What is a microaggression?

I had some discussions recently with a member of a group that would be considered a ‘minority group’ in America, but not one that’s obviously oppressed—Asians.  I was given some statements made by Americans that the woman saw as either insulting or benighted, and I had to agree. This made me rethink the whole concept of “microaggressions.”

But first, are “microaggressions really “aggressions”?  Here’s the definition of the “aggression” as given by Wikipedia:

microaggression is the casual degradation of any marginalized group. The term was coined by psychiatrist and Harvard University professor Chester M. Pierce in 1970 to describe insults and dismissals he regularly witnessed non-black Americans inflict on African Americans.Eventually, the term came to encompass the casual degradation of any socially marginalized group, such as the poor or the disabled.Psychologist Derald Wing Sue defines microaggressions as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership”.

Here’s another definition from the UCLA Diversity Group:

Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership

I think two things are conflated here: bigotry and ignorance, with the ignorance being either willful (boorishness) or not (unintentional phrases that offend some). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first two meanings of the term “aggression” are these:

 1. An unprovoked attack; the first attack in a dispute or conflict; an assault, an inroad.


 2. The practice of attacking another or others; the making of an attack or assault.

Now if you look at lists of what are considered “microaggressions” (e.g. here, here, or here), you see that many of them aren’t really “aggressive” in this sense. In other words, they aren’t intended to be attacks or to be derogatory. That doesn’t mean they’re not offensive, for many of them are indeed boorish and can easily take its toll on one’s self-esteem. Although I’m not a person of color, I’ve talked to enough white women to know the many ways women get subtle messages of degradation on a constant basis.

But beyond that boorish words can reflect two things. First, a stupid question, born of ignorance, that any person living in a civilized society should realize could be taken as offensive. Second, a naive question that you could construe as based on simple ignorance, and asked simply from a curiosity about cultural differences. (This holds not for gender, but does for race and ethnicity.)

Finally, there are those “microaggressions” that can be seen as offensive only by those people looking for offense, and which are intended as conciliatory or at best neutral. I’ll list a few examples from the lists in all four classes.

1. Really aggressive microaggresions (born of bigotry, meant to insult members of minorities or clearly having that effect):

“You are a credit to your race.” (Implies that that ‘race’ itself is somehow debased.)

A cab bypassing a black person. (Implies that black people are either criminal or undesirable customers)

A store owner following a person of color around a store (implies they are thieves); same goes for calling the cops on people, like the woman student at Yale, simply because they’re black.

“I am not a racist/anti-Semite; I have several black/Jewish friends.” This old chesnut has been uttered by so many racists and anti-Semites that it bears no credibility. It could mean something useful (falling in class 2 below), but has been so often abused that it should be retired.

“Don’t you realize that you got the job because you are a woman/black person, not because you are the best qualified candidate?” (Clearly offensive and intended to denigrate an individual.)

Using the words “you people” to refer to the behavior of an individual in a minority group. (Never positive, reflects bigotry and stereotyping.)”I jewed him down on the price.” (Obviously anti-semitic, but not often said to Jews!)

“She’s just acting that way because she’s having her period.” This is simply sexism, used to dismiss women who have a valid reason to be upset.

2. Microaggressions that are easily seen as offensive and whose issuer should have known better.

“Do they have cars in China?” (I heard this from an Asian friend). Jesus, you should know the answer!

“You can’t order beef!” (Michael Ruse asked this question to my Colombian graduate student when the latter ordered beef at a conference dinner. He assumed my student was Indian, but never bothered to find out.)

“She’s such an articulate person.” (Usually said of blacks or Asians, implying that they’re speaking better than most people from that group.) People should know that being “articulate” is not a matter of race, but of education and culture (which of course are correlated with race to some extent). This implies that most members of the group are not, or don’t have the capacity to be, articulate.” It is offensive.

Talking loudly and aggressively to someone who doesn’t speak English well. (Volume isn’t going to increase their comprehension, and is a sign of ignorance and lack of respect.)

Always referring to a person of indeterminate gender as “he”. (Pinker says use “they” or alternate genders.)

3. Microaggressions that are excusable because, though asked from ignorance, not everybody would know the answers.

“Do they use forks in China?” (Well, in general they don’t, but when said to a Chinese person who lives in America, it could imply that they don’t know how to use them.)

“No, where are you really from?”  This is sometimes said to people of foreign ancestry who live in the U.S. or even are American citizens. It could be seen as insulting if you think it means that foreign ancestry means you can’t be truly American, but it could also reflect simple curiosity. For instance, when I get a cab driver of Indian or Pakistani ancestry, I often like to find out where they or their ancestors come from. Having been to India many times, this often leads to a spirited conversation that is educational for me and fun for both of us. (Of course, I love India and its people, and that comes through in such talks.) But I never ask them where they’re “really” from; they already clearly live in America! Sometimes they’ll tell me that they’re planning to go back to where their relatives live, or their country of origin, which of course conveys the lesson that not everyone wants to live in the U.S.—something that Americans need to learn.

“When I look at you, I don’t see a black person/race.”  This may in fact be true for friends of different races. In fact, the object of racial tolerance is to act as Martin Luther King urged: to judge someone by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. This statement reflects that desire. Those who consider it a “microaggression” are implicitly suggesting that we should always be conscious of someone’s race or ethnicity when talking to them. But that then assumes that there is a commonality of experience among all members of a group that comes out in their character, which simply cannot be true.

4. Microaggressions that are neither bigoted nor aggressive, but offend those who practice Recreational Outrage.

“America is a melting pot.”

“There is only one race—the human race.”  This is meant to be conciliatory and emphasize the common elements of humanity, but will outrage those who say that races are real, even though they’re also social constructs.

“I believe the most qualified person should get the job.” While people may construe this as a statement about affirmative action, with racial or gender preferences needed, it is in fact useful to debate whether affirmative action is the best thing to do to remedy bigotry and its sequelae (I still think that such provisions have to be made); and being meritocratic doesn’t necessarily mean you’re bigoted. Perhaps you want equality of opportunity rather than outcome, which I don’t see as a either aggressive or bigoted. But you’re bigoted if you don’t want to ensure equality of opportunity.

Virtually all forms of “cultural appropriation”, which most often reflect admiration or aspects of a culture rather than denigrating the entire culture. There are exceptions, of course, and I’ve mentioned these, but wearing dreadlocks or practicing yoga is nothing you need to apologize for.

Now this is just a tentative classification, and there may be other groups of “microaggressions” as well. Readers should feel free to weigh in.

Lumping all of these different phrases, or forms of behavior, under as single term that implies that they’re aggressive and bigoted blurs the real differences in attitudes and motivation behind them. And most of these aren’t “aggressive” in the sense of “meaning to offend someone”. That doesn’t mean they’re okay to use, but “aggression” is an example of verbal goal-post moving that makes something seem worse than it is, or different from how it’s meant.

In that sense, then, using the term “microaggression” is like saying “hate speech is violence”. Not all critical speech is “hate speech” and virtually no hate speech is “violence.” In fact, microaggressions are often seen as both manifestations of hate speech and of violence.  I’d suggest ditching the term “microaggression”, as it plays into the identity-politics narrative; but the term has become too entrenched. Still, it pays to tease apart the different forms of what are lumped together by colleges as a unitary form of “hate speech”.

