Psych Today and DailyLife.com on “Microaggression”, an interesting way to look at subtle social “othering”
Posted by Dr. ARUDOU, Debito on March 21st, 2012
Hi Blog. I’ve been studying in recent months the dynamic of “othering” and concomitant practices of racism at the nation-state level. Lotsa food for thought for me there, of course.
But this came across my computer screen a few days ago and I think it worth reposting. Two articles, one journalistic, one from scientists at Psychology Today, on “Microaggression”, and how subtle practices of social “othering” in everyday interactions are difficult to deal with without getting (or sounding) paranoid. It happens on a daily basis to minorities and people of differences in any culture, to be sure. But in Japan, methinks, it gets dismissed as merely a Japanese cultural practice (“curiosity”, the product of the ubiquitous “shimaguni konjou“, the way many Japanese reconfirm themselves as “different” and “unique” as defined in contrast to the NJ, etc.). It’s not necessarily a willful act of racialization (and I would put it down to more of a “dominant group” issue rather than a “White” issue, so the analysis can cross societies), but is is definitely an aggressive act of “othering” (as in, assuming through the line of questioning, and against all evidence to the contrary that comes out in conversation, that someone is “different”) on the micro level. And when it happens often enough, it become a macro phenomenon. The advantage is, in English, there is a word for it. Not in Japanese, which makes it tougher to deal with. Again, lots of food for thought. Have a read. Arudou Debito
ARE YOU A VICTIM OF MICROAGGRESSION?
March 16, 2012
Candice Chung, Writer, Daily Life.com, Courtesy Giantpanda
Maybe it’s the dim lighting, or maybe it’s the soft 80s rock – but there’s something about catching a taxi alone at night that gives cab drivers the illusion they’re on a speed date with you. At least that’s one way of explaining the huge number of uncomfortably intimate conversations I’ve had with taxi drivers over the years.
There are the standard ice-breakers – whether I’m single, what I do, where I’d been, and it usually ticks along politely until I get one question wrong.
Driver: “So, where are you from?”
Me: “Oh, I grew up here.”
Driver: “But I mean, where are you from, originally? What are you Thai? Malaysian?”
And that, I’ve come to recognise, is my cue to provide a solid explanation for being Asian. Of course, I could’ve mentioned I was born in Hong Kong from the start, but what if they decide to compliment me on my English? It’d be rude to take credit for what’s practically the only thing I speak.
Interestingly, the question of ancestry hardly ever comes up in casual banters for my Anglo Saxon friends (although they too are descended from immigrants). We may laugh at the overwhelming percentage of Republican voters who still believe Barack Obama is Muslim, but even in a truly multicultural society like ours, are certain cultural and religious backgrounds perceived as more ‘authentically Australian’ than others?
The term ‘microagression’ was first coined by psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce in 1970 to describe the everyday things we say or do which causes someone to feel ‘othered’. Originally a racially-related phenomenon, its definition has since evolved to include any subtle verbal or non-verbal communication that conveys insensitivity towards a person’s sex, social status, physical appearance or sexuality.
Microaggressive remarks can often come in the form of back-handed compliments. For example, “She’s gorgeous for a big girl” or “I would never be able to tell you’re GAY!” Essentially, they are messages that appear innocent enough on the surface but contain ‘demeaning meta-communications’ to its recipients.
According to Columbia University psychologist Derald Wing Sue, “Most people… harbour unconscious biases and prejudices that leak out in many interpersonal situations.” Just think of all the talk-back radio rants that begin with “Now, I’m not racist/ sexist/ homophobic, but …” or any number of ‘well-meaning’ comments that finish with: [chuckle] “No offence”. And since most ‘microaggressors’ are genuinely unaware of any wrongdoings, this makes it nearly impossible to confront the situation without evoking paranoia.
Ironically, Sue’s research also found that most of us are actually better at handling overt acts of discrimination than subtle insults, because at least the former has “no guesswork involved” whereas victims of microaggression are “often left to question what actually happened”.
The challenge ultimately lies in making the invisible visible – however ‘insignificant’ it may be. And we can do this, writes Cultural Anthropologist Zara Zimbardo, by “returning the gaze”: “In feminist discourse, it’s when “the targeted ‘other’ look[s] back at the non-target “norm”, putting them in the spotlight of scrutiny.” Viral videos like S**t White Girls Say to Black Girls or the Microaggression Project – where contributors are encouraged to submit snippets of microaggressive insults – are great examples of putting the spotlight on the myriad ‘invisible things’ that make up a marginalised experience.
In the end, this is an awkward subject because it often requires well-meaning people to reflect on their own bias and privilege. Sure, you may object to racism, but do you speak really, reaaally slowly when you order Thai home delivery? Perhaps no one sums up the value of self-awareness better than David Foster Wallace in his famous ‘This is water’ speech:
“Two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?””
It’s surprising what goes unnoticed sometimes.
Microaggressions in Everyday Life
A new view on racism, sexism, and heterosexism.
by Derald Wing Sue, Ph.D., and David Rivera, M.S.
Is subtle bias harmless?
Published on October 5, 2010 (excerpt)
Not too long ago, I (Asian American) boarded a small plane with an African American colleague in the early hours of the morning. As there were few passengers, the flight attendant told us to sit anywhere, so we choose seats near the front of the plane and across the aisle from one another.
At the last minute, three White men entered the plane and took seats in front of us. Just before takeoff, the flight attendant, who is White, asked if we would mind moving to the back of the aircraft to better balance the plane’s weight. We grudgingly complied but felt singled out as passengers of color in being told to “move to the back of the bus.” When we expressed these feelings to the attendant, she indignantly denied the charge, became defensive, stated that her intent was to ensure the flight’s safety, and wanted to give us some privacy.
