One day in the second grade during recess, five of six swings on the playground were taken. I sat on the sixth and the five children already swinging jumped off and ran away screaming, “Ew, it’s the smelly Indian girl.” I started crying.
In high school, my homeroom teacher couldn’t pronounce my name on the first day of 9th grade. He read everyone else’s name and when he gets to mine shouts, “Help?” I laughed, nervously.
My college roommate’s stepfather told me he heard that in India they “don’t use toilet paper.” I said something snarky.
At my first job, a colleague I never talked to went out of her way to tell me she’s having an “India-themed party” during which they would watch “Monsoon Wedding” and eat chicken tikka. I glared at her.
These experiences could be considered microaggressions, a concept coined by Harvard professor Chester Pierce in the 1970s to describe daily, often minor, insults and dismissals from non-black Americans towards black Americans. The definition later expanded to include the experiences of a wide range of people from all races, as well as those with gender, sexuality, gender-identity, ethnicity or class differences. Individually, the interactions I listed above were minor, but together they have played a big role in how I have experienced being South Asian in the United States. The accumulation of such microaggressions has made me worry about how to deal with them: Did they mean it? Should I ignore it? Should I say something? Will people think I’m being too sensitive?
A much discussed, new scholarly article, “Microaggressions and Moral Cultures” examines some of the consequences of answering these questions by speaking out. Written by sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, the paper discusses the rise of what they call “victimhood culture”: the documenting of microaggressions by aggrieved parties in an effort to find justice. They take specific interest in what some have called “PC culture,” or the process through which a person or group of people will hold an offending party accountable for their language. This accountability process can include anything from confronting the transgressor, going to the authorities, “calling them out” in public or, the example Campbell and Manning put special focus on — publishing their grievances in online forums dedicated to documenting microaggressions.
Campbell and Manning’s thesis is that victimhood culture arises from an increasing “unwillingness to be dominated” and “sensitivity to slight” combined with the use of what they call a “third-party intervention”: More people are bringing such slights to the attention of the authorities or to the broader public, either of which may chastise the aggressor for engaging in politically tactless behavior.
“Rather than emphasize either their strength or inner worth,” they write, “the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization.”
The online forums the researchers studied document a plethora of microaggressions that college students experience. Examples include a mother telling her son to, “stop crying and acting like a little girl”; a Latino student frustrated at a white student’s use of “futbol” saying in response, “keep my heritage out of your mouth”; and a bisexual student who was told by a lesbian, “I don’t date bisexuals. They’re never faithful.”
Those who perceive the rise of victimhood culture as an over-sensitivity to slight, of course, tend to pair it with the resurgence of political correctness. A widely circulated article from earlier this year by Jonathan Chait chastised the re-emergence of “PC culture” and its corresponding impact: that people just can’t say what they want to anymore. Chait went as far as to state that this increased awareness and policing of language is one of the greatest threats to political democracy.
What such arguments miss is the way that power functions. Many people don’t have the luxury of talking about identity in a way that is removed from their lived experience. People who fight for the ability to be defined are doing so in the face of racialized incarceration policies, or medical technologies that are often reliant on normative ideas of gender.
The temporary power I might have felt from the “gotcha” moment of pointing out a microaggression is not equivalent to the power that comes of being born into social or economic privilege. If you are in the latter position, there’s a good chance you have the social apparatus to bounce back from the interaction. Of course, we should do what we can to ensure such accusations are not false. But characterizing the documentation of microaggressions as a tactic to manipulate victimhood for social gain ignores the work that has been done to build power in communities that overwhelmingly experience such aggressions.
Of course, an overemphasis on language — perhaps best epitomized by the vagaries of call-out culture (often online), in which parties are upset about the use of an inappropriate term or a political stance that is deemed not radical enough — can miss a bigger opportunity to discuss political realities underlying the terms we use or to build community around these identities. Policing the language of people across demographic and educational levels can also lack compassion when sometimes people truly do not know they are causing offense.
But challenging others to use respectful and appropriate language has a positive effect on how people perceive each other and themselves. If the short-term effect of a broader social shift in which people respect each other’s differences is some overzealous college students on the Internet, I’ll take it. Call-out culture has its flaws, but the increased stakes for the language we use forces us to be more precise in our determinations, ultimately making our thoughts more rigorous and our actions more thoughtful.
For marginalized groups, microaggressions are a reminder that in some people’s eyes you are only an ethnicity or gender, and that you are different — an object of curiosity, humor and sometimes derision. If as a society, we are comfortable suggesting that we not coddle the minds of young people by protecting them from language that may offend them, perhaps we also shouldn’t have to protect ourselves from the anger that some may experience from the use of this language.