Microaggressions: Learning from a Millenial’s Point-of-View
By Inclusant intern Taylor Thomas
Microaggresssions: fact or fiction? I think it’s fair to say that black people in America have come a long way. We all know of the hardships that black men and women faced during the Civil Rights Movement in the 50s and 60s; in comparison, today we black people have it made. But it is important to remember the injustices that still exist. Most people acknowledge certain ongoing problems today, such as police brutality or the use of the n-word by non-black people. But it is the smaller-scale, everyday things that often go unnoticed, or are flat-out dismissed as being unimportant. These are microaggressions.
A microaggression is defined as a small, subtle form of discrimination. These are daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, intentional or unintentional, that communicate negative, hostile, or derogatory attitudes towards marginalized people (the keywords here are “intentional or unintentional” as well as “marginalized people,” meaning those who did not or do not have equal rights or power in a society). While the definition asserts that a microaggression conveys messages that are “hostile,” I believe that a microaggression can also be anything that makes a marginalized person feel like they don’t belong or are the “other” (as compared to the societal norm) in a given situation. This could include the upholding of racial stereotypes (such as asking an Asian person if they are “good at Kung Fu”), speaking over a woman to favor the opinion of a man, or asking a Muslim person if they are a terrorist.
On an individual level, these microaggressions may not seem to be such a big deal, especially when you compare them to the things that marginalized people have gone through in the past (think the Civil Rights Movement again). But as the definition states, microaggressions are often daily occurrences, meaning that these are things marginalized people constantly face. When happening repeatedly, they can really eat away at a person, emotionally and mentally. School, for example, is a breeding ground for many microaggressions, and if a student is being made to feel like the “other” in an environment where they should feel safe, so they can make the most of their education, that should be taken seriously.
Many people respond to the occurrence of microaggressions by claiming that they simply don’t exist. Some believe that these small injustices aren’t happening, or they decide that they are not really a problem. This argument often comes from the point of view of marginalized people who have been fortunate enough not to routinely experience microaggressions, or are simply able to brush them off. I also hear this argument from non-marginalized people who are simply not in a position to experience microaggressions, and by their logic that is enough to disprove it. It is very difficult to convince these people that they are wrong. For non-marginalized folks, it is very hard to acknowledge that some of their everyday behavior can be considered offensive. Old habits die hard. And for those marginalized people who reject the the reality of microaggressions, they sometimes believe the problem must lie with the victims– for example, if one is black and does recognize any microaggressions, then they must be something other black people bring upon themselves. For such a person to change his or her mind would mean to acknowledge that one’s personal experience does not define the experiences of others.
Another argument that I often hear comes from older generations, who were either victims or observers of more obvious forms of injustice such as the use of racial slurs, physical violence, or more overt forms of discrimination. According to them, young people who complain about racial microaggressions, for example, do not understand “real racism” like they did. This fits into a broader social narrative about needing a “thicker skin”; supposedly, because millennials are so coddled, they are unable to fight their own battles and instead cry “microaggression” for every little thing. I will acknowledge that living in a society that marginalizes certain people requires them to develop a level of resilience, but this is not an excuse to dismiss microaggressions. Why should we millennials have to settle for less than full equality? If there are issues that previous social equality movements did not overcome, why should we not speak out about them? For older generations to insist that we just suck it up when it comes to the “little things,” all it does is allow systems of oppression to persist in more subtle ways.
And the claim that microaggressions shouldn’t be classified as “real racism” is a problem. It does not matter whether someone is being called a racial slur by a stranger on the street or if they are being treated as a stereotype by a classmate. If we can all agree that racism and other types of injustices are wrong, then why try and make it a competition of who has it worse? If one really cares about social justice, we should be working to end it in all forms, rather than picking and choosing which issues to pay attention to. Yes, there are societal problems larger than microaggressions. But ending inequality means eliminating it in all forms.
The large-scale social justice movements of the past accomplished a great deal for different marginalized groups in America. They have changed laws and systems, and closed institutional gaps that kept certain people from advancing as a group. But that does not mean that there isn’t more ground to cover. To only acknowledge the “bigger” problems as hurdles is problematic, as is dismissing any expressions of racism, sexism, or other inequalities. It is only when we acknowledge both the big and the systematic, along with the small and the everyday, that we can reach true equality.