Getting aggressive with microaggressions

Remember in 2007, when Joe Biden said this, about the man who would later beat him in the presidential race:

“I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”

It was intended as a compliment, but in an era of racial hypersensitivity, it came across as clunky and even racist to some. Biden later apologized, saying the remark was taken out of context. It was not. Forget about racist — the remark was inarguably stupid because there were many earlier African-Americans who were articulate, bright, clean and good looking. Barack Obama was not the “first,” but we know Joe is prone to gaffes.

Today we would call that a microaggression, a concept invented in the faculty lounge by profs with too much sherry and too few courses to teach. 

Microaggressions is today’s topic, and I hope you are smart enough to understand.

What I just wrote — the words in italics — would be insulting to white people, but racist to some nonwhites. The very same words are heard differently by different listeners.

No one should deliberately insult another person, but by the same token, no other person should assume insult.

There are some words so loaded with history and emotion they should never be used in any context divorced from original meaning.

In talking about Covid-19 lockdowns, U.S. Attorney General William Barr said, “Other than slavery, which was a different kind of restraint, this is the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history.”

A “different kind of restraint”? Dunce cap for Barr.

Making room for him on the dunce stool is U.S. Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who said, “The United States is running concentration camps on our southern border, and that is exactly what they are — they are concentration camps.” I guarantee you that the rep from the Bronx has never been in a real concentration camp.

Barr offended Blacks, and others. AOC offended Jews, and others. 

These were not microaggressions. They were slights that went to the cultural identity of Blacks and Jews.

Microaggressions are different. Most are so vague, oblique, or inconsequential they must be explained. 

We live in a time of invented fears that are triggered by words or ideas that are foreign or even disagreeable. Are there any mothers who still teach their kids that “sticks and stone will break your bones, but words will never harm you”? I doubt it.

Today colleges offer “safe spaces” where kids can curl up in the dark if they feel threatened, or pet a puppy before an exam.

We have gone so far that saying “Good morning” to an African-American can be a trigger bringing this response: “How can it be a ‘good’ morning when I have suffered 400 years of oppression?”

That is a joke, but there is a lengthy chart of microaggressions that is not. At least not intentional. Their list of false beliefs may make your head spin — that America is a melting pot, that the most qualified person should get the job, and that there is one race — the human race. Those beliefs become negatives only in the minds of people who hate America. 

Most microaggressions are based on a false assumption that “minorities” (everyone except straight, white males) are such delicate pieces of Lenox china they can be shattered by a sideways phrase.

Here is the chart. Brace yourself. 

I have chosen 14 phrases to be avoided at work, courtesy of Business Insider, a magazine offering helpful advice. In nine of the 14, the helpful advice was — shut up! 

You’re so articulate. When a white colleague tells a nonwhite co-worker, that assumes the colleague would be less articulate. Is that what Biden did? Yes, I can see the point. But how about, “You really nailed that presentation!” Still racist? How about when a Black says to a white, “You speak so well.” Still racist?

BI’s advice is to say nothing, but to commend people on their specific ideas or insights. Seems to me you might still be open to charges that you thought the “other” was incapable of insight.

You’re transgender? You don’t look like it at all. BI says it implies being trans isn’t desirable. BI says to say nothing. 

Oh, sorry. Wrong person. “If you’re an underrepresented minority,” says BI, “and there’s one other person of your identity in the room, there’s a chance the majority group will confuse your names.”

You know, there’s a “chance” that someone will confuse me with some random white guy. It has happened. Microaggression? Or just a simple mistake?

BI advises to learn your co-workers’ names. D’uh!

Oh, you’re gay? You should meet my friend Ann. She’s gay, too. Not to quibble, but “lesbian” is preferred and BI suggests that just because people share the same orientation doesn’t mean that they would like each other.

To me, someone who makes that comment seems to be making an attempt to identify themselves as open to gay people. BI advises you to say nothing.

My boss is crazy. “Calling your female boss ‘crazy’ or ‘hysterical’  has sexist undertones,” says BI, explaining that the word “hysterical” comes from the Greek word hystera, meaning uterus. You knew that, didn’t you? No? Neither did I. 

Calling your male boss crazy or hysterical is OK.

BI says to try to understand your crazy boss’ point of view.

Where are you from? Eeek! For Latinos, Asians, and “people who fall in between the Black-white racial binary in the United States,” the question gets tiresome, journalist Tanzina Vega told CNN.

That question can imply that a person isn’t American or doesn’t belong here, says BI. 

I disagree with that implication, but I do have Black and Asian friends who tell me they have been occasionally treated as “foreigners.” 

BI says to say nothing. Probably good advice, unless you are pretty sure the person is not an American.

The way you have overcome your disability is so inspiring. It seems like a compliment, but can be heard as you expected less from them because of their disability.