Should we avoid using phrases in classes 3 and 4 because not all members of a minority group get offended by some of them? It depends. Some of these will be seen as offensive to members of many groups, and not just because they’re looking to be offended, but because they do experience the pain of ignorance and bias on a frequent basis. But as for phrases like “America is a melting pot”, or “I believe the most qualified person should get the job,” I see no need to apologize (I’d use the first phrase but not the second.) We cannot avoid offending everyone with what we say; if we did, then virtually everything would be considered a microaggression and a form of racism (e.g. “Israel has a right to exist” or “not all Republicans are racists”). It seems to me that living in a multicultural society will quickly educate you about the norms of offense and civility. Lists of terms that conflate entirely different things, as handed out by colleges to their students, are not helpful.

Finally, are microaggressions forms of violence? The answer is no. Are they expressions of bigotry? Sometimes, whether that bigotry is instilled by parents or acquired elsewhere. But not always. And we don’t always have to apologize for everything we say that is considered offensive. Use your common sense.



  1. Ken Phelps
    Posted May 19, 2018 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    1. – Just plain old bigotry.
    2. – Not the brightest light on the Xmas tree.
    3. – Soooo….?
    4. – F**k off.

    The inherently oxymoronic phrase microaggression is unnecessary and offends me in the same way the “victims” claim to be offended, yet curiously, they generally seem uninterested in my sage counsel re *their* use of language.

    • kperez90
      Posted May 19, 2018 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

      Speaking of microagressions: “How Identity Politics Is Harming the Sciences”


      “In July 2017, it awarded $1 million to the University of New Hampshire and two other institutions to develop a “bias-awareness intervention tool.” Another $2 million that same month went to the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Texas A&M University to “remediate microaggressions and implicit biases” in engineering classrooms.”

  2. Posted May 19, 2018 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Misperceptions of aggression can come from people’s unspoken fears and insecurities, as well as from their denial.

  3. BobTerrace
    Posted May 19, 2018 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    I don’t like the term microaggression. The verb here in most of this is “to offend“. I prefer calling it offensive speech or offensive behavior.

  4. DrBrydon
    Posted May 19, 2018 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    They are insults, whether intentional or not. What I object to about the term “microaggression” is, as you point out, the attempt to make the insult, which is often just a crime of manners, into a violent act, which it is not. At the same time, like the Left’s definition of racism, it carries the meaning that this is something that can only happen to defined categories of people, and cannot happen to certain other defined categories. I would be much more impressed if they argued that some people aren’t getting a fair shake, and that everyone should, rather than seeking to switch positions and become oppressors.

    • Posted May 19, 2018 at 10:57 am | Permalink

      You think “America is a melting pot” is an insult? Or that the job should go to the best qualified persons? You can disagree, but I wouldn’t see either of these as insults, but rather a construal of history and a social philosophy.

      • DrBrydon
        Posted May 19, 2018 at 11:02 am | Permalink

        No, I don’t.

      • Historian
        Posted May 19, 2018 at 11:52 am | Permalink

        Wikipedia describes the concept of America as a melting pot as follows:

        “The melting pot is a monocultural metaphor for a heterogeneous society becoming more homogeneous, the different elements “melting together” into a harmonious whole with a common culture or vice versa, for a homogeneous society becoming more heterogeneous through the influx of foreign elements with different cultural background with a potential creation of disharmony with the previous culture. Historically, it is often used to describe the assimilation of immigrants to the United States.[1] The melting-together metaphor was in use by the 1780s.[2][3] The exact term “melting pot” came into general usage in the United States after it was used as a metaphor describing a fusion of nationalities, cultures and ethnicities in the 1908 play of the same name.”

        The ideal of America as a society where over time immigrants and their offspring come to think of themselves as primarily Americans rather than their ethnicity goes back much earlier than the actual usage of the term “melting pot.” Of course, there were groups that dominated society and did not welcome the notion that foreigners or the suppressed should be accepted as members of the larger society. Southern slave owners regarding African-Americans and Protestants regarding Catholics are examples. But, those groups discriminated against wanted to become part of the larger society. For the past decade or so, the ideal of a melting pot has been attacked. Elements of certain groups do not want to be merged into the larger society. They prefer the metaphor of America as a stew. The growth of tribalism under Trump through his appeal to certain white voters has exacerbated the situation, and it cannot be sustained indefinitely. Turmoil and social unrest is the inevitable result of tribalism. The country will come apart with an unpredictable outcome. The answer is to restore the metaphor of the melting pot as the American ideal, which the overwhelming majority of Americans would accept. Of course, this is much easier said than done when many groups reject the concept. I do not pretend to have the answer to this question, but, certainly, a president that does not revel in divisiveness and tribalism would help.

        • Posted May 19, 2018 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

          “Elements of certain groups do not want to be merged into the larger society. They prefer the metaphor of America as a stew.”

          There are numerous “immigrants” in this country who feel (or are made to feel) as though they do not belong (are not accepted) in either their old homeland or the new one. Changes made to adapt to the new culture often make them less acceptable in their old culture. And many do not fully acculturate to the new environment. They are, in some ways, people without a country (that embraces them, is home.) To this extent, they are neither soup or stew.

          There are many of us who are not immigrants (long residence of our families in America, of many nationalities, etc.) who also do not feel at home here for various/sundry reasons.
          I don’t think we ever totally lose or replace the acculturation of our families. To that extent, we are never fully at home in the
          American culture. Neither soup or stew.

          As a “blue” state Democrat, I am “assumed” to be a Fox Republican and a good Baptist when in the “red” part of the country (middle or southern). This assumption that all people must necessarily hold the same beliefs is unintentionally or, in some cases intentionally, offensive. I try not to talk politics or religion in that environment so as not to be the giver of offense.

          However, I am not free of guilt in giving offense accidentally. I once lavishly complimented a male nurse’s assistant who I thought was Hispanic of having achieved his profession. Turned out he was Filipino. Good intent. False assumption.

          • Rita
            Posted May 19, 2018 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

            If the nurse had been Hispanic, would you have said he was “a credit to his race”?

            • Posted May 19, 2018 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

              Good question. Seems like that would have been the intent, eh?

              “Some of my best friends are Hispanic”, and I am overly conscious of how very hard some of them have had to work to make it out of poverty and poorly paid jobs. To become engineers, teachers, Social Workers, etc. From observation and personal experience, I know what it takes (although I am not Hispanic.) I have a tendency to want to commend any person who has worked to achieve a goal. I am so proud of all people who work toward, and achieve, their dreams. Sometimes I can’t keep myself from congratulating them.

              Myself included. I dropped out of college at 19 as a sophomore when pregnant (extreme morning sickness.) I returned years later when my children were almost grown and got a Master’s degree. I was accepted into a PhD program, took five or six courses before having to drop out. If it hadn’t been for the recession and the need to work, I would have continued my dream of achieving a PhD.

              I don’t know if you realize how racially biased Hispanic (Mexican) people can be. Spanish attributes are more highly desirable than Indian traits. Blond hair and blue eyes are beautiful and cherished. Black hair and brown eyes are not. I imagine that this type of distinction is not unique to this one culture.

