Inherent Problems in Defending Microaggression Theory

In an article written at The Atlantic, Simba Runyowa, sets out at least in part to rebut an article written recently by Conor Friedersdorf regarding the efficacy and value in discussing “microaggressions.” Runyowa’s piece is muddy, at best, but he brings forth some good ideas. Unfortunately, it is the weak, contradictory arguments that he intends to highlight, and it’s important to parse through these conflated ideas to better think about the topic.

First, Runyowa correctly points out that people sometimes say things that cause offense even without intending to do so. Runyowa does not lack empathy with the microaggressors and, in a somewhat even-handed fashion, admits to being on the wrong side of these slights at times. However, he incorrectly (and flatly) states that “the fact remains that those words were fundamentally inappropriate and offensive.” The problem, here, is that one would be hard-pressed to characterize his examples as “fundamentally inappropriate and offensive.” In fact, if anything, his interpretation of the allegedly offensive statements is, in itself, a “microaggression” by his own standards, and possibly greater than that by others.

Runyowa argues that it was offensive for a college peer to tell him that her dog shared his name, Simba. Why or how this is offensive, on any level, I do not know. Does Runyowa think it was offensive for the peer to name her dog Simba? Or was it offensive to tell him? And what should she have done if the topic ever came up? Lie about her dog’s name? Apologize?

To back-up his claim, Runyowa states in a clumsy (and some would say “fundamentally offensive and inappropriate” manner) that Americans associate the name Simba with animals. Painting broadly, Runyowa sweeps all Americans under one rug, disregarding the wide diversity of this nation. But, although some proponents of microaggression theory might argue that this was “fundamentally offensive and insensitive,” I would have to disagree. The reason I disagree is because, even if my knee-jerk reaction was to interpret this statement as lazy and stupid, upon further consideration I realize that there is merit to it, and I do not believe that Runyowa intended anything negative towards Americans by it. If I told him that my black friend has a dog named Austin, which is a common name in America, especially among white Americans, I’m sure he would not be surprised. Yet, when the black woman told the white Austin about her dog, Austin, nobody was offended. They had a good laugh, and the Austins became friends. However, Runyowa, presumably, would characterize either (a) naming the dog Austin as offensive, or (b) telling the human Austin about it as offensive.

But how can this be? The black friend did not intend any offense, but Runyowa argues that the “impact of her words and actions mattered more than her intent.” This cannot be true. On the contrary, if the human Austin were to take offense, I would say that he would be taking offense at a so-called “microaggression,” and I would have to disagree with him. More offensive would be his act of turning something meaningless into something that carried a meaning decided by him, and him alone. In the parallel Runyowa universe, doppelganger Austin has decided, without regard to the friend’s intent, what her actions mean, failing to consider context. Is it fundamentally offensive and inappropriate to name a pet anything that could be associated with a human’s name? The problem with this line of thinking is that anything is within the realm of possible offense. No action is safe if all actions are left up to frivolous interpretation.

And if we are interpreting things willy-nilly, why are we supporting negative interpretations over positive ones? Would it not have been just as reasonable for Runyowa and Austin to interpret their namesakes as flattering? After all, people (usually) don’t give their pets names they dislike or find degrading. So why was it a microaggression instead of a microcompliment? Unfortunately, in Runyowa’s world, and the world of the alleged victims of such microaggressions, nobody is given the benefit of a doubt.

This brings me to my second point, which deals with the ultimate issue that Friedersdorf takes (clumsily) with microaggressions and what he terms “victimhood culture” in his piece on the topic. There is something disturbing about the rise of knee-jerk offense-taking, and I don’t believe the creepiness of this “victimhood culture” is well-articulated in our society, yet. So, I’ll make a flawed attempt here.

To answer the question of why, when given multiple options for how to interpret a micro-statement or micro-action, people would as a matter of course choose the negative (aggressive) interpretation, we must look to human nature. Specifically, we must consider a concept called righteous indignation. Basically, when given an opportunity to feel like the good-guy (or good-girl; please don’t be offended by my default use of male pronouns; after all, I am a male, and it’s therefore logical for me to default to terms of male-ness) versus a bad-guy (or bad-girl; see immediately above), some people will revel in this opportunity. For Runyowa, this seems absurd. He argues that “there is nothing glamorous about being subjected to racism, and certainly no social rewards to be reaped from being the victim of oppression in a society that heaps disadvantage on historically marginalized groups.” But he is wrong. Although nobody wants to actually be subjected to racism when applying for a job, dealing with the police, or making friends, there are many, many people who take deep joy in making themselves out to be the underdog in the fight. If you don’t believe me, please ask yourselves whether you wanted Rocky to win, or Apollo Creed? How about the Na’vi Clan in Avatar? Pocahontas or the colonialists? Have you ever fantasized about being in a situation where you, or someone you love, is being mistreated or maligned, and you get to swoop in and tell the bad guy/girl all about how wrong they are? You get to be the hero, right? And who doesn’t want to be a hero? But how do we know who the heroes are? We give them a villain, of course!

And what about life accomplishments? Would you rather feel as though everything came easy, that you had it made and had a leg up because of something outside your control, like your family ties or skin color or sex? Or would you rather feel as though all the cards were stacked against you, but nonetheless you triumphed?

Now, at this point you might start saying that I, a white male from America, am unjustly ignoring the real and impactful consequences that racism, sexism, and all other -isms play have on people not from my background. But I’m not arguing that those things don’t exist, nor am I arguing that they shouldn’t be brought up in challenging ways by people from all walks of life. In fact, to the contrary, I want to discuss them. I am right now.

