Microaggressions and Harm — Part I
In this post, I address the concept of “microaggressions.” I will argue that it is an unnecessary concept, one that does not capture anything not already captured by existing concepts. It is also best discarded given its potential to confuse. In the next post, I will address its connections to the concept of “harm” and fortify the reasons why the concept is best discarded.
The definition of “microaggressions” given by Derald Wing Sue is the following: 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” (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/microaggressions-in-everyday-life/201011/microaggressions-more-just-race).
By philosophical standards, this definition is inadequate. For one thing, there is a confusion of categories: it adds the category of “environmental” to those of “verbal” and “nonverbal,” whereas it can of course be one or the other—if environmental microaggressions are those “that cause individuals to feel excluded from a space on the basis of identity” (Christina Friedlaender, “On Microaggressions,” Hypatia 33: 1, pp. 5-21, at p. 7), then logically they belong to either verbal or nonverbal actions, since either type can make someone feel spatially excluded. For another thing, it is unclear how the slights, snubs, and insults can be unintentional yet still communicate what the definition claims that they communicate, given that “communication” is typically an intentional concept.
Another definition is that microaggressions are “subtle acts of bias that reflect a structural form of oppression toward a specific group of people, such as racism, trans-phobia, or sexism” (Friedlaender, 6). They are the “behavioral consequence” of someone’s “implicit bias against a structurally oppressed group” (Friedlaender, 6). This definition is better than the above, given that we agree that such behaviors surely exist or, at the least, can exist. But the problem with this definition, a problem it shares with the first, is vagueness: how do we individuate or distinguish those acts that are only of bias from those of structural and implicit bias, or from those acts that are hostile and subtle but that are not biased at all?
I think that there are no successful criteria that we can use to individuate acts of micro-aggression and distinguish them from acts of non-micro-aggression. This problem is all the more pressing with moral concepts such as “micro-aggression,” because if we are to introduce it into our moral language, and if we are to do so in order to urge people to “call out” microaggressions (“If you see something, say something”!) or in order that people can self-monitor to purge themselves of these unethical (bed) bugs of the soul, we need to distinguish them from other similar acts and do so with confidence.
(Do not confuse this problem with that of identifying a specific act as micro-aggressive. We might know that the criterion for an act’s being micro-aggressive is, say, the intention of the aggressor, though we might have no access to the intention in a particular case. To understand this point better, compare it to a [false] definition of “art” that basically says that an object is an artwork if it were made with an aesthetic intention. This definition gives us a criterion—aesthetic intention—for something to be art even though we might not be able to know in any particular case whether the object was made with such an intention. The problem I am raising with “microaggressions” is that we have no criteria of identification to begin with.)
Before I get to this, I want to note a few things about microaggressions and give some examples of them, examples that will prove useful for more than illustrative purposes.
The first thing to note is that microaggressions are a species of a larger family of acts that communicate negative or hostile messages, intentional or unintentional. Consider: X and Y are coworkers or acquaintances who belong to the same superior, privileged group—in the United States and Canada, they would be cis, white, straight middle-class (or higher) men (soon it will be clear why my example is between two people both of whom are from a privileged group). X has always been jealous or resentful of Y for some reason having to do with their relationship. Let’s say that X thinks that Y is a lot dumber than people think Y is, and that this belief has led X, petty and morally frail as he is, to say and behave in ways towards Y that communicate X’s resentment, be it in intentional or unintentional ways. So X might snicker loudly when he hears Z say to Y, “Once again, your intelligence shines through” (intentional) or X might send a customer to Z for help instead of to Y (unintentional). We are familiar with such subtle acts of aggression in our daily lives.
Well, microaggressions are a subclass of such actions, but what distinguishes them from the larger class is that they are directed at members of oppressed groups (“marginalized group membership” in Sue’s definition, and recipients of a “structural form of oppression” in Friedlaender’s). So for X’s action of snickering at Y to count as a micro-aggression, Y will have to belong to a structurally oppressed group and maybe X’s act of snickering has to be a type of act (snickering) that has counted historically as an act of superiority against members of the group to which Y belongs, much like, say, the word “bitch” has acted as a put-down for women (more below on why I wrote “and maybe”). Thus, what sets microaggressions apart from other daily acts of hostility, snubs, slights, and insults is their connection to structural oppression.
