Good intentions fall flat if the ultimate outcome suggests that the recipient’s feelings don’t count.
The impact books have on our lives is not limited to the words written between the covers. Some books inspire new thoughts and send us to unexpected places. Follow me Down the Rabbit Hole in this recurring segment.
Recently I’ve been contemplating the idea that seemingly small things can have immense impact. Perhaps it’s a side-effect of living through over a year of pandemic life. A virus is so small yet can send the world screeching to a halt. Then there is language, which I touched on in previous posts. The multiple meanings of words influence us beyond poetry and puns. The words we use can convey many ideas simultaneously, spotlighting our intent even without us knowing it. One word in particular has been front of mind since reading White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo.
For those of you that don’t know, a microaggression is a comment or behaviour that subtly conveys discriminatory attitudes towards a marginalized group.
While microaggressions can be intentional, for the sake of today’s discussion I’d like to focus on those comments and behaviours that are either unconscious or ironically, are an attempt to pay a compliment. I’m also labouring under the assumption that you, dear reader, are interested in antiracism work, and are not the macroaggressive sort. If this isn’t the case, be warned: you may not like the rest of this post.
Another way of looking at microaggression is as a manifestation of unconscious bias, which I delved into a couple weeks ago in How To Unsee What's Been Seen. While it’s natural to categorize as a way to makes sense of the world and to learn, our unconscious behaviours can reveal where our stereotypes lie. Consider the following “compliments.”
Assigning the only female in the room to take meeting minutes because she’s probably best at it.
Telling someone they don’t look like a lesbian.
Complimenting an Asian-Canadian on how well they speak English.
While these may be intended as compliments, they reveal underlying assumptions and stereotypes held by the speaker. Clerical work is a woman’s job. All lesbians look the same. Asian-Canadians aren’t “from here.” Each is a subtle way of conveying that the speaker views them as outsiders—as them not us.
These few examples are just the tip of the iceberg. If you’re wondering whether you’ve ever perpetrated microaggressions, the answer a firm maybe, leaning towards probably. I encourage you to do a quick Google search. Some are quite common and engrained in our culture.
It was more than just examples of subtle hostility that occupied my mind. I found unease in the word itself, and have struggled a bit with trying to articulate that. I’d like to start by breaking it down.
This word means small, and it can mean insignificant, though not necessarily so. As I mentioned before, many small things have shown themselves highly significant—microorganisms, microplastics, micronutrients, and microphones. Ok, the last one there is really only significant in certain situations, like recording a podcast, which I’m sure Sarah will attest having edited ours.
When some people hear the word microaggression, their minds understand it to mean small aggression, which was the original intent. However, depending on one’s past experiences, the mind may understand it to denote an insignificant aggression.
Therein lies my discomfort.
In such minds, the word itself adopts a meaning strikingly similar to a common retort to people pointing out an offense: “it’s not that big of a deal.” Likewise, a single drop of water may seem insignificant, until you’re caught in a rainstorm. Unfortunately, for marginalized groups, a given comment or behaviour is seldom just a one-off, but rather one of many, frequently, and sometimes predictably, repeated.
On to the second half of the word.
This is the most important part. A microaggression is a violence, and where the emphasis must lie. Particularly since the injury is cumulative.
Going back to microaggressive compliments. It’s not enough to merely intend to say something kind. Arguably, the most important part of a compliment is that it arouses good feelings in the recipient. Some people think that any gift should be received graciously regardless of what it is, arguing it’s the thought that counts. Personally, I think the most important part of that proverb is the word thought. If a person truly wishes to connect with another, it’s worth the effort to think before speaking, and consider whether the comment may be alienating instead of welcoming. Good intentions fall flat if the ultimate outcome suggests that the recipient’s feelings don’t count.
Can you think of a time when you observed microaggressions? What were the underlying insinuations of those comments or behaviours? How might you respond differently in the future knowing these were microaggressions?
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