When are microaggressions really macro-aggressions?

Dear President Trump,

Maybe it was just a coincidence, but I thought it was kind of funny that in a recent picture of you with three other men, one of whom was Sondland, all of you were wearing solid color ties but only yours was red. Sondland’s was kind of pinky-orange and the other two were blue, one light and one medium. I just couldn’t help but think that you’d set some sort of dress code such that all the men have to wear dark blue suits similar to yours but only you are allowed to wear a red tie. Because you are special.

Ok, the real thing I want to address with you today is the issue of microaggressions. I’m at the annual National Hispanic Science Network meeting here in New Orleans and this afternoon there was a symposium about implicit bias in science. Three speakers approached the topic for various angles but all three talked about the perniciousness of microaggressions and how challenging they are to navigate.

Since I’d be shocked if you know what the term means I’m going to give you the Wikipedia definition:

“Microaggression is a term used for brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative prejudicial slights and insults toward any group, particularly culturally marginalized groups.”

So as you may be able to tell, microaggressions are supposed to be micro – they are not outright racist or sexist or homophobic comments or insults, they do not involve physical assault, they would not be classified as hate crimes. They are sly and often leave the victim feeling confused and wondering what the hell just happened. They are often so subtle and superficially innocuous that the victim is left thinking they are over-reacting and they should just let it go, that they shouldn’t say or do anything about it.

The thing that was interesting, and sad, to me in listening to the two talks where the speakers got more personal and shared stories from their lives as women Latinx scientists, is that many of the situations they characterized as microaggressions felt much more like macro-aggressions to me. There were instances of being actively marginalized (as in being relegated to note-taking by the white men in the group on an activity everyone needed to do to pass a class), being passed over for tenure despite being far more qualified than her white male peers, essentially being told she should take a lesser degree and go back to the barrio to help her people. Those are way bigger instances of discrimination to me – situations that are still likely to engender self-doubt and confusion to be sure, but clearly on a different order of magnitude than something like “gosh, you are so tan” or “where are you from, really?”

None of it’s ok but I think it’s not a good idea to call what are ostensibly macro-aggressions microaggressions since it risks minimizing them in ways that could lead to even more serious mind-f*cking. I tried to raise this in the discussion portion of the symposium, but apparently didn’t do a great job as it didn’t go over very well. And it probably would have been way better had a person of color brought it up instead of a random white woman who has never been to the conference before. But it was one of those things that I couldn’t not say.

May we be safe from any and all aggression.
May we all be willing to learn where our implicit biases are and work to counteract them.
May we recognize the hits that people’s health and well-being take when they are navigating microagression landmines day in and day out.
May we make real peace with one another.

Tracy Simpson

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