Microaggression! Really?

I was watching an episode of The Mentalist this week and particularly enjoyed this one line.  I’ll let you know when the line shows up.  This next part is just background

So there are these two guys in a bar.  What is with these guys?  They are clumsy.  They don’t present themselves very well.  On the other hand, they are in the bar because women they might be interested in are there and it is their job, apparently, not the women’s job, to take the initiative.  They do it badly.

The women are there to check up on Patrick Jane, the main character of the show, who is having a date somewhere in the restaurant.  The men give their names.  After a brief pause, the women give their names.  The first woman’s name is Kim. The second woman’s name is Theresa.  “Theresa,” says the Second Oaf, “that’s a pretty name.”

OK, here’s the line.  She looks up at him and says, “Thank you.”  When, in the next  conversational pass, the women reveal that they are FBI agents and the men back cautiously away, the whole scene is over, but I thought that Theresa’s thanking the Second Oaf for doing as well as he could, was a nice touch.  I’ve had that job myself, recently, and I didn’t always do it very well. I understood that to be treated with generosity by a woman who was simultaneously signaling that she didn’t want to have anything further to do with me was a gift from her to me and I accepted it thankfully.

If you go to this site on Buzzfeed, you will see a lot of what someone  thinks ought to be called microaggression.  I look at it as training in victimhood for the featured young people.  I’ll show some pictures from this site later.


Now let’s talk about microaggression.  It doesn’t have to be racial or ethnic as the examples on this site are.  It could have to do with gender, with age, with social presentability e.g. fat or ugly, with being a member of the wrong class, with being—as with the two guys at the bar—confronted with a task that was beyond their ability.

“Micro” aggressions are, of course, just “little aggressions,” but it makes me wonder why it is a good idea to invent a scale that groups a lot of different behaviors together and calls them all “aggressions,” distinguishing them only by whether they are large or small.  Why is that a good idea?  So lynching a black civil rights worker in Mississippi is a macroaggression, right, and not being able to tell the nationality of an Asian schoolgirl is a microaggression.  Is a scale that does that really a good idea?

It seems to me it would be a good deal more satisfying, and not so…you know…microaggressive, to build two scales.  In my teaching days, I called them axes and called the ends of the axis, poles.  On the one axis, you put people who intend to do harm to others.  You could calibrate it from large harmful acts at one pole to small harmful acts at the other, but there would be nothing inadvertent on the axis at all.  The other axis would measure social competence—a kind of a klutz or doofus scale—micro 1and goes from high (reliably incompetent or insensitive) to low (socially skillful).

If you don’t do it that way, you are going to be calling “aggressive,” a lot of people who are trying to do social tasks that are beyond their ability.

So here’s one.  I’m guessing that the point is that she is thought not to be “American” because she is not Caucasian.  If she looked Russian, in other words, she would not be thought to be an immigrant.  If she were Russian, her family  actually could have come from the region of the Caucasus Mountains and she would be Caucasian in a way Germans and Swedes and Italians could only envy.  I wonder if she knows that rolling her eyes like that can only be an act of microaggression.

micro 5Or try this one. In my classes at Portland State, I had a lot students from Japan, Korea, China, and Vietnam and a few each term from other Asian countries.  If there is a way to distinguish students from each of these countries flawlessly just by looking at them, it was not covered in the faculty manual.[1]   If you are teaching political science, questions of relations between the government of the U. S. and these four countries will arise.  I’m trying to think why I shouldn’t ask this question of an Asian student who looks like this.

Or how about this one?  Would you really look at a person who is as far away from you as this camera shot suggests and screw up your mouth like that?  Would you really?  So the question of the monumental preference of black voters for Democratic candidates comes up and the likelihood that the one black student in the class will have no views on the question that are worth hearing is accepted as common knowledge?  What would he know about it?  What experience does he have of black voters that would not be shared equally by the other students in the class?

Of the many grievances I harbor about this piece—What!  You couldn’t tell?—let me select two. micro 3 People who perform a delicate or even a routine piece of social interaction badly are not necessarily “aggressive.”  They might be daunted, shy, anxious, or just incompetent.  That’s my first grievance.

Second, the microaggression is a notion that can have some useful applications in an experimental setting.  Used generally to disparage people who said things you didn’t like is not a good idea.  It exacerbates any tensions there may be.  It leads the doofus who asked the stupid question to move in the direction of further alienation from “different looking people.”  There are no pictures in this piece of the people who asked these questions, of course, because this is a session dedicated to training people how to feel like victims, but it is worth asking what the effect on these people will be. 

Does the routine labeling of social ineptitude as “racism” really help bring the several races into productive dialogue?  It does?  Really”


[1] The names help a good deal more.  One term, I had four Vietnamese students named Nguyen.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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