Redefining the Vocabulary of Microaggressions

A new report by Harvard University’s Voices of Diversity Project (VoD) draws on interviews with at least 50 African-American, Latina/o, Asian-American and Native American students at each of four universities regarding their on-campus undergraduate experiences related to their racial/ethnic background, sex, or both. The co-authors, Paula Caplan and Jordan Ford, report on the students’ experiences of racist and sexist mistreatment that took shape in “microaggressions” or subtle, cumulative, and repetitive acts of marginalization and stereotyping.

The concept of “micro-inequities” has received considerable research attention and refers to small incidents of everyday discrimination that have replaced the more overt acts of discrimination characteristic of the pre-Civil Rights era. Micro-inequities can be unspoken, repeated messages that may be invisible to others but send devaluing messages to the targets that hinder these individuals’ performance and impact self-esteem. The vocabulary of micro-inequities dates back to the 1970’s when Mary Rowe, Ombudsperson at MIT, noted the ephemeral, difficult-to-prove events that she saw as the “principal scaffolding for discrimination in the United States.” A more extensive taxonomy of these day-to-day behavioral indignities was developed by Gerald Wing Sue and others that includes microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations.

Yet at what point do “micro-aggressions” become “macro-aggressions”? Take the experiences of mistreatment cited by a Latina senior quoted in the VoD study: “I go nuts. I do….it hurts so much, so much, it’s indescribable the way it makes you feel” (p. 40). The Latina senior goes on to say, “My whole body becomes hot, and your eyes automatically become glassy, because you just feel so inferior….” Or the commentary of an African-American male student, “What can I do? I feel useless. I’m being hurt by this person. It’s messing with me emotionally.” The profound psychological damage caused by racism is not adequately captured in the term “micro-inequity” or “micro-aggression.” As Joe Feagin points out in Systemic Racism (2006), the pain of racism is part of lived experience and to begin to even calculate its costs “one would need to add…the other personal, family, and community costs over the centuries—the intense pain and suffering, the physical and psychological damage, the rage over injustice, and the huge loss of energy” that could have been used for other purposes (p. 20). Perhaps we need a new vocabulary to identify these high costs.

Similarly, consider the example that Alvin Evans and I cite in our new book, The Department Chair as Transformative Diversity Leader (2015) of an African American faculty member who became the first African American department chair at his religiously-affiliated university. When he was first hired as one of the few African American faculty at that institution, a religious studies professor whose office was next to his refused to speak with him for 10 years:

He didn’t talk to me for 10 years, not a word. . . . He didn’t believe I was qualified, he didn’t believe that I was a real intellectual, I was only hired so that the university could say that we had Black professors.

In fact, the religious studies professor would talk about the African American faculty member with his door wide open so he could hear. Later, when the African American faculty member became chair, the religious studies professor had to speak with him. The chair would regularly ask him a question about diversity. The religious studies professor would inevitably answer, “I think we’re already diverse.” Needless to say, the chair was not invited to the religious studies professor’s retirement dinner.

Or in another interview study in 2012, we similarly found examples of the pain caused by exclusionary practices and behaviors in the workplace. For example, Claudia, an African-American administrator, was singled out in a staff meeting by her white male supervisor who was speaking of African-Americans in general: “Oh, I don’t mean you. You’re different, you’re an Oreo.’ Claudia responded, “You know, I’m sorry I think that most people would recognize that as being a racial slur.” The supervisor replied, “Oh I don’t mean that. You are one of them that has common sense.” The repeated actions of the supervisor caused Claudia extreme physical and psychological anguish:

When I had that very discriminatory supervisor, I had extremely high blood pressure. I was on three medications. They were at the maximum dosage and my blood pressure was still uncontrollable. My doctor kept telling me I needed to quit my job because he was said I was going to die. He said I was going to just have a stroke or heart attack because my blood pressure was so high.

These examples across the spectrum of students, faculty, and administrators illustrate the long-term psychological and physical damage resulting from what are more than microaggressions (actually, macroaggressions).

To counteract such practices, the Harvard VoD Project identifies the proactive work undertaken by Missouri State University, one of the institutional participants, to address the “silent suffering” of targets of racism and sexism and ensure that the experiences of minoritized students, faculty of color, and women are heard.

As Mark Warren indicates in Fire in the Heart (2010), building community is a process that must move us from passivity to positive action by “breaking down that separateness and achieving something that is more than the sum of the parts” (p. 229). To do so, we must first face the difficult realities that the VoD identifies and then move toward a deepened collective understanding and common vocabulary that help us activate and operationalize practices that enhance inclusion on our campuses.



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