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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(2010’s | therapese? academese? | “little thing,” “insult,” “slight,” “dig”)

Now that Jim Crow is no longer legal (not that it has disappeared), we are left with microaggressions: words or actions directed at members of a minority group that appeal to negative stereotypes, intentionally or not. They do not violate any law, sometimes not even social convention, and in some cases the oppressed person can’t even explain why he is offended. But they can have a powerful cumulative effect, causing people to feel as degraded as their forebears felt under more immediately threatening conditions. To such victims, the microaggression is only a more subtle means of keeping women, African-Americans, Latinos, gays and lesbians, Jews, the homeless, trans- people, et al. in their places. It’s not just white men who commit microaggressions, though we do it more than anyone else, partly because we have the biggest pool of people to commit them against. But pecking orders are observed here as elsewhere, and each group looks for another group to feel superior to. In U.S. culture, everybody gets to pick on African-Americans, but African-Americans get to pick on LGBTQ people. Men lord it over women; the sharp mulct the dull. There must always be a way to define yourself such that there exists a class lower than you. As long as we seek such imbalances of power, we will have fertile fields for microaggressions, among other things.

Many sources attribute the coinage to Professor Chester Pierce, ca. 1970, an African-American professor of psychology at Harvard. The New York Times also pointed to a 2007 article by Professor Derald Sue that pushed the term out of the academic ghetto into wider use. (I certainly don’t recall hearing it before then.) To this day, the word is used far more often at universities than anywhere else. We have a lot of “micro” words now: microfiber, microloan, microblogging. “Microcephaly” has reared its ugly head recently thanks to the Zika virus. Two more examples sometimes seen near “microaggression” are “microinequality” or “microinequity.” I can’t help but hear an echo of the medical term “microabrasion,” which has little semantic connection but a strong phonological one. The word “aggression” does get people riled up, but the reason “microaggression,” despite its technical, academic sound, has some punch and poignancy stems from the fact that such acts occur only in situations when both the aggressor and aggressee are in direct contact, normally in a public place; they cannot be committed remotely, except by telephone, but even there you have two people engaging each other. Personal interaction is required.

Microaggressions have emerged as the latest fodder in an old debate: Are the oppressed overreacting to unexceptionable behavior, or are the oppressors using any means available to remind everyone else who the boss group really is? The more fundamental question — who gets to decide? — may be shunted aside. Straight, well-off white people are quick to suggest that microaggressions are symptoms of hypersensitivity or political correctness, a means to make us feel guilty even after we’ve made the reforms we were asked to make (well, most of us). But SWOW’s likewise dismissed much more brutal and intimidating means of subjection, from segregation of public amenities to lynching. You know, “They don’t have it so bad. Look at all the nice things we do for those people.” Not much comfort when you’re hauled off to jail for sitting in the wrong place or getting killed for an imagined offense against some white man’s code of honor. That old feeling of domination, whether backed up or not by formal legal sanction, counted for a lot. Treating as equals those you have been discriminating against for generations is a hard pill to swallow, and lots of people are tired of trying. It’s easier to say, “Wait a minute. I’m a victim, too!”

The rise of the microaggression may be taken optimistically: Except in a few extreme cases, physical and economic violence have gone out of the practice of racism, etc., leaving only petty snubs and well-meant gaucheries, which do much less real damage and will in turn become unacceptable in another generation or two. Or pessimistically: There’s no end to it. We get rid of one layer of abuses, and there’s another below that, and another below that. Microaggressions definitely damage some individuals, and that will ultimately hurt the larger society. My two cents: I haven’t thought this through, and it may be untrue, but it seems to me that if a half-concealed sneer can cause significant harm, then small kindnesses may also have an effect greater than their magnitude. It would be awfully nice to think so.


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