          • Filippo
            Posted May 19, 2018 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

            As I have not looked at all the comments, someone may have already used the “salad bowl” metaphor.

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted May 19, 2018 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

        The Blue Mink Song ‘Melting Pot’ was one of my favourites when I was a kid. The lyrics would never be acceptable now. Some of the terms used are pretty horrific! (I still love the song though.):

        Take a pinch of white man
        Wrap him up in black skin
        Add a touch of blue blood
        And a little bitty bit of red Indian boy
        Curly Latin kinkies
        Mixed with yellow Chinkees, yeah
        You know you lump it all together
        And you got a recipe for a get along scene
        Oh what a beautiful dream
        If it could only come true, you know, you know

        What we need is a great big melting pot
        Big enough enough enough to take
        The world and all its got And keep it stirring for a hundred years or more
        And turn out coffee coloured people by the score

        Rabbis and the friars
        Vishnus and the gurus
        We got the Beatles or the Sun God
        Well it really doesn’t matter what religion you choose
        And be thankful little Mrs. Graceful
        You know that livin’ could be tasteful
        We should all get together in a lovin machine
        I think I’ll call up the queen
        It’ s only fair that she knows, you know, you know

        What we need is a great big melting pot
        Big enough enough enough to take
        The world and all its got And keep it stirring for a hundred years or more
        And turn out coffee coloured people by the score

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted May 19, 2018 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

      The term microaggression IMO does not imply this is a violent act, quite the opposite.

      It implies that statements like this eat up the recipient on the inside by dissolving their sense of identity.

  5. John Black
    Posted May 19, 2018 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    Like you, Jerry, I like asking the taxi/Uber/Lyft driver where he/she is from, but only if they’re speaking with an accent. If they speak unaccented English I assume they grew up here, and it wouldn’t occur to me to ask where their parents are from. No one has ever been offended if I do ask, and most people love talking about their home country, as much as I love learning about it.

    • Gareth
      Posted May 19, 2018 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

      I get asked where i’m from alot. In the UK because peeps can’t place my accent (grew up outside the UK), and in the Netherlands coz I speak Dutch with a trace of foreign accent (more often than not its the fellow immigrants who ask).
      And some TCKs don’t like being asked because they feel forced to pick one place.

      Its often weird as the question just gets thrown in there sometimes, once in a while irritating the person asking happens to be an arse, but aggressive, hell no.

      Once when an Irish bloke asked, it was great =”So, whats the story with you then?” upon guessing that from my accent I’d moved around a bit.
      It just made me smile, but then I guess Irish people get that diaspora vibe.

    • Jessy Smith
      Posted May 19, 2018 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

      I ask almost everyone where they are from. They can easily answer “right here” or some other state or country. As you wrote, most people enjoy talking about where they are from and I enjoy hearing about how life was for them. I’ve talked to lots of people about places that I’ll probably never be able to visit myself, and learned more about people I meet.

    • Posted May 22, 2018 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      No such thing as unaccented (any language). What is usually meant is that the speaker being analyzed shares the accent of the speaker doing the analysis.

  6. Posted May 19, 2018 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    The only difference between a ‘microagression’ and ‘being a dick’ is that the former is defined in political terms of oppressor/oppressed so only operates one way while the latter doesn’t let one party off the hook just because of their identity.

  7. Posted May 19, 2018 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    I’m curious about the “You can’t order beef!” incident. You said it was a question but it sounds like a declaration as written. I would be interested to know what the speaker really meant by this. If he assumed that the person in question was Hindi, it would also be reasonable to assume that they already know about the beef stricture and have made a personal decision about whether they respect it. Perhaps they wanted to warn the person about to order a dish that contained beef but didn’t say so on the menu. I could see it being said as a joke, but such a joke should only be told to a close friend. Of course, if the person was a close friend, they would know that they were Colombian. I just can’t come up with a scenario in which this was a reasonable thing to say.

    • Posted May 19, 2018 at 10:59 am | Permalink

      It was a declaration as far as I remember. And Ruse said this because he thought my student was violating his (the student’s religious norms). It wasn’t a joke as far as I know, nor did my student take it this way.

      If you know Ruse, and his history of boorish behavior, then yes, you can see this as coming from his mouth, but also as totally unreasonable.

      • Posted May 19, 2018 at 11:06 am | Permalink

        I wonder if we can ever get to a point where someone can mistake the heritage of another without offense. After all, there should be nothing wrong really for mistaking a Colombian for an Indian, especially in a world where there are people of Indian heritage from Colombia. Even when the person does not take offense at the mistake, we say “Sorry”. It is really hard to distance ourselves from all this tribal bullshit.

        • Posted May 19, 2018 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

          The boorishness was assuming that my student was an Indian just because his skin is brown (he doesn’t look anything like an Indian from Asia) and then TELLING him that he couldn’t order beef. And of course the offender didn’t apologize. Three missteps right there.

          • Posted May 19, 2018 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

            How did the student take it? Were they offended or just amused?

        • Posted May 19, 2018 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

          Anyway, it was no business of Mr. Ruse whether some Indian would decide to sin. The only exception would be if the dish had a name that didn’t make it clear it was beef. Then, he could casually explain, “This is roasted beef with pepper and plums” and leave it at that.

    • Posted May 19, 2018 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

      I find it amazing when a person lucky to be born outside certain cultural taboos tries to lock others into their cultural taboos. An ethnic Turkish woman from my country, brought as a child to Sweden, remembered how a teacher in the school cafeteria told her, “You cannot eat pork, you are a Muslim”, then poked a fork into her dish and brought out the pork steak. When the girl grew up, she emigrated to the USA because she “didn’t feel Sweden as her country”. Jerks like this teachers had made her feel not at home in the country.

      • Posted May 19, 2018 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

        Of course a teacher might feel a responsibility to make sure a Muslim child doesn’t accidentally consume pork. I can imagine how irate some parents might get if they found out.

        • Posted May 19, 2018 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

          The teacher should have just quietly asked the girl, “You know this is pork, don’t you?”

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted May 19, 2018 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

          Just to be a pain: Is the such a thing as a Muslim child, or is it a child who is being brought up to be Muslim?

          I object to the whole thing of Muslim child, Christian child etc. though I know I’m wasting my time.

          • Laurance
            Posted May 19, 2018 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

            Hello, Heather, and nice to be talking with you.

            I’m on both sides of this fence. On the one hand, yes, I agree with you. A child is NOT born Muslim or Christian. A kid has to be taught.

            OTOH, I’m horrified at how FAST a kid can learn and be, well, totally brainwashed to believe certain things. A child can take on a Christian or Muslim or Whatever mindset in a hurry.

            I come from a family of atheists, freethinkers and non-believers. My little friend came from a Catholic family. We were five years old.

            I was unfamiliar with God. I’d heard the word a couple of times, but I didn’t know who or what God was. This little Catholic friend asked me something about believing in God, and I could only say I didn’t know and didn’t believe.

            Well! His little face instantly contorted with outrage! He looked at me with complete horror and declared that he was going to go and get his daddy’s gun and shoot me because I didn’t believe in God!!!

            Jeepers criminy! Five years old! We were just little kids, and already this little boy knew that his duty was to kill unbelievers! Holy crow! I mean, wow…! This little boy was furious and horrified at the very idea that I might not be acquainted with God.

