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Microaggression is a term coined by psychiatrist and Harvard University professor Chester M. Pierce in 1970 to describe insults and dismissals he regularly witnessed non-black Americans inflict on African Americans. Eventually, the term came to encompass the casual degradation of any socially marginalized group, such as the poor and the disabled. It has also been seen as being "rooted in racism, sexism, or discrimination based on nationality or sexual orientation. It can be delivered casually or even unconsciously."
It has been argued that the microaggression concept "fits into a larger class of conflict tactics in which the aggrieved seek to attract and mobilize the support of third parties" that sometimes involves "building a case for action by documenting, exaggerating, or even falsifying offenses". Recommendations inspired by microaggression theory, if "implemented, could have a chilling effect on free speech and on the willingness of White people ... to interact with people of color". The microaggression theory also arguably pools trivial and ignorable instances of racism with real, genuine prejudice and exclusion, is a distraction from dealing with much more serious acts, and can actually cause more emotional trauma than the microaggressions themselves.
Psychologist Derald Wing Sue defines microaggressions as "brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership". He describes microaggressions as generally happening below the level of awareness of well-intentioned members of the dominant culture. According to Sue, microaggressions are different from overt, deliberate acts of bigotry, such as the use of racist epithets, because the people perpetrating microaggressions often intend no offense and are unaware they are causing harm. Microaggressions are known to be subtle insults that direct towards the person or a group of people as a way to "put down". He describes microaggressions as including statements that repeat or affirm stereotypes about the minority group or subtly demean them. They also position the dominant culture as normal and the minority one as aberrant or pathological, that express disapproval of or discomfort with the minority group, that assume all minority group members are the same, that minimize the existence of discrimination against the minority group, seek to deny the perpetrator's own bias, or minimize real conflict between the minority group and the dominant culture. In conducting two focus groups with Asian Americans, Sue identified eight distinct themes of racial microaggression:
- Alien in Own Land: When people assume Asian Americans are foreigners or from a different country.
- Ex: "Where are you from" or "Why don't you have an accent?"
- Ascription of Intelligence: When Asian Americans are stereotyped as being intelligent or assumed to be smart.
- Ex: "Wow, you're really good at math, can you help me?" or "Are Asian Americans this good when it comes to school work?"
- Denial of Racial Reality: This is when a person emphasizes that as Asian American doesn't experience any discrimination, implying there are no inequalities towards them. It correlates to the idea of model minority.
- Exoticization of Asian American Women: It stereotypes non-white Americans in the exotic category. They are being stereotyped by their physical appearance and gender based on media and literature. One example is Asian American women portrayed as the submissive or obedient type; they are also seen as Dragon Lady or Lotus Blossom. On the other hand, Asian American men are portrayed as being emasculated or seen as nerdy, weak men.
- Invalidation of Interethnic Differences: This emphasizes homogeneity of broad ethnic groups and ignores interethnic differences. The claim "all Asian Americans look alike" was identified as a main assumption for this theme. Similarly, thinking that all members of an ethnic minority group speak the same language or have the same values or culture falls under this theme.
- Pathologizing Cultural Values/Communication Styles: When Asian Americans' cultures and values are viewed as less desirable. For example, many people from the focus group felt disadvantaged by the expectation of verbal participation in class, when Asian cultural norms value silence. Because of this discrepancy, many Asian Americans felt that they were being forced to conform to Western cultural norms.
- Second Class Citizenship: This theme emphasizes the idea that Asian Americans are being treated as lesser beings, and are not treated with equal rights or presented as a first priority.
- Ex: A Korean man walks into a bar and asks for a drink but the bartender ignores the man and serves a White man first.
- Invisibility: This theme of microaggression focuses on the idea that Asian Americans are invisible in discussions of race and racism. According to some focus group members, dialogues on race often focus only on White and Black, which excludes Asian Americans.
