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Opinion: Microaggressions are not a macro problem

Society isn’t well-served by fixating on minor perceived offences

Years ago, I began hearing activists and social commentators throw around a curious term: “microaggression.” Google defines the word as “a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority.”

Scrolling down, I quickly found an article from NPR with the headline: “Microaggressions are a big deal.”

I’m a person of colour, and I disagree.

But before we go further, let’s unpack what microaggressions actually are, according to those who believe in their significance.

What are microaggressions?

Kevin Nadal, a psychology professor at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, explains in the aforementioned NPR story that microaggressions—unlike overt forms of discrimination—are frequently inadvertent or unconsciously done. His examples include the act of moving away when a Black person draws near, or assuming that an Asian person did not grow up in the United States (or North America) because of their appearance.

Nadal adds people who engage in microaggressions often become defensive when others speak against their behaviour, because they don’t consider these actions to be discriminatory. However, he argues intent does not matter.

“At the end of the day, if somebody says something racist to you, it’s racist,” Nadal said in the NPR story previously referenced. “And if it hurts your feelings, it hurts your feelings, so it doesn’t really matter what we define it as.”

As a man of Chinese descent, I’ve experienced what Nadal is talking about. Strangers and acquaintances occasionally assume that I studied engineering. A teenage boy once told me to “vote Communist’’ as I passed him on the street during the 2012 Alberta general election. Some people think that I’m destined to marry a short Asian girl, simply because I’m a short Asian guy.

And unfortunately, I’m all too familiar with the insipid stereotype that we Asian guys are hopelessly inept in bed.

Are these anecdotes evidence of unfortunate biases held by portions of the populace? Typically, yes. Would our society be better off without them? For sure. Nonetheless, I believe that people of all backgrounds need to take a thicker-skinned approach to microaggressions.

Why? Well, it’s right there in the term itself. Microaggressions are just that: micro, small, and, per se, insignificant. They may point towards ignorant or discriminatory attitudes, but in and of themselves they are nothing to get worked up about.

Mountains and molehills

Things don’t always go the way we want them to in life. We all have to face unpleasant experiences, whether it’s being cut off in traffic, hearing an insensitive remark, or being let down by someone once considered trustworthy. Any group of humans will deal with conflict, and constant outrage is not a productive or healthy way to respond.

I’m not saying bigotry is acceptable. I am saying sometimes, we need to pick our battles. A competent doctor treats the disease, not just the symptoms, and in the same way, those passionate about social justice ought to focus on the big stuff.

We’re not going to win over (or get rid of) every small-minded individual out there. What we should aim for is a point where their small-mindedness can’t translate into impactful forms of discrimination. No one should be physically attacked, harassed, or denied gainful employment because of their demographic traits.

Beyond that, however, attempts to sanitize society to the point where no one ever says anything remotely problematic is a fool’s errand.

Moreover, not every seemingly insensitive comment or action is borne of malice. Some people just don’t know any better, and in those cases, attempting to communicate respectfully is far more fruitful than being offended.

Personally, I would not sleep much if I got upset every time someone made an ignorant assumption about me, whether it’s based on ethnicity or anything else. Nor would I have any capacity for resilience when difficult things arise. Ultimately, that’s my greatest concern about people fixating on microaggressions: there’s a big difference between advocating for justice and making mountains out of molehills.

Some people might protest by saying: one person’s molehill is another person’s mountain. That’s true, to an extent—we all have different strengths, weaknesses, and life experiences. What seems innocuous to me could be offensive to another.

Yet, it is foolish to claim that something or someone is wrong just because you or I find it offensive. It is equally foolish to allow yourself to be bothered by everything you don’t approve of. I would argue the habit of obsessing over microaggressions conditions people to assume the worst about others and look for someone to blame the moment something doesn’t go to plan.

That’s not what we need. Our society is already too good at finding ways to divide people.