            (I asked my daddy who or what God is, and my daddy fumbled around trying to tell me but didn’t do much of a job of explaining…)

            So I agree with you that children are not born with a specific religion, but in my experience they can sure learn FAST and come on as hard and unquestioningly certain as an adult believer. For that reason I’m not bothered by the terms, “Christian child” or “Muslim child”. A five year old Christian child threatened to kill me, even though he was in no position to carry the threat out and didn’t really quite comprehend what it would be to actually kill me. He wasn’t born with those beliefs, but he sure had them by age five.

            • Heather Hastie
              Posted May 20, 2018 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

              That’s horrific! And there are plenty of families in the US where a kid that age does have access to a gun, or even has their own gun. And, as you say, most kids that age don’t understand the consequences of killing someone. So in a different environment, the product of your friend being taught hate at such an early age could have been your death.

              Adults still have the irrational hatred that comes with whatever prejudices they harbour, but at least they can usually stop themselves from murder, if only because of what would happen to them.

              When they can get away with murder, many will, such as when lynchings went unpunished in the US South.

              That was a bit of a tangent – sorry! I do that.

              • Posted May 20, 2018 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

                Not a tangent at all! Guns are a religion in the red parts of the US and the kids there start their indoctrination early. There are several news articles that note that there have been no demonstrations in favor of gun control in Santa Fe, TX. It’s not even on the table. Besides the usual “hopes and prayers”, the discussion has been mostly about reducing the number of ways someone can enter a school. I find this all so disgusting.

              • Heather Hastie
                Posted May 20, 2018 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

                I was disgusted to see that within a few minutes of the shooting at Santa Fe High School, there was a guy protesting in support of the 2nd Amendment marching up and down out front. He was a walking stereotype: white, bearded, red Trump MAGA baseball cap, US flag on a pole over his shoulder (I suppose I should be pleased it wasn’t a Confederate one) and, worst of all, open-carrying a Magnum (I think) in a holster! Where do these people come from?!

                One of the mainstream news crews interviewed him, but I can’t remember which one or what he said exactly except that it was fairly predictable.

              • Laurance
                Posted May 20, 2018 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

                What was weird about this kerfuffle with my little playmate is that these were pleasant middle-class people who were good neighbors. This religious murderous reaction was just so out of character and something that would not be expected from the child of people like this.

                They were/are Catholic. Now I’m wondering what little Freddie was learning in Catholic Sunday School. Martyrs? Crusaders? Burn protestants at the stake for their blasphemy? Surely not the Inquisition at the tender age of five! Where did he get the idea that it would be appropriate to get his daddy’s gun and shoot the little girl who had been his playmate since we were first introduced at age two or three? His parents were good people and I cannot imagine them telling him that I deserved to die by gunfire.

                Did Freddie go inside and tell his mommy that Laura doesn’t believe in God? Did his mommy have to explain that we don’t kill our friends and neighbors? I have no idea! If I remember correctly it didn’t occur to tell my daddy that Freddie thought he ought to shoot me. I was just kind of bamboozled by what this God might be. I’d heard the word and I also knew that many children do something called “saying prayers” at bedtime. I asked my mommy what that was, and she told me.

                Uh…God and prayer just were a non-issue for us. And time passed and life went on and Fred and I grew up and went our separate ways, and I have never followed up or had the chance to ask Fred as an adult what that was all about.

                Last I heard Fred’s son said that Fred was in ill health…we’re old now…

          • Posted May 20, 2018 at 11:58 am | Permalink

            While I think I understand the objection, phrases like “Muslim child”, etc. are just shorthand for “child who is being brought up to be Muslim”. There is no intent on my part to imply that the child is stamped as Muslim at birth and is stuck with it for life. My guess is that is the case for others who use these shortcuts. I am no fan of religion.

            • Heather Hastie
              Posted May 20, 2018 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

              I remember enough of what you write to know you’re not like that. It wasn’t meant as a criticism of you. I was the one being painfully pedantic!

              • Posted May 20, 2018 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

                Don’t worry, I didn’t take it that way. I like to be pedantic too sometimes though without the pain. Cheers!

      • Posted May 19, 2018 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

        The Chinese version of dealing with Muslim behavior and modifying it:


        There are other news sources for this also. China has also done this kind of thing with Tibetans for years.

  8. Posted May 19, 2018 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Cab drivers bypassing black people does not necessarily imply that they are racists. In the mid-1970’s, I drove a cab for a few months in Manhattan. I am white and I made no distinctions for customers according to race.

    But I did observe that many drivers did not like to pick up black people because (1) they were likely to take the drivers into dangerous neighborhoods and (2)on average, they did not tip well. Those were the real reasons, not a hatred of blacks.

    I had experiences that could have led me in either direction in my opinion of black customers. One stormy night, pouring down rain with few available cabs, I found myself trapped in Harlem, shuffling mostly black people around the neighborhood. They were so appreciative, they tipped well and I had no problems. On the other hand, I once took a young black woman, who said she had been raped, to the hospital. She had no money for the fare and I let it go. But a crowd of black people surrounded my cab as she got out, threatening me for demanding money from her, which I had not done. Apparently, they just assumed that because I was white — or something, who knows?

    Mostly, I would say that, at that time and place at least, if black people got poor service it was more because of their reputation for poor tipping more than anything else.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted May 19, 2018 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

      You realize that an invidious stereotype is an invidious stereotype, whether or not there might be some grain of truth to the characterization, don’t you? I mean, some of my Irish relatives drinks a bit, and some of my Jewish friends shop wholesale, but I’d take vigorous exception if anybody tried to stereotype either the way your hack buddies did with black folk heading uptown.

      • Posted May 19, 2018 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

        “There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps… then turn around and see somebody white and feel relieved.”

        -Jessie Jackson

        Do you take exception to his comment? Sometimes people have these stereotypes because of what’s happened to them. A cabbie’s life is dangerous. That doesn’t justify it, but once bitten twice shy.

        I lived for a summer and fall in New Haven CT and in those six months I was robbed on the street four times, each by young black males. It took me years – years- to not clinch up a little when I found myself alone(ish) on a street and I saw young black males walking towards me.

        I have since (thankfully) left that irrational fear behind me and I certainly don’t think black men are thugs now, but I have sympathy for those who hate themselves for being afraid of someone because of a stereotype that may have been engendered by experience.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted May 19, 2018 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

          I think the best discussion of this I’ve ever heard came in what I consider Barack Obama’s greatest speech — the speech he gave on race, in Philadelphia during the 2008 campaign.

          • Posted May 19, 2018 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

            Oh my goodness, I remember that. Compare and contrast Obama’s grace, language and clarity of thought with the Cheeto Toddler. We have lost so much more than just decency in that office.

          • John Black
            Posted May 19, 2018 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

            Ken: I still cite to this speech as the greatest oration I have witnessed in my lifetime (though some of Hitch’s work comes close).

        • Posted May 19, 2018 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

          Fact is we are all Bayesians now. I am a little more cautious about a young black male than about an old jewish lady for good Bayesian reasons. At one time I might have thought the call to prayers from a minaret was a charming cultural tradition. Now I would wonder what they are up to. I hate it, but that’s the way it is. Sue me.