Race or ethnicity
Social scientists Sue, Bucceri, Lin, Nadal, and Torino (2007) described microaggressions as "the new face of racism", saying that the nature of racism has shifted over time from overt expressions of racial hatred and hate crimes, towards expressions of aversive racism, such as microaggressions, that are more subtle, ambiguous, and often unintentional. Researchers say this has led some Americans to wrongly believe that racism is no longer a problem for non-white Americans. An example of such subtle expressions of racism is Asian students being pathologized or penalized as too passive or quiet.
According to Sue et al., microaggressions seem to appear in three forms:
- microassault: an explicit racial derogation; verbal/nonverbal; e.g. name-calling, avoidant behavior, purposeful discriminatory actions.
- microinsult: communications that convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person's racial heritage or identity; subtle snubs; unknown to the perpetrator; hidden insulting message to the recipient of color.
- microinvalidation: communications that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person belonging to a particular group.
Gender and sexuality
Women, including trans women, report experiencing gender-related microaggressions.[not in citation given] Some examples of sexist microagressions are "[addressing someone by using] a sexist name, a man refusing to wash dishes because it is 'woman's work,' displaying nude pin-ups of women at places of employment, someone making unwanted sexual advances toward another person".
Other gender- and sexuality-related microaggressions include the sexual exoticization of lesbians by heterosexual men, linking homosexuality with gender dysphoria or paraphilia, and prying questions about one's sexual activity. Transgender people are often misgendered (labelled as having a gender other than the one they identify with), among other forms of microaggression.
People from the LGBTIQ+ community have reported experiencing such microaggressions from people within their own community. This is because others make assumptions on their lives based on their own experience and understanding. While not always intentional, people commit anti-social behaviours based on these misconceptions, resulting in people feeling they are the victim of microaggressions.
The following have been proposed as "microaggressable" themes:
People who are marginalized in multiple ways (e.g., a gay Asian-American man or a trans woman) experience microaggressions rooted in multiple forms of marginalization.[not in citation given] For example, in one study Asian-American women reported feeling sexually exoticized by majority-culture men or viewed by them as potential trophy wives. African-American women report experiencing microaggressions such as ones involving their hair (particularly that it is "unprofessional").
People with mental illnesses
People with mental illness report experiencing more overt forms of microaggression than subtle ones, coming from family and friends and authority figures. In a study involving college students and adults experiencing community care, five themes were identified: invalidation, assumption of inferiority, fear of mental illness, shaming of mental illness, and being treated as a second class citizen.
Allegations of microaggressions are particularly common among the relatively educated and affluent populations of American colleges and universities. Some scholars think that the environment of protectiveness, of which microaggression allegations are a part, prepares students "poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong".
Derald Wing Sue, the Columbia University Professor whose research helped inform the theory, has misgivings of how the concept is applied on campuses, "I was concerned that people who use these examples would take them out of context and use them as a punitive rather than an exemplary way." Christina M. Capodilupo, an adjunct professor at Columbia Teachers College and a co-author cited on the "Racial Microaggressions in Every Day Life" sheet said "some people use the word to shut down conversations instead of reflecting on the situation".
One US study found that even some mental health professionals are perceived to engage in microaggressions by African-American clients.
Because perpetrators are generally well-meaning and microaggressions are subtle, their recipients often experience attributional ambiguity, which may lead them to dismiss the experience and blame themselves as overly sensitive. If challenged by the minority person or an observer, perpetrators will often defend their microaggression as a misunderstanding, a joke, or something small that should not be blown out of proportion.
A 2013 scholarly review of the literature on microaggressions concluded that "the negative impact of racial microaggressions on psychological and physical health is beginning to be documented; however, these studies have been largely correlational and based on recall and self-report, making it difficult to determine whether racial microaggressions actually cause negative health outcomes and, if so, through what mechanisms". A 2016 study found that microaggressions were associated with increased risk of preterm birth among black women, but only among those who were not already at high risk of such.
