Chapel Hill: Opinion

Terri Buckner: Micro-aggressions: when words wound

By Terri Buckner

I learned a lot from the Nov. 19 UNC Town Hall on race and inclusion, including a new word: micro-aggression.

The term was first coined in 1970 but re-entered the current vocabulary in 2007 when Derald Sue, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, published a taxonomy of micro-aggressions for everyday life.

What is a micro-aggression? Dr. Sue defines it as “the everyday slights, indignities, putdowns and insults that people of color, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalized experience in their day-to-day interactions with people.”

Examples include low expectations of minority children in the classroom, compliments to a (native born) Asian American on her English, or compliments to an overweight woman on her pretty face.

Micro-aggressions are not intentional; the speaker is most often unaware of the insult. Taken one by one micro-aggressions are minor and could be easily brushed off. But over time, repeatedly heard small messages become detrimental stressors on an individual’s self-image.

At the UNC town hall, several of the speakers notified the moderator, Clarence Page, that he was condescending to them, calling it micro-aggression. After much reading, I disagree with those claims, but that’s one of the challenges in dealing with this term – it’s not cut and dried. What is considered by one person to be a micro-aggression is going to be completely ignored by someone else.

When applied to race, it’s difficult to distinguish between covert racism, institutionalized racism, implicit bias, and micro-aggression. Especially when considering a couple of more blatant examples given at the September forum on school equity. A Hispanic high school student told of being denied the right to take an A.P. course despite her good grades, and an African American male told of a teammate making a crack about fried chicken and watermelon. Those comments reflect stereotypes on the part of the teacher and teammate, but are perceived as an insult or micro-aggression by the recipient.

“Micro-inequities are fiendishly efficient in perpetuating unequal opportunity, because they are in the air we breathe, in the books we read, in the television we all watch, and because we cannot change the personal characteristic which leads to the inequity,” says MIT professor Mary Rowe. “Micro-inequities are woven into all the threads of our work life and of US education. They are ‘micro,’ not at all in the sense of trivial, but in the sense of miniature.”

The UNC students at the town hall were split in their thoughts on how to proceed. The protest group issued its 50 demands, others wanted the administration and faculty to fix the problem, while another group, aligned more closely with Dr. Sue’s recommendations, wanted to help those of us in privileged positions recognize our implicit biases and how those biases are conveyed through statements that can be classified as micro-aggressions.

That third group is where I think we have the greatest opportunity for making true change. Until we can recognize when our words are doing harm, we can’t change. And change should be the goal.

The recipients of micro-aggressions can’t fix this problem. Telling them to toughen up and not be so sensitive is not a viable, or compassionate, solution. The responsibility for finding a solution lies with those of us in the majority culture. We must own the problem and find a way to eliminate it.

For those of us who want to reduce or eliminate the micro-aggressions from our speech patterns, it’s going to take a village. We will need to help each other by pointing out language that might be offensive to others. We’ve also got to put aside defensiveness and fear of speaking directly to biases, implicit or otherwise. By being more careful and reflective in our use of language, we can bring alignment between our beliefs in equity and our everyday actions.