        • Diane Garlick
          Posted May 20, 2018 at 4:58 am | Permalink

          “I have since (thankfully) left that irrational fear behind me…”

          Given your experiences, I wouldn’t exactly call it irrational.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted May 20, 2018 at 1:50 am | Permalink

        Re your link –

        of course we all use stereotypes. Life would be a lot more difficult without it. Our brains classify all objects into categories without our even thinking about it. And those categories include the experienced behaviour or properties of those things.

        If we were building a rockery and had to remember individually the weight of every rock we picked up, we’d soon run out of memory. Instead, we class rocks as heavy and extend that prediction to future rocks. It’s much more economical to do that (and, if necessary, make exceptions for pumice or styrofoam imitations). Similarly, we categorise stove tops as ‘probably hot’.

        Similarly with people. When does ‘learning from experience’ mean ‘acquiring prejudices’? Ideally we should treat individuals without any prejudice and that is certainly the case in a normal social situation. However it’s hard to argue that, in a potentially dangerous situation and dealing with strangers, we should not consider our best projection of risk.

        Stereotyping your Jewish friends as ‘probably a bit mean when shopping’ – or rather, not doing so – carries no physical risk. Similarly with your Irish rellies drinking habits, or fraternising with black people at work. BUT picking up black people in Manhattan at night may** carry a significantly increased risk, and if so I can’t really fault cabbies for not doing so. It’s quite likely black cab drivers might share the exact same view.

        ** I assume there are statistics to assess this.


        • Posted May 20, 2018 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

          I agree. Stereotypes are useful and pretty much unavoidable. We just have to remember to not apply them to every individual.

    • Posted May 22, 2018 at 11:47 am | Permalink

      This corresponds to what many have said (e.g., Brian Leiter) that what is being labeled racism is actually classism.

  9. rom
    Posted May 19, 2018 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    You are a credit to your race.
    versus say
    You are a credit to your fellow Americans?
    or simply
    You are a credit to your university.
    Implies somehow that your fellow American are somehow debased? Or your university is somehow debased?


    • Posted May 19, 2018 at 11:08 am | Permalink

      “You are a credit to … Well, I don’t really know.”

      • Diane Garlick
        Posted May 20, 2018 at 5:21 am | Permalink

        How about, “humanity?”

  10. Posted May 19, 2018 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    So if someone expresses themselves clearly and fluently, I “should know better” than to describe them as articulate lest it imply that other members of a group the speaker may belong to are not? How does that work?

    • Posted May 19, 2018 at 11:11 am | Permalink

      This hits on a general problem with complimenting someone else’s skill. The reaction can sometimes be, “Hmm. Why are they surprised that I’m good at this?” Perhaps that’s your point.

      • Posted May 19, 2018 at 11:19 am | Permalink

        It surprises me when anyone is articulate. Most of us are not.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted May 20, 2018 at 12:24 am | Permalink

        It’s a no-win situation. *Any* compliment for any ability can be taken as a back-handed slur on [others of any group], or maybe just patronising. Frankly, that sucks.

        You should be able to compliment somebody on doing something well without being second-guessed or subjected to a mean-spirited accusation of prejudice.


  11. Posted May 19, 2018 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    Why is the first category of really aggressive microaggressions restricted to those phrases only directed only to minorities?

    ISTM this one is very often “born of bigotry, meant to insult”; “check your privilege”.

    • Posted May 19, 2018 at 11:07 am | Permalink

      *sigh* man i wish wordpress allowed editing. better yet, i should drink my morning coffee before opening my big mouth.

    • Posted May 19, 2018 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      “Check your privilege” surely qualifies as a microaggression.

      My impression is that hatred and bigotry to whites is tolerated (and even encouraged) and therefore is expressed in public space with sharper words. An example is James Baldwin: “As long as you think that you are white, there is no hope for you.”

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted May 19, 2018 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

        I agree. The term “check your privilege” really pi$$e$ me off. If it was said to me I’d be really angry at the assumption that I wasn’t aware of issues and didn’t make an effort to be as sensitive as I knew how to be.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted May 20, 2018 at 12:25 am | Permalink



  12. Ken Kukec
    Posted May 19, 2018 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    I think that’s right. I also think that bigoted microaggressions are often done subtly, in a passive-aggressive manner, so as to maintain plausible deniability in the event the person gets called out for them.

    Some, OTOH, are completely innocent. I’m reminded of picking a jury with counsel for a codefendant who, while questioning the jury pool, called all the potential jurors by the honorific “Mr.” or “Ms.” except for a couple college-age kids and the lone older black man in the pool, whom he called by their first names.

    Not sure who else in the courtroom noticed, but it stood out like an aching pollex* to me. I brought it to his attention during a recess, and he said he wasn’t aware of having done so. I believe him, since he never gave any indication of having a biased bone in his body (and certainly wouldn’t have wanted to insult a potential juror), and he never did it again.

    *How’s that for elegant variation? 🙂

    • Posted May 19, 2018 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

      It always bothers me that the candidate for president in the last election is almost universally referred to “Hillary”.

      • Posted May 19, 2018 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

        Why? She took pains to make sure that was the name used, not Clinton. Her campaign logo was an “H”.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted May 19, 2018 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

          Part of it was to put a little distance between her and Bubba.

          Same way you didn’t see “Bush” on a Jeb! placard during his brief, misbegotten campaign.

          • Posted May 19, 2018 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

            Both mikeyc and Ken Kukec make fair points; however, I still think it is belittling to refer to her by her first name.

            • Ken Kukec
              Posted May 19, 2018 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

              I would agree with you, Peter, except I think HRC encouraged it — part of her effort to project a warmer, more approachable public image. People thought she was a bit cold, mainly because, to her credit, she lacked her husband’s ability to emote lip-biting, synthetic sincerity.

              • Posted May 19, 2018 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

                Clinton was not the only one. Jeb Bush, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio encouraged the use of their first names, not to mention the ever-present “Bernie” signs. One is hard-pressed to claim Clinton was disrespected.

              • Posted May 19, 2018 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

                Before someone starts, yes, jeb are his initials, but they are used as if they were his first name.

      • Posted May 19, 2018 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

        Actually, she is often referred to as “Clinton”. I notice this because sometimes I unconsciously think they are referring to Bill Clinton until I realize that they meant Hillary. I’m not really disagreeing with you here as she is often just called “Hillary” while we virtually Trump is hardly ever called just “Donald”. On the other hand, there are a lot more Hillarys in politics than Donalds so perhaps it’s that.

    • Diane Garlick
      Posted May 20, 2018 at 5:20 am | Permalink

      Re * –I had to look it up. What’s really impressive to me is that I’m sure you didn’t…

  13. Rob Aron
    Posted May 19, 2018 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    “You’re such an articulate person”.

    I have a hard time agreeing that this is even a micro- aggression. OTOH, “You’re such an articulate woman”.

    • Posted May 19, 2018 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      It’s not in itself offensive, but too often I hear it applied to black people when it wouldn’t be applied to white people. I think you know what I mean.

      • Rob Aron
        Posted May 19, 2018 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

        Thank you, and of course. But then the micro-aggression of implied racism rears its ugly head. Was the micro/ aggression aimed at the man’s race, or his education level regardless of race. But I see the point; education, sex, race, religion……SOMEWHERE and AGAINST SOMEONE an aggression has been committed. Just so.