(For those readers who are unclear on “structural,” you have my sympathies, but also don’t be difficult, because it’s meaning is generally clear. To see it better, substitute other words such as “social,” “historical,” “political,” “systematic,” or “systemic.” Basically, the word is intended to refer to a type of relationship that exists between individuals who belong to groups that are historically related to each other in an oppressor / oppressed way, such as racial, sex, gender, class, ethnic, and religious groups.)
A second thing to note about the definition is this. While the membership to oppressed groups serves to distinguish microaggressions from other acts of daily, subtle hostilities, it is their subtlety that serves to distinguish them from acts that are not subtle and directed at members of oppressed groups. So, angrily calling a taxi driver (who cuts the caller off), “Fucking towel-head!” is not an example of a micro-aggression because the insult is not subtle and relies on a common hateful expression hurled against Arabs or Arab-Americans.
(An amusing anecdote: in addition to “towel-head,” “camel-fucker” is another hateful expression used against Arabs or Arab-Americans. A friend once told me of a bigot who confused his hate speech expressions and called someone a “towel-fucker.”)
The subtlety of microaggressions, then, is what sets them apart from regular hate speech or other forms of speech that have served to attribute false or immoral stereotypes to a people. So if a store owner says to a customer while haggling over a price, “Do not Jew me down,” this would not be an example of a micro-aggression but of an explicit use of hate or racist speech. (This is an example used by Sue of a micro-aggression against members of a marginalized religious group. As I have mentioned, I don’t find this to be an example of a micro-aggression. Actually, I think that a lot of the examples that Sue lists are not obviously ones of microaggressions, and it is an interesting exercise to go through them.)
So, belonging to an oppressed group and subtlety are two criteria that help distinguish microaggressions from other acts of hostility, insults, and snubs. You might see this more clearly by the use of Venn diagrams: within the large circle of aggressive actions, there is a circle of actions based on oppression, and within that circle, there is another circle of subtle, everyday actions. It is the members of that circle that are microaggressions.
A third thing to note about the definition is its implications for who can microaggress against whom. The answer is basically anyone can microaggress, as long as the target of the aggression belongs to a marginalized group. (I don’t want to give the impression that I identify marginalized groups with oppressed groups or with minority groups. These three are by no means necessarily identical to each other. I use the terms interchangeably only for ease of reference.)
So a woman can microaggress against another woman (“Which foundation do you use? It covers your wrinkles really nicely.”), and a gay man can microaggress against another gay man (“Is that jacket a real Michael Kors?”). But no one can microaggress against dominant, oppressive groups, given the definitions. If a gay man says to a heterosexual couple, upon seeing the pregnancy of the woman, “Wow. I see that you decided to breed again,” that would not count as a micro-aggression because heterosexuals are the dominant group with respect to homosexuals. (Perhaps a white man can be microaggressed against in virtue of his old age [ageism], his poverty [classism], or his trans status [trans-phobia].)
A fourth thing to note is the name. Basically, do not let it mislead you. Even though the prefix “micro” is in there, it is not meant to connote moral levity or lack of seriousness, as some commentators have thought (who say things such as, “If they’re micro, why bother with them?”) Their advocates intend them to be morally quite serious, because they think that a large number of them over a course of a lifetime can amount to a lot of harm to their recipient. This would not be a problem when referring to non-structural or non-oppression-based daily slights, because these probably occur quite haphazardly and not consistently enough—X and Y might not work with each other for longer than a few months, and Y does not have to deal with such slights because of Y’s group membership. So whatever harm X’s slights subject Y to, they are not usually serious enough. (I suspect that children are often the brunt of such harmful acts on the part of parents with tortured personalities, or just personalities not fit for parenting.)
Microaggressions are thought to be problematic, then, because the harm can be compounded over the course of a lifetime when one is a member of an oppressed group. It seems to me that this is the main reason why microaggressions are thought worth discussing. The idea behind them is that members of oppressed groups have to deal with many obstacles as it is, and microaggressions add to the already-existing misery of an oppressed life. And they do so in two ways. First, each micro-aggression is an additional harm to the list of the usual harms due to oppression, and, second, an accumulation of microaggressions can make the burdens of oppression much, much heavier—hence the emphasis on membership to a marginalized or oppressed group. If we remove the requirement of belonging to an oppressed group, we can just say to the person who complains about the daily slights, insults, and snubs, “Welcome to humanity, bub, and suck it up!” But because racism, sexism, and classism can be erased without human beings ceasing to be human (and thus morally fraught), no one needs to “suck up” the harms of microaggressions.
