This is out of my usual scope for this blog, and I apologize if my readers find it out of context. Other than blogging, however, I lead an active life (explaining the long gaps between blogposts), and I get into and/or read many debates online on many different subjects. It still surprises me how uncivil some debates get, and how quickly a good debate an unravel, and I’m working towards an understanding of the mechanisms at play.
Below is a somewhat typical debate from somewhere on facebook about “racial microaggressions” as in the link included. I am fascinated by the way this debate went haywire, much in the same way that so many internet debates do, and wonder what we can learn from it. I do not know much about the participants, but I know some things:
One debater is a university-lecturing doctor, and the writer of many books on racism. Several are of above-average intelligence, and have a common interest in the brain. Still, the information I suspect is most crucial for the way the debate fell apart is this: One of the debaters is a bisexual male Jew, another is an African-American woman, and in the actual debate, their names and pictures were shown next to every comment made.
You, reading this, do not have the privilege of knowing the debater’s names or what they look like. This gives you the opportunity to analyze where the debaters start to assume things about each other and respond to those assumptions, rather than to what is actually written. (I have made some minor corrections, mainly capitals, otherwise every word is original).
I look forward to reading your answers to these questions:
- Which debater is the doctor?
- Which debater(s) identifies with a persecuted minority?
- Who makes assumptions about other debaters?
- Which assumptions are made?
- What could be the basis for those assumptions?
- How is the debate influenced by such assumptions?
- Would the tone of the debate be more civil if the debaters were anonymized (not anonymous)?
AB Some of those I would not call “micro.”
BC I had the same thought, AB… although they still pale when compared to full-scale aggression. So, “mini-aggression”?
CD The one about “Garcia…” I don’t know if that could be considered unequivocally racist. Seems like a mistake, more or less. But this is out of context, so it’s hard to tell.
DE Some of these things seem to come from ignorance, and most involve prejudice. People should not say them. But calling them a form of aggression seems to cheapen the concept of aggression. Even the definition of “microaggression” given in the article says it can be an unintentional indignity. It seems odd to classify an unintentional physical contact (e.g. bumping into someone) as aggression, so why do it for verbal things? If the concept of aggression can encompass both murdering someone and asking them what language is spoken in Japan, it will lose its utility.
CD That’s a really good point, actually. It is yet another postmodernist perversion of a perfectly fine word.
DE There is such a thing as aggressive ignorance; much prejudice and hatred depends on it. Other forms of ignorance are more innocent, stemming from lack of opportunity to learn. Hence Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”
EF FG, GH, HI, and anyone else who is interested, I’m wondering whether DE’s question above captures your interest.
The distance between the two examples DE gives is great, what is the common thread?
Disrespect/ignorance/alienation from the other comes immediately to mind for me.
Asked in another way, when does a difference of degree (of aggression) become a difference of kind?
FG I think playing on the term aggression is a distraction from the real issues and spirit of the examples and lived experiences of those who are subjected to the different forms of microaggressions. I urge readers to delve into Sue’s work on this and see www.microaggressions.com for more depth and insight. This said, those who impose the various microaggressions on others/victims seldom understand the impact of an ‘innocent’ comment or question. MOST COMMENTS ARE IGNORANT, with innocence as the smokescreen. These are annoying Qs that are really NONE of the business of the fool who asked it. Ignorance is not bliss. the questions asked (and comments) are arrogant, presumptuous, oozing with white privilege, hurtful, and plain stupid and racist! I will stop here and post another link…. more to come.
IJ Microaggressions constitute a form of violence: they are manifestations of prejudicial assumptions given force by systemic power hierarchies. It is the preferred term throughout much of the social justice community, and provides a powerful way of articulating an experience that I think most marginalized people can readily relate to.
On the other hand, if we want to talk about a term that’s been cheapened through use, let’s talk about “good intentions”. “Good intentions” are not the same as being a compassionate and decent human being. In activist circles, the term is frequently used in quotes, and many regard it as a red flag.
The defending of one’s intentions is a kind denial of culpability, a derailment of a conversation, which instead of giving space to the real harm done, makes the conversation about the perpetrator’s self-esteem. True accountability requires an understanding of intentions less as good or bad, so much as complex. Sometimes in life, you might think you’re doing someone a favor, but you’re actually being an asshole.