  14. caracal
    Posted May 19, 2018 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    What a fantastic and enlightening blog-post. Or is it an essay? Seems long enough to qualify as such. As well, a thoughtful and informative discussion in the comments. But no cats?!?? Where are the cats?

    • phar84
      Posted May 19, 2018 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

      There were the 4 categories..

  15. Posted May 19, 2018 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    Scott Lilienfeld gives a nice critique of microaggressions in the following paper: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1745691616659391

  16. Posted May 19, 2018 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    I refer to a person of indeterminate gender as “he”, imitating my language and the English I learned in my youth. (I am female.) I think that the efforts to avoid “he” sometimes go so far that damage the language.

    • ladyatheist
      Posted May 19, 2018 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

      I’m female and I think that’s a tradition that needs to die. We have the ability to grow even as we age.

      • Posted May 20, 2018 at 11:07 am | Permalink

        You are entitled to your opinion, and I to mine. Opinions of adults are difficult to change. To have even a tiny chance for this, one has to demonstrate some respect to his opponent’s personality and current opinion.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted May 20, 2018 at 12:39 am | Permalink

      I wholeheartedly agree with you there, Maya.

      In fact most trans people seem to make some effort to look like their preferred gender, so the he/she dilemma doesn’t arise.


  17. Dale Pickard
    Posted May 19, 2018 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    “I am not a racist/anti-Semite; I have several black/Jewish friends.”

    This is the phrase Sam Harris uses just after he sticks his foot in his mouth with questionable comments and just before he props up Ayann Hirsi Ali as his black ex-Muslim friend. He uses his relationship with Maajid Nawaz in a similar way.

    I think this is used as a rationalization of conflicting or otherwise contradictory predispositions on the part of anyone who would find a need use such a phrase. Having to explain why one is not racist is not a position in which one would want to find oneself.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted May 19, 2018 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      Do you have an example you can provide a link to?

      • Posted May 19, 2018 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, I’d like to see one too. My guess is none will be forthcoming.

        • Dale Pickard
          Posted May 19, 2018 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

          Here you go. The quote I was thinking of was in a podcast discussion with Glenn Loury a professor of economics at Brown.

          This from a Huffpo article on the podcast.

          Granted, there were spots where Loury provided some razor-sharp commentary on racism. A prime example would be when Harris (18:31) said,

          “Who is the evil genius who first convinced the world that being able to honestly say that ‘Some of my best friends are Black’ is not an adequate defense against the charge of racism toward Black people?”

          Yes, he really went there. Loury astutely broke down (19:22-23:12) why this attitude is mistaken by replying,

          “…What does Shakespeare say somewhere? ‘Methinks he doth protest too much’? You know? The guy who says, ‘Some of my best friends are…’ protesteth too much. That guy is seeking an exemption from the moral judgement of others for having what he knows the others know to be unacceptable positions and he’s declaring some kind of fig leaf here.”

          • Posted May 19, 2018 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

            Thank you. Most Harris criticisms are empty of anything other than knee jerk hate (he brings that out in people) but that was a stupid thing to say.

          • Posted May 19, 2018 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

            While “I have black friends” is not enough to convince others of one’s non-racism, it is still of some value in defending oneself against a racism charge. Sometimes that is all one has. If you are white, it is really difficult to prove that one isn’t racist these days.

            • Dale Pickard
              Posted May 19, 2018 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

              White male persecution complex??

              I don’t seem to find myself in the position of having to prove I’m not racist.

              Harris is known for his racist comments and then using arguments just like this as a defense. He’s very well known for using Hirsi Ali and Nawas as props.
              Loury very precisely identified Harris when he said
              “That guy is seeking an exemption from the moral judgement of others for having what he knows the others know to be unacceptable positions and he’s declaring some kind of fig leaf here.”

              • kperez90
                Posted May 19, 2018 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

                “He’s very well known for using Hirsi Ali and Nawas as props.”

                Yeah, because not conforming to the concepts of Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, and dogma and the like makes one a “prop”. I wonder the two have complained about being treated as such by Harris and if this not merely your opinion.

              • Diane Garlick
                Posted May 20, 2018 at 5:18 am | Permalink

                I think that’s imputing a lot of one’s own psychological baggage to Harris. And you’re essentially saying that Hirsi Ali and Nawaz are not black enough or Muslim enough to pass muster with the culture-of-offense crowd.

              • Vaal
                Posted May 20, 2018 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

                “Harris is known for his racist comments”

                Examples, please?

                Because, I am quite familiar with Harris and I simply don’t believe you.

                (Most people who make the charge you just made, can’t back it up. Or do so by pointing to quotes that they will read racism into).

      • Dale Pickard
        Posted May 19, 2018 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

        I’ll try to find one when I get a chance. One of the the instances I can think of was in one of his podcasts. I recall Harris making the comment that whoever authored the idea the claiming black friends was not a legitimate defense against racism was an “evil genuis” – as in”what evil genius thought that….
        Anyway, what I wrote was closely factual for anyone who has followed Harris’s work as I have.

    • Posted May 19, 2018 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

      Sam finds himself in the position of having to explain why he’s not racist because other people make unjustified accusations of racism.

      Turning the act of defending oneself into evidence of guilt means no one could ever possibly be innocent!

      • Dale Pickard
        Posted May 19, 2018 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

        I think you are rationalizing the evidence and scapegoating those who point out that Harris blindly says stupid things. Then he tries to cover for it by saying something that only confirms his blindness.

        • kperez90
          Posted May 19, 2018 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

          Your condescending comment to a poster above accusing him of having a White male persecution complex counts as a pretty stupid comment itself.

          • Dale Pickard
            Posted May 19, 2018 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

            I didn’t accuse anyone of anything, the comment was that it was “hard [for white men] to prove they are not racist these days”

            I’m a white male with no problems having to prove I’m not a racist. Perhaps unlike Harris, I do try not to say things that would lead people to think so though.

        • Posted May 19, 2018 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

          What racist comments has Sam made?

          • nicky
            Posted May 20, 2018 at 1:47 am | Permalink

            Good question.

        • Diane Garlick
          Posted May 20, 2018 at 5:25 am | Permalink

          If only I could say things that were as stupid as Harris does.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted May 20, 2018 at 12:49 am | Permalink

        I absolutely agree.

        Racism (or anti-semitism, or anti-anything) are very easy accusations to make and almost impossible to defend. In fact often the accusations are that you’re showing unconscious racism and how the hell do you defend against that? (Frequently the accuser has his own carefully-worded but shifting definition of ‘racism’ which makes it almost impossible to escape from the trap).

        In fact one of the few evidences that you’re not prejudiced against xxx would be precisely the fact that you mix with people of group xxx or, better, are friends with them.

        This (where true) is probably the strongest possible evidence for the defence. The fact that it’s been over-used doesn’t invalidate it, any more than the popularity of ‘I was somewhere else at the time’ invalidates all alibis.


      • Diane Garlick
        Posted May 20, 2018 at 5:27 am | Permalink

        “Turning the act of defending oneself into evidence of guilt means no one could ever possibly be innocent!”

