With the vile events recently at University campuses, namely Exeter and Nottingham Trent, it is clear to see that overt racism and bigotry are sadly still part of University life.
Yet biases and prejudice, covert and unconscious are still daily occurrences which go largely unchallenged. Cue micro-aggressions. First coined by Harvard University Professor Chester M. Pierce in 1970, the term micro-aggression has been brought into the mainstream by Psychologist Derald Wing-Sue who defines them as:
‘The everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.’
With the term being awarded word of the year in 2015 by the Global Language Monitor, you may have come across the term on BBC 3’s show Everyday Racism or in a more mocking fashion, South Park to You-Tubers namely Pew Di Pie.
According to ‘Tool: Recognising Micro-aggressions and the Message They Send’, created by the University of California in Los Angeles, an example of a Micro-aggression would be asking a person of colour where they are from.
Yet other, more subtle examples would be apparently uttering, ‘there is only one race, the human race’ to voicing commonly held beliefs such as ‘Everyone can succeed if they work hard enough’, with micro-aggressions, according to Wing-Sue having the potential to ‘deplete physical energy’ and ‘lower life expectancy’. The term was further pushed into the spotlight when the BBC reported that the Oxford University Equality and Diversity unit started in a newsletter that not maintaining eye contact while speaking to someone could be deemed a ‘racial micro-aggression’.
However, a recent study in January of last year, providing the most serious critique of the micro-aggression concept, articulates a series of problems with the term. Its author, Emory University psychologist Scott Lilienfeld, argues that the term ‘is not an accurate representation of the subtle bias’s which are taking place in everyday social situations’.
Lilienfeld alludes that an act of ‘aggression’ implies at least a degree of intent, yet Professor Wing-Sue admits that most micro-aggressions are so subtle that ‘neither target nor perpetrator may entirely understand what is happening’. Begging the question, how can an act be aggressive if there is no intent?
Lilienfeld further highlights that Wing-Sue’s list of what qualifies as a micro-aggression ‘was not informed by systemic data’ with the study finding that the term ‘is not close to being ready for widespread real world application’ yet continues to be used in universities in the US and the UK.
The study expresses concern that micro-aggressions could lower the boundaries of what is considered offensive while creating an accusatory environment which stifles conversation. Yet more importantly the study articulates that due to the backlash, controversy and confusion the term has caused, it will make people resentful of taking seriously the issue of prejudicial biases and everyday racial slights.
Racism, sexism and all other forms of prejudice, whether overt or covert, intentional or un-intentional are real and consequential. However in reality the term micro-aggression stifles conversation and creates an accusatory environment where words are not taken with the intent they are given, but instead by their supposed prejudicial undertones. More importantly the term does more harm than good in combating the wider problem of everyday prejudice by trivialising racism, making people resentful of taking the issues of everyday racist slights seriously.