Microaggressions are less about accidentally stepping on someone’s toes, and more like “accidentally” stomping on other peoples toes over and over again with steel-toed boots when the sign above the dance room floor clearly says “No Shoes”. Apologizing in that kind of situation, no matter how many times, will just never mean as much as taking off the damn boots.
Ultimately I return to FG’s point, however, that debating the semantics of “aggression” in this context distracts from the examples of lived experience presented in the original post. That then is where we should really turn our attention.
CD How does one go about speaking innocuously enough not to offend anyone? How does one deal with misinterpretation on the listener’s part?
DF I’m not sure that speaking innocuously is what is required. In my experience, listening with compassion and respect goes a very long way. Keeping an open mind and an open heart also helps.
Granted, my own areas of greatest sensitivity are different than those discussed here. As always, I’ll look forward to hearing what others have to say.
JK Certainly, it is difficult to be certain when someone will take offense at your line of questioning, behavior or statement. However, a pretty good rule of thumb is this: would you ask the person that question if they appeared to be more like you? You can certainly argue that then the questions may not be necessary, but I suspect that the reason folks get riled is because they don’t think that your questions are necessary either. Ultimately, don’t make assumptions, and treating people as people as opposed to trying to categorize them goes a long way.
IJ Microaggressions are not about misinterpretation. If you watch the video FG posted, “What kind of Asian are You?”, the woman is clearly able to interpret the situation correctly. The point is the pattern of behavior rather than an isolated incident. Most marginalized people will offer the benefit of the doubt more often than it is deserved. If it gets to the point of a call out, that’s probably a good indication of prior instances of the behavior in question.
The question one should ask oneself when called out in this kind of situation is, “In what ways does systemic privilege I have access to inform the intentions behind my words and behavior?”
There are of course cases of miscommunication, and even more instances where language itself is inadequate for communicating a given point. Cultivating an awareness of the systemic biases which are embedded in language, and working proactively to change one’s own usage of language, goes along way. Not responding defensively when called out, but showing a desire to understand and address harm done also goes a long way. What one should never do is make a marginalized person second-guess themselves: that’s called gaslighting. Ultimately, every relationship requires time to build trust, and demonstrating sensitivity is part of the process, particularly for someone who enters a relationship as a member of a privileged group.
CD I half-agree with you JK. I think that fitting people into categories is just part of human nature. The overall intent of the category is what matters. Humans have a natural propensity to in-group/out-group to various degrees, so it isn’t necessarily a bad thing, nor is it oppressive by default.
In asking people questions, one should consider the content of the questions. That prevents people from saying the wrong thing. That’s just common sense; a lot of the questions and things I see on the above site indicate a general lack thereof.
CD IJ: of course, not all cases of this are misinterpretation. Some really are. it seems to me that getting defensive and offended because someone called me by one common surname instead of my actual, but equally – common surname, is a bit presumptuous. How does that act imply racism? What if the announcer honestly forgot the name, and thought they had it right? How does the offended party know that for sure it was bias or privilege that caused the announcer to misspeak? This looks clearly like a case of misinterpretation through not having enough information to go on, so I cannot nod my head with the crowd and agree that this sort of thing is veiled malevolent intent.
CD And I did watch the above video. It’s kind of been around a while.
IJ But why do you gravitate, CD, to the one example which is most unclear to you? I don’t see how one example could possibly cancel out all the others. No one said that everything perceived as a microaggression involves “veiled malevolent intent”, and as I said earlier, value claims about intentions are usually made to distract from the underlying issue.
Also, why do you, even though you realize you are working on incomplete information, move to suggest that the person was being presumptuous? People of color are constantly having their names botched in really horrific ways. I think we can reasonably infer that this person has experienced likewise, and perhaps, that this particular gaff of “Garcia” is something that is not new to them. Again, it’s all about patterns of behavior. People are better informed about their own experiences than are other people, so doubting their accounts does not help in facilitating better understanding of the experience they are relating.