        Exactly! Very like the classic Catch-22, gotcha question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?”

  18. Posted May 19, 2018 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    If one wishes to compliment the point made by another by style, conciseness, humor, what have you, say, “I understand.”

    Just be prepared to take it on the chin if it isn’t said just right.

  19. Posted May 19, 2018 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Obligatory Jesus and Mo comic:


    • Diane Garlick
      Posted May 20, 2018 at 5:29 am | Permalink

      Good one. Microapologies for microagressions. 😀

  20. Jon Gallant
    Posted May 19, 2018 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    The discussion has overlooked the fact that the very term “microaggression” originated in and is most frequently heard in the groves of academe. This defines it, rather obviously, as a form of aggression so special and exotic that it can only be detected by academic specialists. Fortunately, more and more of these experts can be found in Offices of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, with their highly trained Deans, Vice-Deans, Assistants to the Vice-Deans, and other specialists.

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted May 19, 2018 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

      I sincerely doubt this. The term, however unfortunate, surely did come from academe, but it describes something that exists, and certainly those who’ve experienced such, shall I say, pernicious denigration, whatever their minority status (and it is pernicious in the full meaning of the word), don’t need to be in academe to know what the term means, whether they’ve given their own name to it or not. I think it’s a bad argument to claim that some thing or phenomenon or event that’s been given a name by someone in academia is so rarefied that only scholars can detect whatever it is. That’s ridiculous, and I don’t mind using that word. In fact, it verges on being a microaggression itself.

      • Posted May 19, 2018 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

        Yes, accusing someone of a microaggression is a microaggression itself.

        • Jenny Haniver
          Posted May 19, 2018 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

          Whatever the name, and whether consciously or unconsciously committed, at the least they’re annoying,but I aver that such acts can be and often are pernicious. I’m not a white male, but if I made disparaging or boorish comments about white males when I interacted with them, I think most would find it hurtful and grow defensive — after all, whatever our differences, we’re all humans (well, most of us), and the human psyche isn’t impervious to such aggressions — though perhaps I would call them micro-transgressions rather than microaggressons.

          • Jenny Haniver
            Posted May 19, 2018 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

            But when one hears such things repeatedly, what may be what I want to call a micro-transgression does come to be internalized as distinctly aggressive.

            • ladyatheist
              Posted May 19, 2018 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

              Yes, the point is to put you in your place and keep you there, even if done subconsciously.

  21. Posted May 19, 2018 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    You have to love the hypocrisy of those who insist there is no biological basis for the concept of race, but who deem “melting pot” or “I don’t see race” microaggresions. Their entire oppression calculus depends on racial segregation.

    • Diane Garlick
      Posted May 20, 2018 at 5:32 am | Permalink

      “Their entire oppression calculus depends on racial segregation.”


  22. mirandaga
    Posted May 19, 2018 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    I would take issue with two of the examples that you place in the category of “Really aggressive microaggresions (born of bigotry, meant to insult members of minorities or clearly having that effect):”

    “Don’t you realize that you got the job because you are a woman/black person, not because you are the best qualified candidate?”

    “She’s just acting that way because she’s having her period.”

    Unlike “I jewed him down on the price” or “you people,” the above statements are making a guess about why something occurred. The first question to be asked is not whether the observations are racist or sexist, but whether they are true or false. The guesses may well be correct or they may be incorrect, but we cannot assume on the basis of the statements alone that persons making such observation are bigoted. They may simply be astute.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted May 19, 2018 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

      “Making a guess” is a microaggression, I think, unless one has a good-faith basis for venturing an opinion. Even then, I have a hard time seeing how the topic of a woman’s menstruation, or what role race played in a coworker’s hiring, comes up in an ordinary conversation between colleagues, unless one of the parties to the conversation has steered it in that direction. Then, I might question that person’s motives for doing so.

      • mirandaga
        Posted May 20, 2018 at 1:29 am | Permalink

        If someone has in fact obtained a position because of minority status rather than superior qualifications—which is too often the result if not the intention of “affirmative action”—this alone would be sufficient motive for such an appointment being discussed. You question the motive for bringing it up; I worry more about the motive for not bringing it up—namely, the fear of being unjustly considered racist. This is why I would stress the importance of always asking whether a statement is true before leaping to the conclusion that it’s racist or sexist.

    • Diane Garlick
      Posted May 20, 2018 at 5:35 am | Permalink

      Well, except for the fact that no one ever says, “you realize you’re getting away with that because you’re a white male, right?” No one who wants to keep their job, that is.

  23. Jose
    Posted May 19, 2018 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, I’m getting a sense of what your nest book could be about… Am I wrong?

    • Posted May 19, 2018 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

      Yep, wrong. I plan no next book except for my children’s book (still a work in progress).

  24. Posted May 19, 2018 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    Excellent dissection, Comrade Coyne 😉

    Many woke concepts have this problem that they have a perfectly reasonable version, and one related, but completely bonkers twin. It’s a kind of “weaponized polysemy”. I recognize this as similar to something Sokal & Bricmont (1998) complained about, which Nicholas Shackel popularized as the “Motte & Bailey Doctrine” (2005) in postmodern texts.

    There are certain loons who push the ridiculous version, and apparently are tolerated by their moderate peers. When this ridiculous version is criticised, especially the moderates will defend the related but much more “common sense” polysemous meaning.

    • Diane Garlick
      Posted May 20, 2018 at 5:37 am | Permalink

      Also reminiscent of Dennett’s “deepity.”

  25. SB
    Posted May 19, 2018 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    I like your discussion of micro aggressions. However, you are leaving out a broad class of people who experience boorish and ignorant behaviour and comments: the disabled. I am a stutterer myself. I have difficulty with “forward-moving” speech: blocks, repetitions, prolongations. I also show pronounced eye-blinking, head jerking. Often this is accompanied by struggling, pain in head, shoulders and chest. I must almost always battle just to be heard: heads go down, people are frightened and mock me openly, I am talked over, people raise they’re volume and speak slowly as if I am deaf and dumb, try and finish my sentences presuming to mind-read what I was going to say; or they simply walk away. I have had people threaten to call the Police on me for (I dunno) scaring them with stuttering. Police I have spoken too, or many others, assume I am being dishonest. People who don’t understand me, seldom ask me to clarify. I am given unsolicited speech therapy advice: take a deep breath, speak slowly.. They assume I am being dishonest, faking the stuttering for attention; or, alternatively, I am blamed for the stuttering. I see fellow listeners seldom stand up for me and say, “let the man speak”.
    I will entertain questions about stuttering and try and explain its possible causes and disabuse people of their ideas: it’s not nervousnes, for example.. But people seldom ask, because they don’t care to know, but when they are uncomfortable I will tell them anyway.
    I realize there is ignorance concerning disabilities and stuttering, that people often don’t mean harm when they engage in these microagressions, so I work hard to try and explain. But there is a clear line I draw between those with good intentions who want to learn about stuttering and those who want to talk down to me. I tell them it is involuntary, it is unpredictable and thought to be neurological and heritable. I am often not believed, and some disbelieve the social penalty I pay for stuttering..
    A final comment: I find it amazing how people of colour, women, or whomever can simply invoke being “uncomfortable” with me to dismiss me without a peep of protest from anyone. How amazing it is to watch people who consider themselves enlightened to not be able to draw an analogy between racism/sexism and dismissal or hostility towards a stutterer or anyone with a handicap. I saw this clearlyfrom the women In a few women studies courses I took (not from the professors though)

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted May 19, 2018 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

      I have seen this a lot. One of my siblings is a bad stutterer, and the way some people treat her is appalling.

