Jean Barker

Micro-aggression, the Macro-buzz

2014-04-11 13:29

Jean Barker

USA, 2012. We're going around the class in first year, introducing ourselves. Next up is a hispanic-looking student. Let's call him “Luis”.

“And where are you from?” the Prof asks Luis.
“Oh, I mean, originally.”
“California,” Luis responds again, no sign of irritation.
“And your parents?”
Luis sighs. The class squirms.
“Do you get asked this a lot?”
“All the time...”

Now this professor, one of my personal favourites, was probably asking these questions to get Luis thinking and reacting. It was a class designed to access your feelings and help you put them on camera. But they're questions that Luis gets asked all the time. Questions that fall into a category that's been a buzzword for a while in the US: Micro-aggressions.

What's micro-aggression?

Micro-aggressions are seemingly innocent, seemingly small, yet constant acts of stupidity or prejudice that people live with every day. Mocking someone's neighbourhood. Saying that a certain act is “a bit gay”. Telling a woman to “man up”. “Wow, your English is so good!” to a black person. Micro-aggression is often well intended, or “just a joke”, but is born of stereotyping. “Man up” = Women are weak. “That's so gay” = Gayness is about being camp. Black people don't speak English well. Stereotypes are hurtful to those trying to escape them, and so though some micro-aggression masquerades as complimentary, it's not.

Though showing weakness is fine, though being camp is fine, and though English isn't the best language in the world, that's not the point. Micro-aggression is always based on lumping people together and making assumptions based on appearance or identity. We all have a right to be fragile, wear a feather boah or speak Spanish without being defined by it, don't we?

The problem with micro-aggressions is that they add up to a bigger picture called prejudice.

We're all guilty

We are all guilty of acts of micro-aggression.  We probably don't think we are, but a bit of self examination will reveal seemingly mundane, thoughtless motives.

I'll give my own example. An American pointed out recently that I'd accidentally mixed up the names Lybia and Egypt in conversation. I have no idea why. I was babbling about something related to the so-called “Arab Spring”, probably. And masking my embarrassment with defensiveness, I responded:  “Oh shit. I'm becoming American.”

In my thoughtlessly humorous reference to the map-phobic, globally-ignorant American stereotype I'd inadvertently insulted the person who was correcting my foolish mistake.

It wasn't a big deal. But many, many micro-aggressions add up gradually. Sometimes they only alienate and anger the person affected, but over time... well, their effect can be that we accept an identity comprised mostly of other people's stupid beliefs..

What hurts you just a little, often?

The problem with micro-aggression it is hard to navigate. When does something cross the line from banter between friends, to become racism, sexism, or homophobia? Is it our job to avoid offending everybody, all the time? Is any joke ever victimless?

It's hard to say in general, so the only option is to be open to learning – and apologising when need be. We all have different triggers and sensitivities and that's part of being human. Also, what's acceptable changes and we have to be willing to change with the times.

My biggest irritants (on my own behalf anyhow) are gender related. No surprise there. Hearing my boyfriend described as “pussy-whipped” drives me nuts. It makes me feel like I'm seen as a bitch who misuses her sexual power to control a man. I also don't like being told to “man up” when I'm upset. My feminine strength has got me this far, thanks! I also hate it when people say “Where are you really from, though?” I'm third generation South African. It is the only country where I hold citizenship! And that reminds me of the South African micro-aggression I hate most: people addressing me as “lady” when pissed off with me – specially on the phone.

But I don't have it so bad. Don't even get me started on the stupid things I've heard people say  about and to Asian, Muslim, Jewish, black, gay and old people, here and at home in SA.

Take a look at or Buzzfeed and vent a little. It's good for the soul, and maybe somebody will think before they speak, thanks to you.

- Jean is a screenwriting/directing dual MFA student in California, USA. She tweets as @jeanbarker and blogs pictures of signs and more, here. She will be back.

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