IJ People of color are constantly having the burden of proof leveled against them, but really, it is rather the job of white people to listen and to investigate with compassion and sensitivity. The point is not to have a debate, and to throw value-judgments at other people for expressing hurt, however much the cause of that hurt might not at first be readily understood.
IJ Regarding the issue of categorizing other people: One of the example microaggressions is “I don’t see you as a black person”. The problem with this, of course, is the assumption that there is something wrong with being black. “Color blindness” is a particularly white liberal form of microaggression, because it is a way in which white people distance themselves from the content of people of color identity. Some form of categorizing people is perhaps an inevitable form of social heuristics, but the goal should always be to appreciate people for the full scope of their personalities, experiences and histories. That requires blurring the lines of our in-group/out-group perceptions
CD I understand that it’s not all cases, and I never said that they were all misinterpretations, and that this one particular instantiation cancels them all out. I had used the word “some,” and I thought that was rather unequivocal. I see irony here, somewhere…
Now, I found a lot more posts on that site that don’t sit quite right with me, and they don’t sit right because the anecdotes are pretty decontextualized. I choose this one as I see it a good available example of something of befuddlement.
Also, how is my value judgment ignoring the underlying issue? I didn’t say that his irritation was needless and that his indignation toward being slighted due to some orientation was irrelevant; everyone, regardless of color or nationality, gets their name mangled at one time or another. One is well within their rights to get upset about it. I question the place it is brought to, because of the seeming swiftness in reaching that conclusion. It looks to be misplaced and inappropriate.
This is why I feel it is presumptuous to just assume that the error was made on the grounds that he believes that it was. It is an unknown; and I think water is too murky to find out what the truth is. But, as with most things, the simplest explanation is probably the most likely, and, that case looks like the announcer got the name wrong because of carelessness. We can’t be sure, of course.
And I didn’t say that all events like this are made out of veiled malevolent intent. I am less willing to buy that as a solid concept, than one of lizard men running the governments of the world.
This brings up the amount of thought that has to back up evil intentions, and if that really is sustained perpetually in the background, or, if it only lasts at least as long enough to make a stupid remark to someone who is different than you or to shove past an elderly person while you walk up the bus stairwell.
I also don’t believe that looking at a case like this one and analyzing it is distracting from the larger problem. It is imperative that situations like this are scrutinized, because it can make for a better understanding of the complexities of societal, emotional, and irrational undercurrents that lead to gaffes… as you called them.
I am not one to accept the claim that personal experience reifies something. People are not really so aware that their perceptions are not flawless and can malfunction, leading to mistakes. I am not saying that racism, or any other bias, isn’t real due to it being experienced subjectively. Anyone who would try and argue that would have a lot of proof to provide, and collecting that would be a fool’s errand. What I am saying is that subjectivity is not perfect, and personal experience doesn’t validate a feeling by itself, there needs to be a strong foundational body of reasons why this feeling is justified, and each person needs to be held accountable for their own lapses in perception. It’s a lack of ability to think critically, or snap emotional judgments that can lead to misunderstanding.
I don’t see how doubt is a bad thing when applied in an analytic way. It can only help people become better informed through not rushing to snap judgments.
CD In/out-group lines can be formed in many ways. And while it is important to look outside into out-groups, there will always be an in-group that you most identify with. It’s one of the most interesting things about human social interaction. In-groups within In-groups. . . We are certainly large, and contain multitudes.
DF Arguably, one of the things we should most actively question is our tendency to divide the world into in groups and out groups. While it may be a natural human impulse, it is far from our best impulse. Indeed, it is among our most destructive.