What, then, are some examples of microaggressions? Here are some (a few are from Sue, which I marked with an asterisk): (1) Opening the car door for a woman. The message is sexist: she is too “precious” to open the door by herself. (2) Telling someone with an accent, “Your English is good.” The message is that because they are foreigners their English is not expected to be good. (3*) Seating a black couple in a restaurant near the kitchen even though there are empty, more desirable tables. The message is that the couple are second class citizens. (4*) A white woman clutches her purse (or a white man checks that his wallet is still in his pocket) as she sees a black or Latino man walking in her direction. The message is that black and Latino men are robbers. (5) Asking a black person at a fancy store where to find something. The message is that black people are not rich enough to be shopping there. (6) Referring to a black person as articulate. The message is that black people are uneducated. (7*) A woman doctor wearing a stethoscope being asked a question because the questioner thinks that she is a nurse. The message is that women are usually not good enough to be doctors. (8) Asking a gay man where it is best to go clothes (or furniture, or décor) shopping. The message is that gay men know about fashion, etc. (9) Asking an Algerian person what she thinks about the situation in Syria. The message is that just because one is Arab one knows everything about all things Arab. (Here, you can substitute any group in the example and it will work.) (10*) Referring to the clothes of a reality-TV Mom as “trashy.” The message is that poor people have no taste. (11) Asking a man to help move a desk, even though a woman is also present in the room. The message is that men are stronger than women, or that women are too weak to move furniture. (The message is not that all men are strong enough to move furniture, even if the particular man is obviously physically weaker than the woman.)
How do we determine whether an act is micro-aggressive? Three criteria come to mind: (a) the intention of the agent (the “actor”), (b) the impact that the act has on the receiver, and (c) whether the act itself (the sentence or behavior) is an instance of a type of act that is micro-aggressive. (Or [d] some combination of them, which I won’t discuss because any combination inherits the problems of its constituents.) Let’s briefly consider them.
By definition, microaggressions need not be intentional, so the intention of the actor is not going to help, certainly not in all cases. Even if we speak of un- or sub-conscious intentions or motives, especially since many microaggressions are supposed to be the result of implicit bias, we normally have no access to the hidden consciousness of a person to excavate such intentions or motives. (I usually like to distinguish between intentions and motives, but I will treat them interchangeably for now.) So, one way to decide whether an act is micro-aggressive is to go by the motives of the actor. This is what we usually do, after all, when we try to figure out whether subtle, daily acts (self-conscious or sub-conscious) between individuals are hostile.
But what is the motive (or intention) to? Consider the example of the woman who clutches her purse upon seeing a black or Latino man walking in her direction. Her motive (self-conscious or sub-conscious) seems to be to ensure that her purse will not be stolen, not to snub, slight, or insult the man. (Ditto for some of the other examples: asking the gay man where to shop, opening the car door for the woman, etc.) True, her motive might be based on a stereotypical, racist, or false belief about black and Latino men, but this is not the same as a micro-aggression. Plenty of people have such problematic beliefs, and we do not need the concept of “microaggression” to refer to them—we have other concepts for that (even though some of them are in need of philosophical clarification), such as “implicit bias,” “stereotypes,” and “false generalization.”
Thus, although the criterion of motives or intentions can capture some microaggressions (e.g., someone telling another, with the self-conscious motive to exclude, “You have an accent”), it does not capture a crucial aspect of microaggressions. Because microaggressions are acts that communicate something, the role of the receiver is crucial. (On Friedlaender’s definition, no such communication is evident, but given her view’s commitment to harm, as we will see in the next post, she needs to build into the definition the notion of “messaging” or “communication”; as long as this notion is left out, her definition of “microaggressions” will be defective.) If we stick with the example of the purse-clutching white woman, we see that the issue is not simply what she thinks or does, but what she does to someone, namely, snub, slight, or insult.
So perhaps the way to distinguish microaggressions from other subtle acts of hostility is by the way they are received—whether they are received as an insult or not (I will use “insult” as a stand-in for “snub, insult, or slight”). But this clearly will not work, for the simple reason that leaving it up to the receiver to decide whether an act was insulting is allowing too much subjectivity to make the criterion definite. For instance, every single Latino friend of mine who is an immigrant to this country has laughed off the example of being told that one’s English is good as an example of a micro-aggression. Pretty much their reaction is, “Are you joking? I am flattered when someone tells me that my English is good.” For every example in the above list, we can imagine (at least) two variations of it, one in which the recipient of the action feels insulted by it and one in which they don’t. This is because many recipients of such actions, even if they recognize them as problematic in some way, might also chalk them up to human ignorance, idiocy, lack of awareness, etc., and so not perceive them as insults.