Recipients of microaggressions may feel anger, frustration, or exhaustion. African-Americans have reported feeling under pressure to "represent" their group or to suppress their own cultural expression and "act white". Over time, the cumulative effect of microaggressions is thought to lead to diminished self-confidence and a poor self-image, and potentially also to mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and trauma.  There are studies suggesting that microaggressions can lead people of color to fear, distrust, and avoid relationships with white people. On the other hand, some people report that microaggressions have made them more resilient. Scholars have suggested that, although microaggressions "might seem minor", they are "so numerous that trying to function in such a setting is 'like lifting a ton of feathers.'"
Culture of victimhood
A review of sociological literature conducted by two sociologists—Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning—argues that the discourse of microaggression leads to a culture of victimhood. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt states that this culture of victimhood lessens the "ability to handle small interpersonal matters on one's own" and "creates a society of constant and intense moral conflict as people compete for status as victims or as defenders of victims". Ralph Nader has similarly criticized the trigger warnings and political correctness on campuses as creating too much sensitivity.
American conservative media have suggested that the victim complex caused by the microaggression theory can have fatal results. In 2015, an African-American TV news reporter in Virginia killed two white colleagues because he thought they were racially abusing him by eating watermelon, telling him to do "field work" or to "swing by a location".
Some psychologists have criticized microaggressions for assuming that verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities are necessarily due to bias, and have argued that recommendations inspired by microaggression theory, if "implemented, could have a chilling effect on free speech and on the willingness of White people, including some psychologists, to interact with people of color." It has also been pointed out that it is uncertain whether a behavior is due to racial bias or is a larger phenomenon that occurs regardless of identity conflict. In a 2017 peer-reviewed, review of microagression literature, Scott Lilienfeld concluded that the concept and programs for its scientific assessment are "far too underdeveloped on the conceptual and methodological fronts to warrant real-world application", although he acknowledged its merits to identify subtle forms of aggressions.
It has been argued that the microaggression concept "fits into a larger class of conflict tactics in which the aggrieved seek to attract and mobilize the support of third parties" that sometimes involves "building a case for action by documenting, exaggerating, or even falsifying offenses". It has been argued that the concept of microaggressions is a symptom of the breakdown in civil discourse, that microaggressions are "yesterdays well-meaning faux pas", and that it has become "unacceptable to question the reasonableness (let alone the sincerity) of someone's emotional state", making adjudication of alleged microaggressions like witch trials.
Writing for The Federalist, Paul Rowan Brian argued that microaggression theory pools trivial and ignorable instances of racism with real, genuine prejudice and exclusion. Viv Regan, writing for Spiked Online, wondered whether the comfort provided by having a convenient label for alleged rudeness outweighs the damage caused by overreaction. Amitai Etzioni, writing in The Atlantic, suggested that attention to microaggressions distracts from dealing with much more serious acts. Another article in The Atlantic expressed concern that the focus on microaggressions can actually cause more emotional trauma than the microaggressions themselves.
Microaggression theory has also been criticized by several conservative think tanks. Christina Hoff Sommers, in a video for the American Enterprise Institute, called microaggression theory oversensitive and paranoid. Heather Mac Donald, writing for the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research's City Journal, believes the theory is simply self-victimization, and refers to it critically as both a "farce" and a "fad".
- Anti-LGBT rhetoric
- Covert racism
- Hostile attribution bias
- Intercultural communication
- Ideas of reference and delusions of reference
- I, Too, Am Harvard, a campaign illustrating microaggressions at Harvard University
- LGBT stereotypes
- Occupational sexism
- Political correctness
- Race and health
- Stereotype threat
- Trigger warning
- Victim mentality
- White privilege
- White supremacy
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The key idea is that the new moral culture of victimhood fosters 'moral dependence' and an atrophying of the ability to handle small interpersonal matters on one's own. At the same time that it weakens individuals, it creates a society of constant and intense moral conflict as people compete for status as victims or as defenders of victims.
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