IJ It is the manner of your scrutiny, CD, not the fact of your scrutiny, that I take issue with. What receives attention in a conversation, what gets emphasized, these sorts of things reveal a lot about those who participate. Of course critical thinking is important in bettering our understanding of social complexity, but so often this particular kind of analytic framework is stressed with the purpose of justifying a situation of detachment. There is no accountability without emotional investment in the lived experiences of marginalized people. Without such an investment, there is no way to meaningfully appreciate one’s position within the systems of oppression which govern the workings of society
FG I dozed off and woke up to this intriguing discussion. I am glad I did not weigh in. MY SUMMARY — I 100% support EVERY statement made in IJ’s analysis. IMO — perfect. So I can’t say more than ditto! and I hope you will write this up– blog, article!! Profound points that those who microaggress can’t seem to digest — or don’t want to digest. Microaggressions are a form of racism — REGARDLESS of intent!! I am fed up with people evoking the ‘my question/comment’ was innocent.’ These comments are ignorant, rude, crude, arrogant, obnoxious, absurd, demeaning, ridiculous…. This is about power, privilege and the audacity to believe that those who are different from Whites are less than. White ignorance should not be our daily problem. Naysayers need to stop nitpicking this most serious problem. It just shows are much you don’t want to or don’t care to know. You want to keep head buried in the sand as we get wounded by your words and thoughtlessness — and weak excuses for your thoughtlessness!!! Solution –STOP
FG Now let’s add White privilege to the discussion of microaggressions.
DB FG and IJ, I agree with you much more than not. But I can’t simply let drop the idea that innocence matters. Consider this: Would you be equally offended by such questions coming from a bright four year old child, or a seven year old, or a twelve year old? I’m guessing not. An adult is expected to have “adult” sensibilities, but the sad truth is that many do not. And it’s not necessarily their “fault” that they do not — for example, there may be a hidden disability of some sort.
FG DB — thank you (I think). On the one hand you agree. On the other hand, u look for excuses. No one in their right mind would say that a young child is racist –THEIR naive/innocent questions are of genuine curiosity. But an adult — STOP playing the excuse card. If a person is that ignorant then he/she needs to immerse self in the lives and communities of others. Get out of the suburbs, private schools, etc., and into other settings. Racism is learned. White privilege is learned (and unearned). As for a disability – the same. Microaggressions are not about young kids and those with mental disorders — unless you consider racism a mental disorder. Our kids are watching. What are we teaching and modeling. Stop the excuses.
IJ Reiterating what FG said, experience clearly suggests a qualitative difference between a child and an adult making any given comment. Again, it’s about the pattern of behavior, and children by and large do no manifest the same kinds of oppressive thoughts and behaviors as adults. Actually, children tend to “get it” better than adults in many cases, because they don’t have to take that additional cognitive step of deconstructing a lifetime of social inculcation into the logic of oppressive norms. It’s unfortunate that disabled, neurodivergent and mentally ill people are routinely suspect as perpetrators of oppression. The message which is given over and over again in western media is that only “crazy people” are bigots, and much of our language for identifying oppression as a global construct implicates mental illness (and particularly phobias) with words such as “homophobia” and “Islamophobia”. As a autistic person, my experience has been overwhelmingly that other neurodivergent and disabled people are far more understanding of issues of marginalization, because they are themselves marginalized
DB FG, I make no excuses for racism. I acknowledge that no experience I can have in this country would let me actually experience what people in marginalized groups have experienced, but I have not spent my *entire* life in a bubble either. (Just most of the recent years of it. Sigh.)
An example of “innocent ignorance” for me is the hotel desk clerk who asked my father if my mother — who walked on crutches — could climb stairs. My mom replied, “yes, and *she* can answer her own questions, too!” I doubt there was any malicious intent on the clerk’s part, but there was a hell of a lot of ignorance there, of a kind that my mom has faced all too often.
There is no background of deliberate, malicious, and systematic oppression of physically handicapped people in this country (I can argue against that statement, but I think it’s true to a first approximation.) That’s why I think it makes for a decent example of what I’m trying to say: Sometimes — by no means always — ignorance is just ignorance. Sometimes people say dumb things or ask dumb questions because they’re simply misinformed or unaware.
I believe awareness of the distinction is important, because I *believe* — I have no proof of this that I can point to — that it’s a lot easier to eliminate ignorance in an individual than it is to eliminate malice. That is, for some of the cases in that link — not all, maybe not even most — there may be a genuine teachable moment for the person who put their foot in their mouth. Responding as if the intent was malicious would probably not lead to that kind of learning.