This leaves us with the third way to distinguish microaggressions: as instances of types of actions that are in themselves insulting, regardless of whether the actor intended them to be insulting or of whether the recipient found them to be so. To see this clearly, consider any example of a racist word or expression. Calling someone a “wetback” is insulting regardless of the speaker’s intentions or the recipient’s feelings. (We can imagine cases in which both speaker and recipient are ignorant of its racist history and meaning.) So if X calls Y a “wetback,” X cannot get off the hook by pleading ignorance (even if X’ plea were truthful), and Y cannot absolve X of an insulting act simply because Y was not bothered by it.
I’m not using this example as an example of a microaggression, but of an expression that is racist regardless of the motives (or intentions) of the speaker and regardless of the feelings of the receiver. So, one might claim, a similar idea applies to microaggressions: we can give a list of micro-aggressive words, expressions, actions, etc. that are in themselves insulting, regardless of the intentions of the actor and the feelings of the receiver.
But there are two reasons why this suggestion won’t work. The first is that many advocates of the existence and immorality of microaggressions link them to harm, and they often understand the harm in subjective ways, so they need the feelings of the receiver to distinguish microaggressions from other acts. (This will be the core subject of the next post.)
Still, because the notion of “harm” need not be subjective (despite what the advocates themselves say), and because “harm” can be conjoined with the type of act that a micro-aggression is, the first reason is not strong enough to sink the third way of distinguishing microaggressions from other acts.
This leaves us with the second reason, namely, that there is no such list. With hate speech, there are generally recognized terms and expressions that would go on such a list, and I do not need to rehearse them here. But this is not so with microaggressions: although we can recognize some instances of speech that could count as microaggressions, most are controversial. Why would asking a gay man where to shop be a micro-aggression? Why not say that the inquirer saw the man as well-dressed so thought that he would know where to go shop? (Compare this to calling a gay man a “faggot”: there is no controversy there as to whether what was said is morally wrong.) Asking a woman doctor a question thinking that she is a nurse need not be an act of micro-aggression and, whether it is, depends on the specific details of the situation. The problem is compounded when we remember that microaggressions are not confined to verbal acts, but include non-verbal ones as well. This compounds the problem because most acts do not carry their micro-aggressive nature on their sleeves. If they are microaggressions, they are so contextually, which defeats the point of a list.
Someone cries out, “So what? We can now claim that whether an act is a micro-aggression depends on the context. So we do have a standard—the context—by which to determine whether an act is a micro-aggression.” True enough. But now the problem is this: two crucial factors are often part of the context for determining an act’s nature as a micro-aggression: the actor’s intention and the receiver’s reaction (the latter is becoming more prevalent as more people take offense at more things). But this takes us right back to the problems with intention and reception in determining whether an act is a micro-aggression.
I suggest that the best way to capture the actions that advocates of “microaggressions” wish to capture is by relying on the actor’s motives or intentions, be they self-conscious or sub-conscious. It is a person’s motive, explicit or implicit, that would identify the person’s action as insulting, snubbing, or slighting someone (or aiming to do so) on the basis of the target’s (perceived) group membership. But for this, we have good concepts already in existence that can work together in rich and nuanced ways to identify the action for what it is, concepts such as “sexist,” “racist,” “implicit bias,” “prejudice,” and “intention.” These allow us to say something like, “John called Rafael an immigrant! This was an insult because we all know what John thinks about immigrants.” (This example still works even in the case when John’s thoughts about immigrants are not self-conscious.)
So “microaggressions” does not add anything to the repertoire of our moral concepts, and so is not necessary. But I also want to suggest that we discard it insofar as its use is dangerous: to persist in using the concept might lead us to hyper-inflate our human inventory of immoral acts, and to accuse each other of such imaginary wrongs, which in turn leads to the usual conflicts between people. So perhaps we are better off without it altogether.
In the next post, I will explain the alleged connections between “microaggressions” and “harm,” and I will show why these connections have not been thought through carefully. This further supports the idea that “micro-aggressions” does no necessary work. Stay tuned.