Recently I’ve been hearing the idea of microaggressions tossed about, although the term has actually been around since 1970. I have no desire to chase down Webster or Wikipedia or any sources in an effort to give a nice clean clinical definition for you; however, I will give you a description of how I understand it to be.
I see the idea of a microaggression as an act or statement against a group of people (generally a minority) that could be construed as offensive, whether intended or not, but not necessarily overtly. I’ll give a personal example here. As a biracial person, I have been told several times in my life by one person or another that they don’t think of me as black. That statement could be construed as a microaggression.
What makes it so? In this case, there are implications that can be called into question. What does the person making the statement consider a black person to be? What is the intent behind the statement? Does it hint to how they may view black people, or how they view me in the perspective of that contrast?
In light of the deconstruction of that statement I just gave, it could be considered a microaggressive statement if you choose to chase it down the cultural rabbit hole deep enough. At some point amidst the roots and rocks and hardpan and grub worms is buried the grain of sand that gives way to offense. Therein lies the nerve that has been jabbed to send up a klaxon of psychological antibodies.
I think of such epithets as heat seeking missiles and our unresolved angst in the given cultural genre as the heat signatures. In the example I gave above, I personally find the statement very much a throw-away; it has little to do with who I am and mostly to do with who the bearer of the statement is. But what if I found it deeply offensive? What fragile and delicate part of me did it speak to where I felt a call-to-arms in protection of my ego and definition of self?
I am not making light of people slinging around offensive statements without consideration or forethought. Nor am I condoning it. I am saying that being offended is a cooperative action. We enter into a contract with the offender where we are consenting to being offended. Our offense is often our ego imposing an expectation on all others out in the world to view us the way we insist that we should be viewed.
To flesh out the example I gave earlier, here is how the conversation went:
Microaggressor: You know, I don’t think of you as black.
Me: (facetiously) You know, I don’t think of you as white.
Microaggressor: You know what I mean.
Sad thing is, I actually did. And it had nothing to do with me. At least that’s the way I chose to see it.