I also realize that I’m largely putting the onus on the marginalized person to do the teaching. (Those of us who are able-bodied, cis-gendered hetero white males could stand to do a lot more self-policing, but that won’t stop remarks like these from being made.) In the story above, my mom *could* have responded in a more polite manner. But her context was a few decades of hearing remarks of that sort, and I don’t blame her in the slightest for making a snarky response. Likewise, I’m not trying to tell you how you “should” respond when you hear a dumb comment. But if you’re facing an ignorant person at a moment when you have the time and energy to deal with them at that level… Then maybe what I’ve said will have helped
CD FG: Oh, I can digest the points made. I just don’t think all of them are justified, and there is nothing that will convince me otherwise. Again: how is examination of the more obfuscated cases of this burying one’s head in the sand? No one is denying a problem exists, and looking at a case sure doesn’t negate the -ism that has been highlighted. It certainly isn’t nitpicking. If that were true, then the car insurance company you belong to would be considered nosy when investigating a traffic accident. I just don’t see a reason why someone who would want to dissect an item like this would be part of the problem. Isn’t a deconstructive discourse about power structures and their results at the heart of postmodernist social concepts? I see no better way to deconstruct an event like this than to look at the event, in context, if available, and take a look at all of the most possible reasons behind the offense. That’s actually the least postmodern way of looking at something, but I feel that it relates to deconstruction, defined as assessing the situational granularity of a matter before letting a judgment slip through.
CD DF: In-groups can be dangerous, but not all of them. Typically, one thinks of an in-group as an exclusionary enclave that permits and alienates outsiders. Though, family and friends are also In-groups of a type. There are In-groups within those In-groups. How is having close associates negative? It isn’t a bad thing, unless those individuals that make up the group are doing things that hurt others or each other. Jaron Lanier talks about circles of empathy, and I think others mention this concept, too. Basically, you contain people in certain levels of intimacy through your ability to relate or empathize. It’s perfectly normal, and everyone does it to a degree, and it is not bad by default, like I said earlier.
CD IJ: the method is wrong? How is removing as much emotional involvement as humanly possible wrong in deliberation or analysis?
FG this article has been on my FB and several other pages of ‘marginalized’ groups — I have at leat 550 Blacks and Hispanics on my page. Response: 2-3 posts then puff. gone. Now on pages dominated by Whites — ongoing. Whites are the main perpetrators of microaggressions and the ones fighting its existence. Priceless and laughable. White guilt at work. I/we have no time to waste defending your problems. I spend time dealing with your problems and how it impacts US every day!!
IJ Some seriously fucked up shit here. I’m out.
FG FB is not a page/place for therapy.
CD This attitude is contradictory and elitist, and I am disappointed.
DB FG, it’s hard to fix a problem until you know what the problem is. If the problem is in someone else’s head, then you cannot know what it is until you ask them. I seem to have inadvertently become a problem for you. I invite you to ask me about it, rather than making assumptions. Please, go ahead and ask. I don’t bite.
FG DB and CD — I will not take hundreds of posts on FB for you to get it. Now if you want to arrange a call, then we can do that. I am MORE than happy to talk this over. I just don’t have the time to battle over this on FB. It would take 100s of posts and you two still may not get it. NO — if u are serious, then let’s talk…
CD DB: the conversation stopped a long time ago… just don’t go any further; save your sanity.
FG CD….get some help IMO — and pray you live no where near US. please — don’t work my MY people. u seem dangerous.
DB FG, I’d like to take you up on that, but not right now. Maybe this weekend? Message me with your number and the best time(s) to call. I’ll be sure to check my “other” inbox to be sure I see your message.
CD FG: I would rather not talk to you because you’re lobbing not-so-subtle insinuations of how I’m a racist. You aren’t listening to what i said, you didn’t listen to what I was saying, and I highly doubt you will listen even if we spoke.
FG Thank u DB. I will do… And thanks for being ‘reasonable.’ We don’t agree, may never agree but at least we both are open to talking. That is what matters. take care. and let me add that this is refreshing!! much appreciation.
CD And you’re insulting me now, and… is that “and pray you live no where near US” a threat?
FG You are the threat — u will do damage to our kids…. move on. Get a grip wake up
CD oh, please…
FG CD – I will block ur psycho posts from this point on. Get therapy