It's All About Power

Microaggression does exist, but not where you thought

Posted Jun 01, 2016




a forceful action or procedure (as an unprovoked attack) especially when intended to dominate or master (Merriam-Webster)

In my earlier post I showed that popular supposedly racist examples of microaggression have no malicious intent.  They are not, therefore aggressions, whether micro- or macro-.  So why is the 'microaggression' charge often effective?

Maybe the malice is unconscious?  Unfortunately the unconscious – mine, yours, hers – is just that, unconscious.  It is not accessible to any of us and the claim that a motive is unconscious is unprovable.  Nevertheless, the charge of unconscious bias is easy to make and widely accepted. 


"American society is racist to the core" is an idea widely proclaimed and almost as widely believed.  Despite the fact that almost every popular TV show is racially mixed, despite the fact that we have an African-American president, despite the fact that black celebrities receive honors from every quarter, despite the steady increase in interracial marriages, despite all the data, we are told daily that Americans are irretrievably racist. 

So, despite its total unprovability, the charge that well-intentioned questions – Is that your child?  addressed to a white woman with a black child.  Where are you really from? addressed to a dark person with a foreign accent, and so on – the charge that these questions are in fact an attempt to “subtly exclude, negate or nullify the thoughts, feelings or experiential reality of a person of color” is surprisingly plausible.

The innocent but complaisant majority are all too willing to believe that they may be racist (whatever “racism” is – that’s a topic for another time).  Told they are guilty of microaggression, even though their intentions are good, they are therefore likely to believe it.  The allegation then itself becomes an example of the thing it deplores.  To call someone a microaggresor becomes itself an aggressive action, because it really is “intended to [not-so] subtly exclude, negate or nullify” his/her thoughts and feelings. That's why the charge works on the speaker. That's why he feels bad about his 'microaggression' no matter how phony the charge. 

In other words, it’s all about power.  The charge of microaggression or even hate speech, when directed at well intentioned and sincerely held questions and beliefs, is in effect a way to control the speaker -- to shut him up.

The charge of microaggression is the only real microaggression.

But how about the listener?  There is little doubt that some people who are asked questions like "Where are you really from?" do indeed perceive it as a slur and feel that places where they may get such questions are not 'safe'.  

Why are they so sensitive?  

People differ and there are many answers to this question.  But here are two.  First: conditioning.  The constant uproar about race; the repeated claims that we live in a racist society; and the emphasis on the race as a person's most important attribute -- black = victim, white = privilege -- makes it easy to see even the most innocent comments as racially loaded. Many a young black person, hearing the words George Washington, will therefore think slave-owner rather than Father of our country. 

Second, adaptation level. The college students who feel these microaggressions generally come from middle-class families, families where punishment is minimal and corporal punishment -- spanking -- non-existent.  They are not used to even a little pain, especially pain from a social source.  

One of the oldest principles in psychology is that perception is relative.  If you are used to living in environment that is always bland and threat-free, then even a hint of insult may be enough to upset.  So the current population of "snowflake students" may be especially sensitive.

Here is some evidence: many universities now find it necessary to provide their students at exam times with playful cuddly puppies to "relieve stress".  How many generations of students in an earlier time were expected to survive without canine comforters -- and did so at least as successfully as the current cossetted crew?  

Many modern students are  indeed hypersensitive, made so by helicopter parents and discipline-shy teachers.  Anxious and feeling 'unsafe' they look to authority to protect from non-existent threats.  Authority, of the group or of the university administration, is called in to screen out all discomfort.  Hence the cries for 'safe spaces' and an end to the evils of microaggression.

But the allegation of 'microaggression' is the real aggression and intended only to suppress dissent.  Let us hear it no more.