BI says they don’t want to hear about them as being “special.” But we have special Olympics that everyone’s OK with, don’t we? 

BI says to say nothing, to pretend you don’t notice the disability at all. But isn’t that a form of denial of what they are, such as telling a Black person, “I never see color” (which is listed as a microaggression).  

(Interrupting) Well, actually, I think… Men are three times more likely to interrupt a woman as another man, reports BI, which has never met my male friends who interrupt men more than Donald J. Trump. 

Regardless of who is doing it, it is rude. 

Why did you wear that? People who wear religious head coverings are likely to hear that. It might be simple curiosity, with the emphasis on simple, but a microaggression? Come on. 

Your name is so hard to pronounce. Hel-lo. BI reports that comment “suggests that the person in question does not fit in culturally or linguistically.” 

Take the name Maha Vajiralongkorn. He’s the king of Thailand, and it’s a tongue twister to Westerners. Or Jonah Bjorgensteinmaner. 

BI says just ask the person to pronounce the name, which also can be insulting. But, yeah, you don’t have to tell them their name is hard to pronounce — even though it is and they know it.

I think you’re in the wrong room. This is the programmers’ meeting. Does this happen every day? This microaggression was reported by a female who was attending a math lecture, got there early and one of the two men already seated directed her to a nearby design meeting. Well, at least it wasn’t racist, and you can see how inconsequential this “insult” can be.

BI says to not assume people don’t belong. Hell, these days you might find pregnant men in a lamaze birth class. 

Do you know what Snapchat is? Those who believe only millennials are up on tech are stereotyping older people, cautions BI.

Is that your real hair? This is a problem mostly for African-American women who prefer “natural” hair, or big Afros, or cornrows, or bald, or weaves.

Wow, that’s a lot. I think you can ask a woman you are friendly with, but not a stranger. It’s like asking a woman if she is pregnant. What if she is not? 

Are you an intern? You look so young. When directed at a woman, this focuses on her appearance, rather than her worth. It also could be interpreted as the person appearing too inexperienced to do the job. 

I met a woman once who didn’t appreciate a remark about her youthful appearance. 

No — wait. That wasn’t me.

I hope no one is insulted.

23 thoughts on “Getting aggressive with microaggressions”

    1. Good work, Stu!
      I’m glad I’m on my way out. While I am, I will continue to be the gentleman my parents taught me to be. I will hold the door open for anyone and hope they will do likewise. I will compliment where warranted and never apologize for being traditional. And I hope the door above will open for me.

  1. In the ‘90s, I wrote speeches for the then president of Bell Atlantic-Pennsylvania, which is now Verizon. In 1994, before an audience of 4,000 at the Pittsburgh Convention Center, the president was to introduce a 12-year-old handicapped boy before presenting him with a service dog*, courtesy of the Telephone Pioneers of America.

    Prior to the event, I shared a draft of the introduction with the boy’s mom to make sure she and her son were okay with the words “handicap” and “disability.” As it turned out, they were, but not with the word “special.” I had written, “this special dog for this special boy.” “He doesn’t want to be called special,” she told me. “He has some challenges, but he wants to be considered a regular kid.” I made the change, and neither the boy, nor the dog (just to be sure), were embarrassed.

    *Boy and dog, a Portuguese Water Dog, had to spend at least 90 days living and training together to make sure they were compatible. They were.

    1. That’s a great story and you were smart to check. (Now “handicapped” has been redlined. But not by me, who is handicapped, but not disabled.

  2. Well, Stu, you certainly picked out the Top 14. But I think you forgot #15, “You look so pretty today!” It doesn’t take much to figure out the undertones there, even if it was meant as a compliment.

    1. It was not my list, so I did not forget that, but it is one. You can’t say “you look pretty,” but you can say “that’s a pretty dress.” But don’t say that’s a sexy dress.

  3. Terrific article in these PC times. My favorite: “FOR A FAT GIRL YOU DON’T SWEAT MUCH.”

  4. My first thought was the age old: “let me speak very honestly with you,” You mean all your other statements were not honest? You would really have to be a perfectionist to speak to someone and avoid some form of verbal miscue. If you compliment a woman with, “you look great today”, immediately the response is compared to yesterday when I looked how. Failure to comply with accepting microaggressions is an intrusion on of my first amendment right to phrase words to make my point and not be guided by someone else’s interpretation of my words. My one microaggression could be telling the family at a viewing of their deceased family member that he looked good thinking of the funeral directors work in restoring an alive look. And he did.

  5. Good article, glad I retired. Best thing would be not to interact at all at work, then when it comes time for your review the Boss will tell you he or she doesn’t think you are cooperating with your co workers. You can’t win.

    I guess that I was in blog jail, not to be confused with facebook jail.
    Keeping it short for a change. Those that know me have often said that there should be a 10 second delay between my brain and my mouth !

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