By Candice Louisa Daquin
Microaggression is a relatively newly used term to describe less direct action that can cause offence. It is a term that has been setting the social media alight for the past few years, sometimes for good, sometimes not so much.
Having just attended another course on this buzz word du jour, it struck me how absurd some of the ‘lessons’ on identifying microaggression were. One could argue, it’s pop-psychology and political correctness, gone awry.
Before we get to the absurd scales over policing microaggression, it’s important to explain why acknowledgement of passive-aggression and gaslighting (confusing a victim with the perceived reality) does matter and should be discussed (if perhaps not exhaustively).
Think back to those days of old where eve teasing in offices was considered du rigor, where a woman of colour with an afro was told it wasn’t an acceptable ‘hairstyle’ and threatened with being fired if she didn’t ‘tone it down’. Think of a Muslim worker being told he couldn’t pray during work hours, a Jewish colleague not being given time off for Hannukah, a black footballer having bananas thrown at him whilst he played, or an Indian politician being called a ‘Paki.’
These all still happen despite being labelled as racism, bigotry, hate and microaggression in the workplace and beyond. They are intolerable and unacceptable and can lead to suicide, depression, financial insecurity and feelings of ostracisation. The laws protecting against these are sometimes hard to enforce. People who do follow through on a complaint, are considered ‘trouble-makers’ and their careers are thwarted by this unfair reputation.
Stereotyping is part of human nature, even as we try to rinse it out. When we are unfamiliar with a culture (sometimes when we are familiar with it), we reduce people to descriptors that can be stereotypical. In my case, I’m often assumed to be English because I have a slight English accent. In incorrectly assuming this, people often ask me if I would like ‘tea’ (I hate tea) or make fun of my accent. Friends from other parts of the world have the same experience. It’s annoying and a constant reminder that I’m not American. I’m an immigrant.
For people of colour, this is even more extreme. If you are light skinned you are ‘assumed’ not to be a person of colour though you might be (many are) whilst if you are dark skinned you are more likely to be ‘assumed’ a person of colour (though you might not be) and if you have African or Asian ‘features’ as considered by (a stereotype of what constitutes ‘being African’ or ‘being Asian’) you are assumed to be African or Asian though you might not be.
However, this is a complete minefield and I want to take a few scenarios to illustrate this point in relation to the trend toward calling out ‘micro aggressions’ – which if you let it go too far, can be every bit as exclusionary/judging/alienating as if we go in the other direction and return to a mass acceptance of bigotry.
Before I share some examples, I should say, there may be a middle ground where we can all be relatively certain of fair treatment, even if this cannot include historical bias and mistreatment of our ancestors in the past. I would say this is the place we want to aim for, but we’re not there yet. My issue with microaggression is it’s a dog whistle that is going off so often that we’re becoming blunted to real outrages in favour of a knee jerk response daily to little errors in our current way of communicating, that also by default, leave us fearful of saying/doing anything for fear of offence. Yes, it is possible to go too far. And before you say I’m coming from a position of privilege — that’s why I’m saying this — no I’m not. That’s an example of what I’m talking about — taking things so far with political correctness that none of us can say or do anything without fear of serious reprisal.
My friend attended the same course on micro aggression. We discussed it afterwards. She is African American. I am mixed-race but have white skin. She noticed the course tended to use examples of black/white characters and wondered why if race and ethnicity were not specifically mentioned in the course. The point of this microaggression course is to point out the varied ways you can be microaggressive without knowing it – and what you could do about it. However, as my friend pointed out, it’s almost a no-win situation.
The first scenario of microaggression is a (seemingly) white-blonde woman commenting on a (seemingly) black woman’s hair and saying “I like your hair”. Why? Because it’s culturally insensitive, it’s fetishising ‘exotic’ hair by the mainstream (white) which can cause the person being complimented, to feel embarrassed, self-conscious or that they’re being stigmatised or singled out for their (non-white) hair.
Ironically, if my friend were not African American could she even say what she thought without being criticised for being microaggressive herself? Fortunately, she is so, this is what she said and she cannot be called out for saying it because she’s African American herself.