Since we had entered the plane first, I asked why she did not ask the White men to move instead of us. She became indignant, stated that we had misunderstood her intentions, claimed she did not see “color,” suggested that we were being “oversensitive,” and refused to talk about the matter any further.
Were we being overly sensitive, or was the flight attendant being racist? That is a question that people of color are constantly faced with in their day-to-day interactions with well-intentioned White folks who experience themselves as good, moral and decent human beings.
The Common Experience of Racial Microaggressions
Such incidents have become a common-place experience for many people of color because they seem to occur constantly in our daily lives.
When a White couple (man and women) passes a Black man on the sidewalk, the woman automatically clutches her purse more tightly, while the White man checks for his wallet in the back pocket. (Hidden Message: Blacks are prone to crime and up to no good.)
A third generation Asian American is complimented by a taxi cab driver for speaking such good English. (Hidden Message: Asian Americans are perceived as perpetual aliens in their own country and not “real Americans.”)
Police stop a Latino male driver for no apparent reason but to subtly check his driver’s license to determine immigration status. (Hidden message: Latinas/os are illegal aliens.)
American Indian students at the University of Illinois see Native American symbols and mascots – exemplified by Chief Illiniwek dancing and whooping fiercely during football games. (Hidden Message: American Indians are savages, blood-thirsty and their culture and traditions are demeaned.)
In our 8-year research at Teachers College, Columbia University, we have found that these racial microaggressions may on the surface, appear like a compliment or seem quite innocent and harmless, but nevertheless, they contain what we call demeaning meta-communications or hidden messages.
What Are Racial Microaggressions?
The term racial microaggressions, was first coined by psychiatrist Chester Pierce, MD, in the 1970s. But the concept is also rooted in the work of Jack Dovidio, Ph.D. (Yale University) and Samuel Gaertner, Ph.D. (University of Delaware) in their formulation of aversive racism – many well-intentioned Whites consciously believe in and profess equality, but unconsciously act in a racist manner, particularly in ambiguous situations.
Racial microaggressions are the brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities and denigrating messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned White people who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated. These messages may be sent verbally (“You speak good English.”), nonverbally (clutching one’s purse more tightly) or environmentally (symbols like the confederate flag or using American Indian mascots). Such communications are usually outside the level of conscious awareness of perpetrators. In the case of the flight attendant, I am sure that she believed she was acting with the best of intentions and probably felt aghast that someone would accuse her of such a horrendous act.
Our research and those of many social psychologists suggest that most people like the flight attendant, harbor unconscious biases and prejudices that leak out in many interpersonal situations and decision points. In other words, the attendant was acting with bias-she just didn’t know it. Getting perpetrators to realize that they are acting in a biased manner is a monumental task because (a) on a conscious level they see themselves as fair minded individuals who would never consciously discriminate, (b) they are genuinely not aware of their biases, and (c) their self image of being “a good moral human being” is assailed if they realize and acknowledge that they possess biased thoughts, attitudes and feelings that harm people of color.
To better understand the type and range of these incidents, my research team and other researchers are exploring the manifestation, dynamics and impact of microaggressions. We have begun documenting how African Americans, Asian Americans, American Indians and Latina(o) Americans who receive these everyday psychological slings and arrows experience an erosion of their mental health, job performance, classroom learning, the quality of social experience, and ultimately their standard of living.
In my book, Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation (John Wiley & Sons, 2010), I summarize research conducted at Teachers College, Columbia University which led us to propose a classification of racial microaggressions. Three types of current racial transgressions were described:
• Microassaults: Conscious and intentional discriminatory actions: using racial epithets, displaying White supremacist symbols – swastikas, or preventing one’s son or daughter from dating outside of their race.
• Microinsults: Verbal, nonverbal, and environmental communications that subtly convey rudeness and insensitivity that demean a person’s racial heritage or identity. An example is an employee who asks a co-worker of color how he/she got his/her job, implying he/she may have landed it through an affirmative action or quota system.
• Microinvalidations: Communications that subtly exclude negate or nullify the thoughts, feelings or experiential reality of a person of color. For instance, White people often ask Latinos where they were born, conveying the message that they are perpetual foreigners in their own land.
Our research suggests that microinsults and microinvalidiations are potentially more harmful because of their invisibility, which puts people of color in a psychological bind: While people of color may feel insulted, they are often uncertain why, and perpetrators are unaware that anything has happened and are not aware they have been offensive. For people of color, they are caught in a Catch-22. If they question the perpetrator, as in the case of the flight attendant, denials are likely to follow. Indeed, they may be labeled “oversensitive” or even “paranoid.” If they choose not to confront perpetrators, the turmoil stews and percolates in the psyche of the person taking a huge emotional toll. In other words, they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
Note that the denials by perpetrators are usually not conscious attempts to deceive; they honestly believe they have done no wrong. Microaggressions hold their power because they are invisible, and therefore they don’t allow Whites to see that their actions and attitudes may be discriminatory. Therein lays the dilemma. The person of color is left to question what actually happened. The result is confusion, anger and an overall draining of energy.
Ironically, some research and testimony from people of color indicate they are better able to handle overt, conscious and deliberate acts of racism than the unconscious, subtle and less obvious forms. That is because there is no guesswork involved in overt forms of racism.
Many racial microaggressions are so subtle that neither target nor perpetrator may entirely understand what is happening. The invisibility of racial microaggressions may be more harmful to people of color than hate crimes or the overt and deliberate acts of White supremacists such as the Klan and Skinheads. Studies support the fact that people of color frequently experience microaggressions, that it is a continuing reality in their day-to-day interactions with friends, neighbors, co-workers, teachers, and employers in academic, social and public settings…