Wednesday, December 11, 2013

From Our "You Keep Using This Word, I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means" Dept.

Samuel R. Delany linked to this post on racial "microaggressions" today.  Despite the disclaimer (echoed by comments under Delany's link) that the "project is NOT about showing how ignorant people can be in order to simply dismiss their ignorance," that's pretty much what it is about.  It doesn't help that, as the word has moved from academia to a wider userbase, people don't know what it is supposed to mean.

The weirdest evidence for that was a comment under Delany's link, by another writer of some repute.  She lives in a poor Central American country, and she listed some things people say to her there that bother her.
The other thing is getting asked how much things I have cost (including my dog and her cocker clip when she's been recently groomed) -- and either I answer or I "forget." This somewhat bothers me, but it's not the micro-aggression that spitting near my feet is (one guy appears to really have it in for Gringos).
I pointed out that spitting near someone's feet is not "micro-aggression," it's aggression full stop.  The writer replied, "Having had rocks thrown at me when I was a child for being too smart for a girl who wasn't a college professor's daughter, I'm okay with one guy in town who doesn't like gringas."  Which is fine -- I'd feel the same in her situation, and I've encountered some hostility as an American when I was in Korea -- but it doesn't change the fact that spitting at someone, let alone throwing rocks at them, is not microaggression.

This is to me the most disturbing distortion of the term I saw at The Microaggression Project tumblr: what many people reported as microaggressions were really overt and explicit expressions of bigotry.  (That's true in the "21 Racial Microaggresions" post too: see number 10, among others.)  I think this inadvertently supports the assumption many bigots make, that if you don't run someone over with your car, it's not bigotry.  And as this linguistic inflation proceeds, I predict that even overt violence against people will eventually be referred to as microaggression.  And then racists will start whining that the idea of being some sort of foaming-at-the-mouth microaggressor never crossed their minds -- being called a microaggressor is one of the worst things you can be called in public life.

Insisting on this is not hairsplitting.  The images in the "21 Racial Microaggressions" post include a fair amount of fine language chopping.  "Being biracial doesn't make me a 'what'," for example.  People love creating distinctions and multiplying categories, but they have trouble keeping them consistent after they've created them.

I noticed too that some of the microaggressions in that post are as likely to come from other people of color as from whites, like "You don't act like a normal black person ya' know?" and "You don't speak Spanish?"  Mina Shum's great Canadian indie film Double Happiness shows these pressures at work on a young Chinese-Canadian woman.  I've encountered plenty of such stereotyping from other gay men in my day. ("I mean, you're supposed to like Barbra Streisand if you're gay, aren't you?")  Delany himself remarked on the post, "The one I've been getting for seventy-one, going on seventy-two years of my life is: 'You're black? So then what were your parents . . .?' The answer, by the bye, is black. Yes, both of them. And so were all four of their parents."  In his memoirs Delany recounts an affair he had with a black African man who refused to believe that he -- Delany -- was really black; I doubt that guy was the only such person of color in Delany's life.

Another commenter on Delany's link made a very good point:
Is there a way we can think about trying to place one another ancestry and culture-wise less as "aggression" and more as just a way to establish certain kinds of relatedness with one another - a topography of sorts? We're not, after all, just all cosmopolitan liberal subjects unmoored from all context. The way we visually present to one another can't just be brushed under a rug. For example, as a Brit from an Italian family I'll have more in common with someone raised in a catholic culture (even though I was raised anti-catholic.) Surely it's how we go about placing each other than whether we do it. Because whether we speak it or not, we actually do it all the time.
I think this person may have missed something, though: while I agree that trying to place people is a way to establish certain kinds of relatedness, the kinds of behavior collected under "microaggresion" go beyond that, often putting people into a double bind.  Children of immigrants or of interracial couples can't help the fact that they don't fit into a normal "topography" of race or culture: expecting them to do so is not just trying to map them but, yes, a form of aggression.

It occurs to me that microaggression is one of the tools normally used to socialize people, majorities as well as minorities.  We may not be beaten or screamed at to get us to conform to gender and other cultural expectations, for example, but a bit of mockery or shaming can be just as effective.  And there's no way to raise children without socializing them, without pressuring them to behave and speak and think in certain ways.

I don't mean to deny the negative effects of microaggression on its targets, but if we're going to combat this kind of behavior we have to be able to name it correctly, and distinguish it from other forms of social control.  When I talked to a teacher friend of mine about these matters, he said that microaggression is supposed to be mentioned in education classes to alert teachers-in-training to their own attitudes and behavior, not to give them a club to bash their students with.  As I said earlier, the material in the "21 Racial Microaggressions" post does exactly what it's not supposed to do.  Judging by this material and people's comments, microaggression is already slipping into confusion and ultimate meaninglessness.