    Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. In many cases, these hidden messages may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment.
    I like to think about microaggressions in terms of asking myself the following question:
    Would I say (whatever I am about to say) to a straight, white, cis, able-bodied, non-fat, non-jewish, non-muslim, english-speaking man? (I imagine Bill Clinton, but you can imagine whomever you want) If the answer is no, I would not say this to Bill Clinton, then what I am about to say is probably a microaggression.
    Buzzfeed has a series of (comedic) videos which illuminate the microaggressive ways that people in positions of privilege talk to underrepresented minorities (URM). These videos highlight how inappropriate these comments/questions sound when said to a person in a privileged position instead of a person in a marginalized group:



    But Aren't You Just Being Overly Sensitive?
    It would be a sterile world indeed if we never acknowledged each others differences, and some people respond to the idea of microaggressions by rolling their eyes and saying:
     
    You are being too sensitive. 
    You are being overly PC. 
    You are just looking for something to get offended about.

    However, most people who feel this way are those in a position of privilege and are not exposed to constant microaggressions themselves. They do not have the lived-experience of the accumulative effect of constantly feeling othered or being reminded of their inferior position in society. People refer to these examples of "everyday" sexism/racism/ableism/homophobia/prejudice as death by 1000 paper cuts. Any individual comment isn't that big of a deal, but accumulatively these micro-aggressions take a huge toll.

    In fact, Mr. Watson highlighted research that found African-American women show signs of accelerated biological aging when compared with white women. The researchers believe this is in response to repeated or prolonged subjective and objective stressors (i.e everyday racism and microaggressions). The study found that black women are 7.5 years biologically “older” than white women because of extreme stress.

    Once I accept that microaggressions have real-life effects on those who are the target, then I ask myself: Do I want to be someone who contributes to a stressful and hostile environment for people around me?

    What Do Microaggressions Say About Us?
    Microaggressions are active manifestations of society-as-a-whole and us-as-individuals' world-views of what is normal, who is superior, what is desirable, and who should be included or excluded. Microaggressions create, foster, and enforce marginalization of those in a position of less privilege. Dr. Derald Wing Sue explains:
    Because most of us consciously experience ourselves as good, moral and decent human beings, the realization that we hold a biased worldview is very disturbing; thus we prefer to deny, diminish or avoid looking at ourselves honestly. Yet, research suggests that none of us are immune from inheriting the racial, gender, and sexual orientation biases [among others] of our society. We have been socialized into racist, sexist and heterosexist attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. Much of this is outside the level of conscious awareness, thus we engage in actions that unintentionally oppress and discriminate against others. 
    Let me use an example to illustrate how microaggressions can influence the standard of living and quality of life for [white] women and persons of color. Statistics support the fact that White American males constitute only 33% of the population. Yet, they occupy approximately 80% of tenured positions in higher education, 80% of the House of Representatives, 80-85% of the U. S. Senate, 92% of Forbes 400 executive CEO-level positions, 90% of public school superintendents, 99.9% of athletic team owners, 97.7% of US presidents. 
    The questions we must ask are: "Where are the women?" "Where are the people of color?" "If these are due to racism and sexism, "Who are the culprits." "Are these outcomes due to the overt racist or sexist?" "Are they due to the hate mongers, the White supremacist, Klan or Skinheads?" I contend that it is not the overt racist or sexist which control the tools that result in such unjust and damaging disparities. It is well-intentioned people like you and I! 

    What Can Us Well-Intentioned People Do About It?
    Perhaps you are convinced that you want to stop performing microaggressions against people who are members of marginalized groups.  How do you correct this behavior?

    I am constantly performing the above "Bill Clinton" test before I say/do something toward a URM. For instance, at Inclusive Astronomy, I met a person who has a visible physical disability. I felt curious about their disability. I had (well-intended) questions like: How long have they had this disability? How does it manifest itself for them? What is their experience like? Are they in pain?

    While nothing is wrong with my intent behind the above questions (I care about this person and want to understand them better), these questions are all very intimate and personal. Asking this person those questions highlights the fact that I see them as disabled/abnormal. I would not go up to an able-bodied person I just met and ask them: Have you always been able to walk? Are you pain-free right now? It just wouldn't be appropriate.  

    Similarly it is not appropriate for me to ask personal questions about this person's disability when we do not know each other very well. Yet because society views people who are able-bodied as "normal" there is this perception that it is perfectly acceptable for me to highlight this difference by asking invasive questions. The effect of these comments is to make this person feel less-than and like there is something wrong with them.  This isn't the way I want to make someone feel when I am first meeting them.

    Now if I were to get to know this person, and they brought up their disability, that is a good time/opportunity for me to ask questions, but only once we have a more intimate relationship, and only once they open-up the dialog. Yet I need to be careful to not insinuate that there is anything wrong with them or make them feel othered by the fact that they have a disability.

    There are many examples in the below links of the various ways microaggressions manifest themselves in everyday speech. I am continuing to educate myself about the ways I am unintentionally hurting people around me, and I work hard to eliminate microaggressions from my everyday speech and actions. 

    Unmasking Racial Microaggressions at the American Psychological Association
    Microaggressions: More than Just Race in Psychology Today
    The Many Faces of Homophobia at Everyday Feminism
    Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life in Psychology Today
    Microaggressive Theory on Wikipedia
    Stuff Cis People say to Trans People on Everyday Feminism