“So where are you from?”
Microaggression? Some would say yes others, no. It’s not acceptable to be blatantly racist in society anymore, but are microaggressions really just smaller, more subtle forms of racism?
The term was coined by psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce in the 1970s and made widely know by Columbia Professor Derald Sue.
Microagressions can be defined in several ways. Nitasha Tamar Sharma, an associate professor of African-American Studies and Asian American Studies at Northwestern, defines microaggressions as “everyday, invisible forms of oppressive expression or inappropriate statements that could be based on any axis of identities (race, sex, religion, etc.).”
They can be as small as referring to “humankind” as “mankind” or as as blatantly racist as telling someone, “You don’t act like a normal black person.”
Microaggressions come at time when society’s desire for political correctness is at a peak. They aren’t usually intentional. Many times the person performing a microaggression isn’t even aware that what he or she has said could be classified as such.
SESP freshman Gabrielle DiLullo has experienced microaggressions first hand. For her though, some people are quick to throw out the world without much thought.
“Someone might think that what was said to them was a microaggression and someone else might not take it that way,” SESP freshman Gabrielle DiLullo said. “It’s not about intent, it’s about impact and the impact that such comments have on a person really matter.”
When focusing on impact, it’s evident that microaggressions are really a sign of a larger problem. Discrimination and intolerance are transmitted through a microaggression subtly. However, the effect it can have on its recipient can be much more noticeable.
“It makes you feel marginalized. You feel smaller every time it happens,” said Weinberg freshman Mahalia Sobhani. “The people performing microaggressions don’t realize how these things hurt other people. So I want to raise awareness.”
Sobhani participated in the NUmicroaggressions Tumblr page. The page featured multiple pictures of people holding a board with a microaggression that had been said to them written on it. The page’s motto: We are not all ONE Northwestern, and it’s about time we talk about it.
The page came about following a meeting between the student groups Alianza (The Latino/Latina Student Alliance) and APAC (The Asian Pacific American Coalition) in January 2014 to discuss microaggressions. Students shared their experiences and found that microaggressions and other forms of aggression are common on campus. The project was then created to allow people to share their stories and trigger discussions.
“Where I came from, it was very homogenous and I was always the odd one out, racially and religiously,” Sobhani said. “So it was nice coming [to Northwestern] where there are more people like me and things like the NUmicroaggressions campaign that I could participate in.”
While the page has been successful in raising awareness, there have been mixed responses to the page. Representatives from the NUMicroaggressions campaign refused to comment about the campaign.
DiLullo viewed the page as very defensive and noted that some people might interpret it as hostile and overly aggressive. “If they were more neutral about things, the dialogue would go a little more smoothly,” she said.
According to Sue, we should leave it up to the victims of microaggressions to tell us whether the act was truly one of aggression. If a person cannot tell they’re being aggressive when speaking, or if a person is given the freedom to call out anything as aggressive, communication can be stymied and more difficult.
Dialogue is nonetheless a part of microaggressions. By calling out someone’s comment as a microaggression instead of flat-out racism, people may feel a little less threatened and conversations about these issues can continue.
However, the line between racism and microaggression is a thin and often blurred one.
“I’m really concerned about the shift away form calling things what they really are,” Sharma said. “Why not just call it racism or sexism?”
Calling out microaggressions has become more normal because people have stopped taking racism, small or large scale, silently. It signals an awakening of resistance but also a downscaling of a large problem into a catch-all term.
“[Microaggressions] collate all forms of structural and historical forms of inequality into just an interpersonal interaction which we can fix,” Sharma said. For her, the problem is that it shifts focus away from the structural forms that led to these ideas.
It can’t be denied that the heavier focus on microaggressions has stirred dialogue, but to what extent is this dialogue meaningful?
“Done with dialogue? What about action? There’s a way that dialogue becomes this safety valve and it makes people come together and feel better about listening and sharing but we didn’t do anything. Nothing changed,” Sharma said.
There has to come a point where people move from talking about change to actually enacting it. Microaggressions might be the transition stage between dialogue and action but until we surpass this stage, change will continue to be something we only talk about.