By Shruthi Badri ’16
Volume XXXVII, Issue 2, April 4, 2014
The subtleties of the choice between an adverb and an adjective are often robbed, to our great peril, of the careful attention they deserve. Such was the case last year, when I was watching a stand-up comedy special whose performer was apparently famous for a recent public spate of vitriol directed towards women (although I didn’t realize this at the time). A classmate happened to see what I was watching, rolled her eyes, and exasperatedly huffed, “You’re a sexist!” before walking away. “No I’m not! Do you not see the feminism trophy I won for refusing to do chores that a boy wouldn’t be asked to do as a kid, and encouraging girls to take classes in male-dominated fields, and co-founding the Amherst Women’s Network? Checkmate,” I thought contentedly to myself, almost purring with self-congratulation. In the process, the actually valid cause for her comment lay totally unexamined (i.e. supporting artists who tell women they deserve to be raped condones misogyny). Since ‘sexist’ as a modifier was used not as an adverb, to describe my actions, but rather as an adjective, to describe me, her words felt like an assault on my identity, and my reaction was instinctively defensive. A valuable opportunity to reflect on my participation in popular culture’s degradation of women was lost and all that was accomplished was lingering resentment towards the classmate in question and smugness upon having reaffirmed my feminist status for myself.
This form encapsulates a lot of the campus dialogue regarding issues of inequality, and unsurprisingly found itself recreated in the recent discussions about microaggression. These were largely prompted by a Facebook page titled “Classroom Microaggressions at Amherst College” and an increasing national awareness of the term (as evidenced by the publication of a poorly researched New York Times piece on the subject). Unfortunately, what could have been a radical and deeply important conversation has at least partly devolved into nit-picking over politically correct phrasing, re-centering the conversation around such inane questions as, “Is it racist and sexist* to speak of ‘white men’ as a group?” This is mostly because of a misinterpretation of the modifier ‘microagressive’ as an adjective that describes a whole demographic of people, leading to reasoning that might go something like this: 1. “I’m in the implicated demographic.” 2. “I’m not a racist or sexist person! Ask my friends.” 3. “Therefore, the statement about my demographic has been proven false.” If the person in question finds that she has indeed engaged in behavior that is termed microagressive, then she is inclined to be quick to downplay the response to her actions as being ‘overly sensitive,’ because “of course she didn’t mean it that way. If you knew her at all, you would never think to accuse her of such a thing.”
Such is the problem with labels (i.e. adjectives). They are indeed, as popular imagination would have us believe, suffocating, and carelessly applying labels that are in conflict with how the person in question identifies herself is rarely conducive to dialogue. Labels, however, can serve as protective cocoons just as equally as oppressive boxes; by identifying as a ‘feminist’ or a ‘good guy,’ you are shielded from the obligation to critically examine your actions that seem to conflict with that description. (“Racist? Wrong number! You must want the person down the road. Didn’t you read the egalitarian label that I put up?”) A turn to definition might help ease this dilemma. Microaggressions are brief and commonplace verbal, behavioral, or environmental signals, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate a reinforcement of traditional structures of inequality and oppression (modified definition from Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life). Notice that the definition is not at all descriptive of the person who performs an act of microaggression. In fact, it goes as far as to be explicitly indifferent to whether or not the act was intentional. Understanding ‘microagressive’ as an adverb helps us recognize an action as harmful without necessarily condemning the person committing the action.
Microagressions.com says, “[acts of microaggression] are not necessarily particularly striking in and of themselves. Often, they are never meant to hurt—acts done with little conscious awareness of their meanings and effects. Instead, their slow accumulation during a childhood and over a lifetime is in part what defines a marginalized experience, making explanation and communication with someone who does not share this identity particularly difficult. Social others are microaggressed hourly, daily, weekly, monthly.” For example, consider the case of the professor who calls a female student ‘Ms. Sweatpants’ the one time she wears sweats to class, but ignores the several male students who wear similar attire on a daily basis (an anecdote from the Classroom Microaggressions page). The point of this is not necessarily to condemn the professor in question, or even to claim that this single act was traumatizing, but rather to unpick what the underlying structural claims about women are that are being reinforced (i.e. women should always make sure to look nice—they serve a decorative function in society). Another post on the microaggression page spoke of a student who was frustrated by several economics professors using examples to illustrate their points that only students from a wealthy economic background would be able to relate to. Once again, this does not necessarily condemn professors for being classist so much as it points out how students from lower economic backgrounds, who already consistently process signals that indicate they do not belong, are further alienated.
This is not to say that we should consider all actions in the abstract and neglect the people involved entirely. Instead, it is a call to recognize that the focal point in a discussion about microaggression should not be the character or education of the person who has carried out a microaggression, but instead the experience and needs of the person who has felt its effects, and the structures that underlie the magnitude of these.
*Watch Aamer Rahman’s excellent video on reverse racism.