Seven things to know about microagressions and why 'unconsicious racial biases' are causing great offence

April 2014

Until this week, most Canadians knew nothing of microaggressions, unless they got in a fight about whose turn it was to use the lunch-room microwave. McGill student politician Brian Farnan helped change that with an apology sent to the university’s 22,000 undergraduates for sharing a video that had been doctored to portray U.S. President Barack Obama kicking down a door. Responding to a formal complaint from a student, Mr. Farnan said he regretted the “microaggression” of perpetuating a stereotypical depiction of black people as violent. A backlash to the backlash followed, with one student calling the whole affair ‘‘ridiculous.’’ The Post‘s Graeme Hamilton has a look at how we got here:

What is a microaggression?

Columbia University psychology professor Derald Wing Sue is considered the leading expert in this emerging field. A 2007 American Psychologist paper on which he was the lead author defined microaggressions as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group.” More recently the study of microaggressions has expanded to include gender, sexual orientation and disability.

If the offending words or actions are unintentional, how can you be sure that you have been microaggressed? Couldn’t it just be a mis-understanding?

Dr. Sue, who is Asian-American, explores this question when relating an incident that occurred to him on a mostly empty flight between New York and Boston. He and an African-American colleague had been told to sit wherever they liked but were then asked to move to the back of the plane for proper weight distribution. A group of three white men who had boarded after them were allowed to stay in their seats in the front.

“In light of our everyday racial experiences, we both came to the same conclusion: The flight attendant had treated us like second-class citizens because of our race,” he wrote. After fuming for a while, he challenged the flight attendant, who was white, and she replied indignantly, saying “I don’t see colour! I only asked you to move to balance the plane.” Dr. Sue wrestled with who was right but concluded he had experienced a microaggression. The paper’s authors noted that psychological research “tends to confirm the existence of unconscious racial biases in well-intentioned Whites” and concluded that the disempowered are best placed to identify microaggression.

The sanction issued by the Students’ Society of McGill University against Mr. Farnan, who is white, appeared to follow the same logic. “The fact that a complaint did come forward does prove that someone was harmed and did feel harm,” Joey Shea, the SSMU executive member responsible for equity, said.

Why are we hearing about microaggressions now?

The term was first coined by American psychiatrist Chester Pierce in the 1970s, but it has recently become more popular among academics who argue that racism and other types of discrimination have evolved from overt bigotry to more disguised forms.

Students on many U.S. campuses have embraced the theory. Universities have adopted policies for avoiding microaggression in the lecture hall, and web sites have sprung up to catalogue incidents of microaggression.

Vivian Lu, a PhD student at Stanford University, is the co-founder of the pioneering Microaggressions Project, a blog that publishes submissions from microaggression victims. “I think college campuses are a space where everyone’s the same age, everyone’s trying to understand each other, we all come from different backgrounds,” Ms. Lu said. “Microaggression is a way to show that even in these kind of ideal places where there’s a language of, ‘Anyone can come,’ ‘We’re all equal,’ this kind of thing, our everyday interactions show we all carry these ideologies with us.”

Are all microaggressions the same?

No. Dr. Sue and his colleagues identify three subclasses: microassaults, microinsults and microinvalidation. A microassault is an over act of racism, such as using a racial epithet or displaying a swastika. Microinsults are “subtle snubs,” such as asking a minority employee how he got his job or avoiding eye contact with a black employee during a conversation. Microinvalidation refers to comments that negate the thoughts or feelings particular to a person of colour, such as telling a Latino couple who received poor restaurant service not to be oversensitive.

What are some examples?

Dr. Sue and his co-authors offered dozens of examples, from asking someone of Asian origin, “Where are you from?” (the assumption is that the person is a foreigner) to a white woman clutching her purse when a black man passes. Microaggressions can also exist in the environment, the authors say, for example a university with buildings that are all named after rich, white, heterosexual men or an overabundance of liquor stores in communities of colour.

So what do proponents of this theory say is the effect of these microaggressions?

Kevin Nadal, an associate professor of psychology at the City University of New York, wrote this month on about the toll microaggressions – such as the expression “That’s so gay!” – take on LGBT people. “Many studies have found that the more that people experience microaggressions, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression, psychological distress, and even physical health issues,” he wrote.

Was the McGill Obama video really a microaggression?

Ms. Shea of the SSMU acknowledged that it could be qualified a micro microaggression. But the experts seem to agree that aggression is in the eye (or the ear) of the recipient. “The worst thing that we can do is to deny that someone is hurt or offended by something we said or did; in fact, invalidating their experience could be considered a microaggression itself,” Mr. Nadal wrote.