Grey Matters: Why those who attack micro-aggressions are fighting the wrong war

MicroaggressionsJake was born in South Korea. He was adopted by a lesbian couple when he was ten months old and has lived in North Carolina ever since. Gay, right-handed, a baseball player, and eighteen-years old, he just started college at Stonewall Jackson University, a small liberal arts college in South Carolina. General Stonewall Jackson was known for eating lemons as a way to relieve chronic upset stomach, so the school’s mascot is a “Lemonhead.”

Jake gathered with other freshman student athletes at the entrance to Little Sorrel Dorm. Their tour had started at the student center, and they’d made their way across half the campus.

“Thanks for your time and attention,” the tour leader said. “I’m gonna hand y’all off now to Scott Richter, the head of the freshman resident advisors.”

“We just wanted to welcome you to the University Housing system,” Scott said. “As I’m sure y’all know, SJU has traditionally been a conservative school, but diversity is important here, and we are proud that this year’s freshman class is the most diverse in our school’s history. Twenty two percent of this year’s class are students of color. We’ve realized that one of the biggest areas of adjustment for students is living with diverse groups of people in university housing. You’ll have a couple hours before lunch to settle into your dorm room, and your resident advisor will coming around to meet each of you and welcome you to your dorm. Remember – they are there to make sure that you are made to feel part of the Lemonhead community so any question you have for them is safe.”

Jake spent an hour unpacking his clothes into a closet about 1/10 the size of what he had at home. Because Jake was on the baseball team, he was there a week before his roommate, and he’d selected the top bunk and the desk and closet by the window. He was looking at his schedule for the rest of the day when a guy in a bright yellow SJU T-shirt knocked on the door.

“Good morning!” the guy said with too much enthusiasm for Jake’s liking. “I’m Robert, your resident advisor.”

“I’m Jake.”

“That’s an interesting name,” Robert said. “Is that your real name?”

“There were at least five Jakes in every grade my whole life. How’s that interesting name?”

“I figured you had an Asian name,” Robert said. “Where are you from?”

“I’ve lived pretty much my whole life just outside of Charlotte.”

“No. I mean where are you really from.”

“What do you mean?”

“What country are you from?”

“I was born in South Korea, but my parents adopted me when I was ten months old so I really don’t remember anything except living in North Carolina.”

“Do you speak Korean?”

“Just fluent Spanish. One of my mothers is from Colombia, the country, not the state capital.”

Robert started nodding his head. “So if I need something to help me study late into the night, I know who to see.”

“What?” Jake asked.

“You’ve got a connection, right? Cocaine?”

“One of my mothers is an attorney. The other is in law enforcement. Neither of my mothers deal drugs.”

“OK. Welcome to SJU! It was nice to get to know you a little better. Before I go, any questions, you have for me?”

Jake didn’t respond at first so Robert turned to leave, but then Jake stopped him. “I do have one question. “You’ve said about everything offensive imaginable, but you’re not even gonna ask why I have two mothers?”

“You’ve got two mothers?” Robert asked. “I just thought you didn’t know good English.”

COMMENTARY:  Jake is going to have many adventures at SJU, but on this first day, we see him facing a series of questions from a well-intentioned resident advisor. In last week’s Grey Matters, we touched on “micro-aggressions,” and I got so much response from that blog that I wanted to look at the issue further.

MICRO-AGGRESIONS are defined as “everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.”

Let’s catalogue Robert’s micro-aggressions:

  1. Asking Jake if that was his “real” name, suggesting and then stating directly, he’d thought Jake would have an Asian-sounding name.
  2. Asking Jake where he was really from after Jake answered that he was from Charlotte.
  3. Asking Jake if he spoke Korean.
  4. Assuming that people from Colombia are drug dealers.
  5. Assuming that because Jake was Asian he couldn’t speak “good English.”

Robert wasn’t being mean or hateful in asking any of these questions. I’m sure Robert thought he was just trying to get to know Jake better and that these questions were legitimate. And to be honest, these are questions that I’ve asked people or wanted to ask people in the past.

Let’s take the first question where Robert asks Jake if that’s his “real” name. I have a Taiwanese friend whose name is Amy. I know for a fact that she was born in Taiwan and lived there for many years before coming to the United States. I’ve never asked her but always wondered whether “Amy” is the name on her birth certificate. At this stage in our friendship, I doubt she would object if I asked her the question, but if I asked her when first meeting her, then she might have taken offense. When I was a kid, we had a family from Sweden move into our neighborhood. I asked their son who was my age to teach me some words in Swedish. He wasn’t insulted. He thought it was actually pretty cool that someone wanted to know his native language. Now, of course Ikea has taught us that Swedish is an impossible language to pronounce so my lessons didn’t go very far, but at least I was trying to get to know and understand his culture. The difference is that I wasn’t making his culture or his language a parlor trick.