What I am arguing is that these microaggressions are many times meaningless situations blown out of proportion to give someone a (softball) problem to overcome, making him or her feel like the “victim” even though no wrongdoing was commenced. Remember, we’re not talking about situations where the speaker/actor intended to cause harm; we’re talking about microaggressions, which are situations where small, unintentional words/actions create a perceived slight.

Regarding the issue of whether it is worthwhile to confront these microaggressions, I would like to insert an imperfect, but helpful, analogy. When you’re driving and someone cuts you off, do you follow them to their destination, out of your own way, to pull over and confront them? No. If they actually hit you, then yes, of course. But the difference is in the amount of injury. When they actually hit you, they cause measurable damage. You incur costs in having to fix the car, go to the doctor, miss work, etc. But when they miss you while causing a close call, the damage is more minor. Nobody would argue that the anxiety the incident caused is completely trivial, because it does have an impact on your well-being. But a close call isn’t worth engaging. And even if it was worth engaging, would you jump to the conclusion that they were trying to kill you? Would you assume they have no disregard for your life? Maybe you would, but that would be mighty presumptuous, especially considering the real reason for the close call very well may have been that they simply didn’t see you in their blind spot. Although it is still an issue, it’s such a minor one that it isn’t even worth engaging. Perhaps you tell your friends the story if it’s good enough to recall, but that’s it.

And I must say, what is more offensive? Accidentally saying/doing something that was taken the wrong way? Or assuming the worst out of someone when given the option to assume anything else? I argue that the latter is far more problematic and offensive. It’s self-serving and it seeks to demonize someone else for personal gain.

Of course, there are situations where the actor/speaker does not intend to offend, and the listener/receiver did not seek righteous indignation. These situations are called “misunderstandings,” and terming them “microaggressions” necessarily sets them up as bad person versus good person scenarios, which is a false dichotomy that perpetuates division in our society. Were Runyowa to argue that such a distinction is trivial, he would undercut his own points about “exercising vigilance in interacting with those whose lived experiences are different than our own,” because, as he correctly points out, words matter.

Which brings me to my third point: Runyowa is right about a few things. He’s right about calling out the offensiveness of his African-American friend’s academic adviser trying to direct her towards easier classes, presumably based solely on her skin color and/or sex (using only the facts that he has given, of course; more information might tell a different story, but he points out that his friend’s credentials were great, and there was no other impetus for the adviser’s demeaning attempt). But this is not really a microaggression; this is an example of actual racism or sexism, where one person believes that another is incapable of something based solely on skin and/or sex.

Runyowa correctly asserts that universities are supposed to provide an “environment in which everyone feels welcome,” but he incorrectly argues that PC culture serves those goals. I disagree.

At Georgia State University, I took an African-American literature class, which required me to read lots and lots of books by black authors. The majority of these books applied the word “nigger,” and all of its other iterations, in heavy doses. I had to read these books out loud in class on occasion. Although my professor did not require it, she preferred that, when reading, we actually said “nigger.” Not “the N-word.”

As stated above, I am a white male from America. In most circles, it is not acceptable for me to say that word. Needless to say, I was very uncomfortable. But, I was in an African-American literature class. And I was in college. That was kind of the point: to confront uncomfortable realities and engage in social issues, giving us all a better understanding of each other and our world through education and experience. Which is what Runyowa gets right when arguing that PC culture and the theory of microaggressions seeks to bring people into feelings of empathy.

He’s right. We should all be mindful of what we say, to whom, how, and when. Yes, we must strive to empathize with others, especially when they come from very different places, mentally, emotionally, and physically, than we do. But we must also challenge each other, and making people uncomfortable is part of that.

So I don’t argue that PC culture is all bad. Nor do I argue that taking issue with PC culture is all bad, either. To me, the worst things you can do are either bury your head in the sand to avoid confrontation or pick one “side” of the debate and actually believe it and espouse its views. We should all be trying to empathize with one another while also pushing one another to grow. Speaking in favor of empathy while exempting oneself from its virtues is not that path, as Runyowa does (perhaps unintentionally and in fact well-intentioned) when he chooses an interpretation of insult (failing to empathize with the “microaggressor”) over another interpretation.

For example (my final one), I bring up the statements made by peers at Oberlin which Runyowa interpreted as expressions of “dismay” at the “ability of a person of color to master English.” Why did Runyowa interpret these statements as racist? He’s from Zimbabwe, which has three official languages. These peers were most likely fascinated with how well he mastered a second (or third?) language, not that someone who looked like him could do it. It is not racist to be impressed with someone’s ability to master something as complicated as a language, especially considering many fluent speakers of multiple languages will make many, many mistakes when speaking their second language. I know many people who speak great English but who don’t speak it as well as Runyowa does (or at least how well I presume he does, considering all his praise and his near-perfect use of grammar in this piece).

While he’s right about the existence of problems like imposter syndrome and stereotype threat, he incorrectly implies that it only affects minorities. In fact, many white male Americans feel this. Just ask any one of us who has ever been bumping Dr. Dre through downtown, loving every second of it, only to get (perceived) dirty looks from a black (or sometimes white) person at the red light. This is not to say that such a feeling is more sinister than, or equally as sinister as, the consequences suffered by minorities; I’m just saying that having a one-sided victim party isn’t the best way to teach empathy, and so it invalidates a lot of what adherents to PC ideology say, pushing people (emotionally, and thus intellectually) away from the valid ideals it holds.

In conclusion, I leave you with the best quote from Runyowa’s piece, one with which I agree whole-heartedly:

“The ability to deftly navigate these finely textured strata of diversity in the face of changing demographics and societal values, coupled with the intensification of globalization, is a skill that can only pay dividends for all students as they prepare to confront a future that will be marked by an intricate pluralism.”