“I thought it was a stupid scenario. A blonde woman is just as likely as a black woman to have people comment on her hair. She wouldn’t think it was racist/insensitive, unless the person went too far and started touching it or saying things that were sexually inappropriate like ‘You have really sexy hair’. Most of the black women I know would be happy if someone said they liked their hair and wouldn’t think it was culturally insensitive if that person wasn’t the same race/ethnicity – as much as anything because how can they be sure they’re not (of the same race/ethnicity?). Plenty of people who don’t look mixed-race, are, or their parent may be, and they might be a light-skinned person of colour saying to a darker-skinned person of colour ‘I like your hair’ in which case that cancels out the microaggression, which is assumptive at best. But even if it were a white person saying this, if their motive was simple, ‘I like your hair’ then assuming they mean anything more/less than that, is assumptive, and thus more of a micro-aggression than the original statement.”
My take on it (although by sharing this I can be accused of being micro aggressive because I have light colored skin) is:
“I have told friends of colour (all races/nationalities) ‘I like your hair.’ Never once did I mean anything less or more than that statement. Recently I saw a girl with hair down to her knees. I said ‘Wow! I like your hair!’ She was (seemingly) a white girl with brown hair (though I have no real idea of her ethnicity (nor did I think about this). She was really happy. But according to the microaggression lessons if I say the very same thing to a girl who does look (to me) to be African American or a ‘minority’ (which is kind of racist in its own right, and thus absurd, because how can any of us know for sure what someone ‘is’ and by thinking about it so much, I find this more potentially offensive than to not think of it) I would be being micro aggressive?”
My friend and I talked about this at length until we got to the impossible scenario which is this: two women meet and one says to the other, I like your hair. The other woman says “Thanks! I like your hair also.” One is microaggressive, but the other isn’t?
This is microaggressive because if one of the women is a person of colour (in any way) then the person saying to the (supposed person of colour) “I like your hair” is being micro aggressive because it’s insensitive for a person who is not of colour to say this to a person of colour.
But what if neither knows what the other person is because it’s not clear, or they don’t want to assume (which is a good thing). What if they’re both saying it for the same reason?
Well then according to the course, they could still be micro aggressive because one of the other concerns is someone ‘hitting’ on someone else in some way, or pointing out something ‘personal’ about them, which could make them feel uncomfortable.
Play the scenario again: Two white women (we’ve removed race for the time being because this was one of the ‘issues’ and we want to see if there are any other ‘issues’ in the scenario) meet, and one says to the other, “I like your hair” and the other woman says “Thanks! I like your hair also.” The one who initially said it, could be accused of being micro aggressive because they overstepped the work relationship which should be professional (meaning, no personal comments). The other person may have replied out of feeling they had no choice but had to respond. If one was a boss and one was not, then it could be microaggression of power and if one was richer than the other, it could be a subtle put-down of their income. So, the list goes on.
Find anything absurd yet?
Again, let me ratify this by saying I am all for equality, and treating people compassionately, with dignity and respect and cultural sensitivity. But I think like my friend said, this can go too far and become a minefield of absurdity.
We laughed and then said – what if the two women were wearing t-shirts that said ‘I am heterosexual’ so the issue of sexuality was removed, and both women were white or both women were black, so the issue of race was removed. Would it be okay to say it then? My friend cleverly pointed out that wearing a t-shirt that said I was heterosexual (as stupid as that is) would be deemed offensive to those who were not. So basically, the bottom line is, you cannot win, you cannot stop going down the rabbit hole.
Here’s the truth. If someone comes into work and touches your hair or your pregnant belly without you asking and makes a big fuss, then you might feel they have violated your space. But if they literally said, “I like your hair”, then it would not necessarily mean they were microaggressive. I know a lot of people of colour who compliment each other all the time. If we segregate races to their compliments, we’re dividing not bringing everyone together. If we say only a black woman can say to a white woman “I like your hair” but not vice-versa, we’re creating absurd rules.
