What Critics Who Want Us to Ignore “Microaggressions” Don’t Understand

“We may wish for a world in which people say only kind things about each other, but until we get there, we should not take umbrage at every negative note or adjective that is employed.” That’s the straw-man argument put forward by venerable sociologist Amitai Etzioni in a Tuesday op-ed for The Atlantic‘s website. Titled “Don’t Sweat the Microaggressions,” Etzioni’s piece follows a more evenhanded New York Times article (“Students See Many Slights as Racial ‘Microaggressions’“) and another skeptical take by linguist and sometime cultural commentator John McWhorter (“‘Microaggression’ Is the New Racism on Campus“). Etzioni and McWhorter, who’s quoted in the NYT writeup, share a common view towards the concept of microaggressions that could charitably be described as dismissive.

First things first: What’s a microaggression? Writing for the Times, Tanzina Vega defines the term as a catch-all for “the subtle ways that racial, ethnic, gender, and other stereotypes can play out painfully in an increasingly diverse culture” — emphasis on the “subtle.” Over time, American society has largely internalized the ideas that racial slurs are off limits, segregated proms are a no-no, and tweeting out rape jokes will get you fired. Microaggressions are the manifestations of various -isms that remain socially acceptable. Examples from the front page of the Microaggressions Project include two strangers yelling “Konichiwa!” at a Vietnamese tipster; another’s friend told her she shouldn’t have gone to a doctor’s appointment alone when she shared her story of being sexually harassed.

Surprisingly, those crying PC police have a pretty solid understanding of what microaggressions are, and why they’ve become a focus of contemporary social justice discourse. McWhorter writes: “Microaggressions…are quiet, often unintended slights — racist or sexist — that make a person feel underestimated on the basis of their color or gender… Importantly, the microaggressor is quite often a ‘goodly’ person, of the kind we assume is too enlightened to pop off with racist or sexist insults.” Etzioni has a similarly unobjectionable take, calling microaggressions “the subtle prejudices found even in the most liberal parts of our polity.”

Those definitions seem to be self-justifying. Racism and sexism (and homophobia and transphobia) are bad. Racism, sexism, etc. still exist. So why not point out the ways they manifest themselves in the everyday lives of those affected by them? And, if we consider ourselves “goodly,” “enlightened” people, why not listen to those who do so?

McWhorter and Etzioni each have their own answers to those questions, neither of which hold much water. After narrating an incident in which a fellow linguist assumed he lacked basic knowledge of his field, McWhorter informs readers he’s “been just fine since,” with the implication that anyone else who’s experienced prejudice should be, too. It’s the classic conservative bootstraps argument in miniature, with a healthy dose of fatalism. After all, “the nature of microaggressions… is such that they will never cease entirely,” so why even try? Then he changes the subject entirely, conflating the concept of microaggressions with social justice’s opposition to “colorblind” anti-racism. (The two concepts are often espoused by the same people, but they’re still two separate concepts.)

Being male and white — he’s Israeli-American — Etzioni doesn’t have the personal anecdotes to fall back on that McWhorter does. Instead, he cites an unpublished study on internal prejudices within minority groups, concluding that New Yorkers of the same broad “racial group,” such as Dominican-Americans and Haitian-Americans, harbor strong prejudices against one another. On its face, the study has more to do with proving that labels like “black” and “Hispanic” obscure the diversity within those monoliths than microaggressions. But Etzioni tries to spin it into a “‘prejudice is inevitable, so let’s not try to fix it” argument similar to McWhorter’s: don’t ignore prejudices, he argues, just “‘deduct’ them from… standard noise, the standard sounds of human rambling.” Spoken like someone who doesn’t have to “deduct” sexism or racism from his everyday experience.

Reading through McWhorter and Etzioni’s arguments, I was surprised less by their hostility to the idea of microaggressions (we’ll get to that in a minute) than their ignorance of explanations social justice types have offered thousands of times over. Take McWhorter’s contention that a relatively minor encounter with racism shouldn’t affect people in the long term. The rebuttal is easily found on The Microaggression Project’s About page: “[Microaggressions’] slow accumulation during a childhood and over a lifetime is in part what defines a marginalized experience,” the co-founders write. The entire site is presented as a response to the “it’s not a big deal” dismissal that McWhorter and Etzioni spend hundreds of words justifying: “‘It’ matters because these [examples] relate to a bigger ‘it’: a society where social difference has systematic consequences.”

Etzioni even appears to preemptively argue against the idea of listening to those who’ve encountered everyday -isms. We could wait for those who aren’t white/male/straight/cisgender to let us know when we’ve stereotyped or victim-blamed. Or we could… not, because “when you cannot tell if you are aggressive before the other person responds, and anybody can declare he or she has been abused by anything we say, communion between members of different groups becomes even more difficult.” The obvious rejoinder is that the reason why communication between different groups is already difficult is the existence of social power dynamics — dynamics whose symptoms are, you guessed it, microaggressions. 

McWhorter and Etzioni share an unwillingness to engage with actual proponents of identity politics rather than attack a vague enemy that Etzioni calls “the political-correctness police” (what else?). Part of that reluctance comes from the ivory-tower-jargon term that has been given to a fairly simple concept. “Microaggression” was coined by a psychiatrist and revived by an academic. Like “heteronormativity” and “homonationalist,” it’s the kind of word that gives people hives once it’s used off-campus. Hence why it’s only allowed in a New York Times headline once it’s safely bracketed in quotation marks.

Identity politics can go too far; like many, I didn’t find #CancelColbert either a convincing argument or a productive conversation. The idea behind Microaggressions.com and projects like I, Too, Am Harvard, though, is a simple one. Standards of what’s sexist, racist, etc. evolve over time. Calling out microaggressions is one way of nudging us in the right direction: not by policing speech, but by drawing attention to the ideas and assumptions behind it.