An example of a microaggression from the I, Too, Am Harvard Tumblr, which highlights the bullshit black Harvard students have to put up with on a daily basis.
“So where are you from?” It's innocent enough, that question—a way to break the ice when no more can be said about the weather. But if you aren't White, there's a good chance it will be followed by one of the most cringe-inducing sentences in the White lexicon: “No, I mean originally.”
That's never asked of me, mind you. No one ever wants to know where I came from, since I'm pale enough and sufficiently boring-looking to appear to other White people as a born-and-raised American, which I often lament that I am. That question, when I've heard it, is always posed to a friend of mine, who always responds the same way: “Ca-li-for-ni-a.” This always comes out sounding a bit like “Fuck. You.” It inevitably causes offense, this matter-of-fact response. It isn't what people—White people—want to hear. They feel cheated.
“Oh, you know what I meant,” they always groan, the word asshole on the tip of their tongue.
The problem is apparently my friend, who isn’t White and looks “exotic” to people whose idea of exotic is a beer with a lime. My friend isn't pale like me, which means he's a walking zoo exhibit from the coasts to the country, always expected to respond to strangers’ interrogations about his native land with a smile and a careful recounting of his family tree.
Oh, but these people always mean well. They mean so fucking well that they act all offended if anyone ever calls them out on their insensitivity. That's because, as a big dumb pack, we White people can’t stand when anyone complains about our doing or saying offensive things when, gosh, we didn’t mean to cause offense—which we take as license to cause any offense we like. We White men are the worst when it comes to this and the most loath to learn and liable to go all angry-talk-radio on anyone who has the temerity to point out that we're acting racist or sexist or just gerally shitty. “Don't be so sensitive!” we say, doggedly determined to make things worse, though of course the pasty White dudes of America are some of the most overly sensitive people on the planet (go ahead, just try making a joke at our expense).
Some call not being a jerk “political correctness,” a pejorative term that brings to mind some ivory-tower prick in a cardigan who believes we ought to outlaw testosterone and the right to call a spade a spade. They imply that referring to racial minorities or sexual preferences or intellectual abilities requires a reference manual—and the latest edition at that—lest we be subjected to a sensitivity tribunal and sentenced to six months of hard feminist theory.
But complaining about political correctness is about as fresh as a loaf of white bread from the 90s. And so, according to the National Review, the “trendy new complaint on college campuses”—or rather, the trendy new thing for assholes to complain about—is something called “microaggression,” with the conservative magazine's use of “trendy” and “college” telling us all we need to know: This is some serious liberal bullshit.
Dr. Derald Sue, a psychology professor at Columbia University, is trotted out as the liberal caricature asked to do the impossible: defend the concept of microaggression in a publication whose readers stopped taking him seriously as soon as he was introducd as a professor at Columbia named “Derald.” But Dr. Sue does the best he can, informing the National Review's smirking readers that a “microaggression” is an “everyday slight, putdown, indignity, or invalidation unintentionally directed toward a marginalized group.”
This sounds altogether reasonable, the idea that somewhere between lynching and saying “hello” there can lie something that causes offense. Indeed, even the National Review's own examples of microaggression fail to persuade otherwise, suggesting it is in fact a real, rather ugly phenomenon: a White person telling an Asian student that he can “probably” solve a hard math problem because, obviously, he's Asian; a White woman clutching her purse when Black men walk by because, obviously, they're dangerous; a teacher assigning books almost exclusively by White dudes because, obviously, they're the only ones who matter.
Telling a Black person he or she is “basically White” or asking a lesbian if she has ever had “real” sex are other examples of micoaggressions that aren't imagined offenses dreamed up by some liberal jerk-off but real, and really offensive, things that real people say. But those who are hurt are presented as whiners; on its Facebook page, the National Review even links to its piece on microaggresions with a photo of a crying baby—though the baby is White, which serves as reminder of who's really doing all the whining.
Now, can concern for others sometimes be taken too far? Sure, I guess. Earlier this month, the New Republic, an arguably liberal magazine, ran a piece bemoaning the spread of “trigger warnings”—basically a heads-up that the content about to be discussed could trigger a negative reaction in those suffering post-traumatic stress—from social-justice Tumblrs to college classrooms. Some schools, it seems, are telling students ahead of time when a class will be dealing with subjects like rape and domestic violence. This practice could conceivably be taken too far—and the New Republic assures us with scant evidence that it has been—but that some people might be overly concerned about the emotional well-being of those who have suffered trauma is not high up on my daily list of things to get upset about.
But we have a narrative of overly sensitive women and minorities to maintain, and both liberal and conservative publications seem set on maintaining it. So when Dr. Sue tells the National Review it's “best to believe the one who perceives the bias,” rather than defer to the judgment of the but-I-didn't-mean-it offender, the reader is meant to scoff. That people may be “unknowingly making racist remarks or unintentionally engaging in sexist and homophobic behaviors” is cast as a ridiculous. And when the professor goes on to suggest that a “truly multicultural” education for the young might help address subconscious prejudice, that's taken as code for Soviet-style totalitarianism, and the author even suggests to his better-dead-than-considerate readers that what will happen next is “reeducation for the rest.”
Sadly, no one is talking about “reeducation” camps where the last of the Real Men will be forced to sit around campfires singing songs about feelings while a big-government bureaucrat monitors their body language for signs of masculine aggression (that part got dropped from Obamacare). But also, let's remember, no one is saying that committing a microaggression is the worst thing in the world—that's why the word micro is there. Nor does inadvertently triggering someone make you a monster. What people are suggesting is merely that there are things we can all probably do to make sure we don’t go around inadvertently offending and triggering people. If it helps, you don't even need to use the word “microaggression”—you can call it “being an asshole.”
You don’t need a reference manual to not make people feel bad; you just need to listen every once in a while, learn a thing or two, and try to be more considerate, particularly around people you just met. Since when did stopping to think before you open your stupid mouth become such a bad thing? We can all be insensitive—no one is perfect, and no one expects perfection—but maybe we can avoid lashing out and getting defensive when people point that out. If you were being an asshole without being aware of it, wouldn't you want someone to point that out?
“Look, I know you didn’t mean it, but can you please not do it again?” is really not too much to ask. On the other hand, asking someone whose name you just learned where he's from—no, where he's really from—just because he doesn't look like you is a shitty thing to do as it makes that person feel he's not at home in his own country. That some people righteously refuse to consider why they may be causing offense, or just don't care that they are, says more about them than it does about the excesses of “political correctness.” It says some people are just dicks.
Charles Davis is a writer and producer in Los Angeles. His work has been published by outlets including Al Jazeera, the New Inquiry, and Salon.