ARE YOU A “REAL” AMERICAN? Robert’s initial questions go to the suggestion that a person is not a “real” American if they’re an immigrant. Robert could have gotten to know Jake better if he’d asked very different questions. “How did you decide to attend SJU?” “You’re here early because you’re an athlete. What sport do you play?” “What are you thinking about in terms of your major?”

The rapid fire way Robert came in with all of these questions about Jake’s background give rise to an underlying question – “Why are you here?” The questions directed at Jake had the effect of questioning Jake’s legitimacy as a person in being in this country.

RUDENESS IS DIFFERENT: One question I got from several readers last week related to the need for a special term to describe rude comments that just happen to target marginalized groups. Here’s my short answer: You can be rude, but I can just brush that aside. That’s you, not me. But if your rudeness challenges my validity, then it’s fundamentally different.

Imagine two scenarios both involving a call from a telemarketer.

  • In the first scenario, the person calls me “Ryan” instead of “Brian.” I correct her, but she continues to call me “Ryan” because I guess that’s what is written on her script. Now, this is rude because she’s not listening to me, but it doesn’t have much impact on my life.
  • In the second case (and this has happened often), a telemarketer calls and asks about me and my wife. I always say, “I have a husband, not a wife.” Some people say, “Sorry,” and then use the proper term after that, but I have had some people so opposed to referring to my significant other as my “husband,” they get all flustered and pretty much just hang up. I find that to be not only rude, but also dismissive and devaluing of my relationship. This where rudeness has gone to the point of a micro-aggression because afterwards, I feel slighted. I’m in my home and someone calls me out of the blue and maligns my marriage. That is a different category of offense then mere rudeness.

HOW TO SOLVE THE MICRO-AGGRESSION PROBLEM: It’s clear that there is a difference between simple rudeness and micro-aggressions, but the question remains, what do we do about it?

The simple answer is to tackle the problem of micro-aggressions head-on. Stonewall Jackson University could train resident advisors to identify and avoid micro-aggressions. They could train students to be sensitive when dealing with students who are different and give them a list of things not to say to people (see

But training people to monitor and watch out for micro-aggressions has created a worse problem than it has solved. The attack on micro-aggressions has created a culture of aggressors and victims. Everything that the straight white male does is for the purpose of subjugating the gay / non-white / female. We pit one group against another and even members of subgroups can offend others in that same subgroup. For instance, two gay icons – RuPaul and Neal Patrick Harris –are accused of being transphobic because they use expressions that someone decided were offensive.

You’re either a bigot or a victim.  And categorizing people in this way does nothing to solve the problem or to move us forward as a society.

Although noble in their cause, people who attack micro-aggressions are fighting the wrong war.

It is a simple fact that when people are verbally attacked, they stop listening.  And depending on the level of the attack, when their ears close, so do their hearts and minds.

Wouldn’t it better for the university to have “manners training” where they teach resident advisors and students how to get along with each other and not focus on race, gender, national origin or sexual orientation?

People with manners are less likely to commit micro-aggressions in the first place because they think about others before speaking. They pay attention to social cues and have primary objectives to get along and not to offend someone else.

Manners were initially developed to help everyone feel comfortable in social situations, but somewhere along the way, they became used by the upper class as a put down on the lower class. They became used to divide not unite us.

Can we all go back to simpler times? Millions of years ago, animals and our humanoid ancestors learned to interact and live with each other because their survival depended on it. I would argue that we’re at the point. We need to focus on getting along and pay attention to our shared qualities instead of our differences.

Let’s work towards a society of manners where we respect all members and not come up with new ways to criticize and victimize each other.

FINAL THOUGHT: DO YOU CARE THAT JAKE IS RIGHT-HANDED? In the first paragraph, I mention several facts about Jake. He was born in Korea, was adopted, plays baseball, is gay, is 18 and is right-handed. I added the “right-handed” part because I find it interesting that when we describe someone, we mention specific facts that deviate from our audience’s expectation about a person. The fact that he’s right-handed is a detail that isn’t important to this story, and it probably didn’t add change anything about how you conceptualized my character, Jake. Would it have been different if I had said he was left-handed? Do we have certain notions about people who are in the minority with respect to handedness?

I am left-handed, and it’s often not anything I think about, but it being in this particular minority group does affect my life. When my husband and I sit on the same side of the table or when I sit with a group of friends in a restaurant, I have to try to get a particular seat on the outside where my arm won’t bump against the right-handed person I’m sitting beside. Now, being a baseball player, however, it does matter whether Jake is right or left-handed. Because a majority of people are right-handed, there is an advantage to being left-handed baseball player. And if Jake’s a pitcher, it would have been even more valuable for him to be left-handed. But poor Jake is right-handed so he doesn’t bring that diversity to his baseball team.

NEXT WEEK: Jake responds to Robert’s micro-aggressions, and see that Jake isn’t perfect in his interactions with others.