Obviously, this is necessary sometimes. Using the “N” word is a word people of colour can and do sometimes use with each other but if person outside their race says it to them, it is racist. That’s true. It is a double standard that stands because of the history of racism and discrimination, murder and hate. I still think anyone using the “N” word, irrespective of their race, shouldn’t use it because of its history but that’s beside the point.
Sometimes a white woman might say something that is derogatory to a black woman and that statement will be wrapped up in a passive-aggressive “compliment” such as “I like your hair.” But until you know the motivation, isn’t assuming this, impossible to prove and thus, impossible to police? By shutting all such comments down, aren’t we dividing each other more? Segregating our language and what can and cannot be said to each other? How does this help if we then become so afraid of saying anything to anyone?
If my colleague who lives alone asks how my New Year was. I say, “Not bad, how was yours? Did you spend it alone?” This is a microaggression because I’m potentially ‘shaming’ my colleague for living alone, whereas in reality, I was asking because they had previously told me they spend New Year alone. Can you see how we’re increasingly walking on eggshells? How does it help relationships to be that stilted and self-conscious? Isn’t it true that we’ll likely offend everyone repeatedly in little ways, but if they ‘know’ us they will know we didn’t mean to and it was a blunder rather than something intentional?
So how do we police and protect when it is intentional? Someone I work with once said to me, “You are a very long-winded writer with lots of detail aren’t you, Candy?” I felt ‘hurt’ because I thought it wasn’t entirely true and a negative characterisation. But were they gaslighting me or simply stating their opinion about my writing? Does everyone I know have to think I’m a good writer? Is it wrong to offer that I could be more long-winded than them? Does it nullify my writing? Or is it simply an opinion? Not wrong, or right? I let it go because I suspected it was not intended to be gaslighting or passive-aggressive and at the same time I considered how I could avoid being too long-winded.
Surely the same can be done in any conversation/interaction without us having to police every single sentence or condemn people for things they may simply not have meant? I hate the statement “you are too sensitive” because it implies there is such a thing as being too sensitive, yet as we all know, there are times when we’re too sensitive to what is being said, and it’s our assumptions of (their assumptions) that hurt us more than what they actually said.
Yes, if someone says “I think people of colour need to comb their hair more and keep it straight” that’s obviously out-and-out racist and awful. It’s unacceptable. But if someone says “I like your hair” they may be saying I really like your hair, because maybe their hair isn’t thick or a nice colour or maybe their hair is lank and lifeless, and they perceive your hair to be beautiful. It may be nothing more than that and why should it be a statement only people in your ethic group can say? I get told “I like your hair” quite a lot, because I have very long hair. Granted I don’t have Afro hair, but my mom does, and she was told “I like your hair” a lot too. She didn’t think it was racist and it likely wasn’t.
Now if she were told “I like your hair and your chest, want to go to bed?” That wouldn’t be okay. Just like “I like your hair – how do you people with afro hair manage it” wouldn’t be acceptable. Are the nuances easy to remember or understand? Especially for the neurodiverse (those who accept diversities) they can be a confusing minefield, and this might be one reason we’re more likely to put rules than try to pick apart nuance, because so many of us are neurodiverse and modes of communication seem to have intricate layers to them that are hard to unpick. Isn’t it simpler then to put rules in place that call someone out for micro aggression? But in so doing, we shame good intentions as well as bad.
Maybe microaggression policing can go a little too far in its zeal to police everything and everyone and we’d be more cohesive if we didn’t impose a multitude of rules on conversation. I’d like to be able to talk to people without fear. I think we can do this again and I can be trusted not to deliberately gaslight or obfuscate or passively-aggressively shame or put down. I know the difference between someone who says, “Oh I like your hair” in a bitchy voice, and someone who simply says, “I like your hair!” I’m not going to treat them both like thought criminals. Or continually watch what I say, I’m going to trust myself to be conscious and listen to others, and in learning what their boundaries are, hopefully most of the time adhere to them. By treating us like we are in a nanny state, we lose the art of communication and coming together. I think we need to get it back – more now than ever before.
Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com
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