      One time another sibling brought a whole lot of friends home from university for a long weekend and we played Trivial Pursuit one very wet afternoon. Several were very shocked at the number of questions my stuttering sibling was answering. They made the common assumption that stuttering = stupid.

  26. Cicely berglund
    Posted May 19, 2018 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    Idunno, this all seems,to me, a bit beside the point.
    I being as about as white as could possibly be had a black boy friend in what could be described as about the most progressive town in the USA watchedhim being slyly insulted simply walking down the street. Mostly young males did not give him automatic courtesywhen walking past.Glancing and then lowered eyes, walking ‘inadvertent’ bumping elbows. Cursing if he happened to bump, basically refusing common courtesy. He was pretty cool -saying-‘go on get mad’. But it had to weigh on him. Expecting this every time he ventured onto abusy sidewalk.I was very impressed with his savvy and insight.I experienced the same thing when I was tutoring black teenagers in a junior high school in yet another progressive city in USA. Just withdrawal of common courtesy or respect. This poor kid had little enough sense of self worth and the teacher reduced it with every encounter.Encountering insults flung at interracial couples simply walking down a city street.
    So however clumsily mini-aggressions are described they certainly happen and result in more aggression or else the supreme purity and strength of heart that I have seen in some black people in response to outright hatred and violence.

  27. serpentvie
    Posted May 19, 2018 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    I was once introduced as a “good white person” by a friend making it clear how he and his other friend viewed white people.

    • ladyatheist
      Posted May 19, 2018 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

      You experienced that just one time. The point of microaggressions is that they happen over and over, affecting a person’s sense of self and place in the world. They are slights that would mean nothing if they were experienced once or twice in a lifetime, but are additive in impact when experienced daily.

      • serpentvie
        Posted May 20, 2018 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

        In this case it shows how a microagression reenforces the sentiment of a negative image of white people held by the person using it.

      • serpentvie
        Posted May 20, 2018 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

        And for the record, growing up in a multi-cultural neigbhourhood, it was just one of many negative experiences where I was targeted for being white.

  28. Gabrielle
    Posted May 19, 2018 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    A few thoughts –
    I believe it matters in what context a possibly problematic statement is made. Especially if the statement is made in a workplace or academic institution.
    When I was 24 (35 years ago) and working in an industrial lab at a large company, I was having a conflict with a coworker. After several weeks of this, my boss finally called me to his office to discuss the situation. When I asked him why he’d waited so long to do this, he said “I was afraid you would cry if I criticized you.” I asked him why he thought that, and he related that he’d had two men in our group crying in his office over the past year. After I assured him that I wouldn’t cry at work, he remarked that I had a backbone of steel, that when I said something I meant it, and when I said I would meet a deadline I did my best to achieve that. “I know I can count on you” he said.
    So here’s where a truism from our broader society – women cry when you criticize them – bleeds into a work situation, to the detriment of both the employee and her boss. I was the only woman in the group, and the boss just assumed that I’d be a crier, even when his own observations of me at work were positive. And conversely, even with two men in the group crying in his office, I doubt he developed the notion that men are prone to crying at work, since that goes against another truism in our culture – men don’t cry – particularly adult men and even more particularly educated adult men holding professional jobs.
    If I had heard the ‘women crying’ remark from a neighbor or casual acquaintance or person standing next to me at the supermarket, that wouldn’t bother me much. It’s when these kinds of remarks are from a boss or coworker or professor or doctor or police officer, and so on, that it can really have an impact on one’s life.
    On a professor being clueless about a student’s background: When I started graduate school, a professor introduced me to a woman in his group, telling me that she was from India. To me, she didn’t look particularly Indian. A few days later, I heard her speaking Spanish and rather fluently. In turns out she was from Venezuela. How can a professor be so clueless about his own student? He certainly wasn’t trying to be malicious, but how much effort does it take to distinguish between the different places that people with somewhat dark complexions come from?

    • Diane Garlick
      Posted May 20, 2018 at 5:47 am | Permalink

      “It’s when these kinds of remarks are from a boss or coworker or professor or doctor or police officer, and so on, that it can really have an impact on one’s life.”

      Especially when you’ve been under the impression that your boss/coworker/etc. knows you well enough to not attribute such cliched stereotypes to you.

  29. James Walker
    Posted May 19, 2018 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    The “where are you *really* from?” question may indicate a curiosity about the person’s history/background (as a linguist I’m always interested in people’s linguistic histories) but framing it that way implies that the person is not a ‘real’ American/Canadian/whatever. Non-white friends of mine have told me they find it an obnoxious question because it makes them feel like lesser citizens of the place they grew up. However, asking it in a different way, like “what’s your background?” is (at least in my experience) likely to be interpreted as genuine curiosity rather than as a put-down.

    • Posted May 20, 2018 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

      Some people don’t like being asked these questions, presumably because they often are prelude to some put-down, intended or not. I can see why they might be reticent to engage on this subject. However, the benefit of asking outweighs this so I will continue to ask when in the back of cabs, etc. unless I don’t like the driver’s demeanor or I am busy answering email.

  30. Heather Hastie
    Posted May 19, 2018 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    I’m sort of reluctant to bring this up, but it’s something I’ve noticed about the US that’s seems to be really common throughout society. Everyone from the president on down (and I mean Obama too, not just Trump) uses the word “dumb” when they mean stupid. I cringe every time.

    I don’t know whether it’s a cultural thing, and it’s normal in the US, like saying “bugger” in NZ usually has nothing to do with anal sex. It’s a normal word everyone uses and no gay person in NZ would be upset by it because of what the word means in our culture. But to me “dumb” = can’t talk, and it’s a stereotype that people who can’t talk are stupid, and I hate to hear it being used to mean stupid.

    Bugger in NZ:

    • denise
      Posted May 19, 2018 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

      Maybe it’s different elsewhere, but dumb is definitely a synonym for stupid in the US:

      lacking intelligence or good judgment; stupid; dull-witted.
      lacking the power of speech (offensive when applied to humans):
      a dumb animal.

      • Diane Garlick
        Posted May 20, 2018 at 5:51 am | Permalink


        I suspect if I regularly heard Kiwis conversing I’d notice similar definitional differences in their discourse. That old “separated by a common language” trope. 😉

    • ladyatheist
      Posted May 19, 2018 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

      We also say “mad” when we mean “angry.”

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted May 20, 2018 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

        We do that too, and again, because of culture I suppose, I’ve never seen that as a slight against those with mentally illness.

  31. Posted May 19, 2018 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

    I’d argue against two of the phrases’ classifications.

    Calling someone an articulate person doesn’t imply everyone else of their race is inarticulate. If I call PCC-E or Sean Carroll articulate, that doesn’t mean I’m implying Jews or Caucasians are inarticulate. It just means they are more articulate than the average English speaker. It could be a problem if someone uses that phrase on a person who’s just average, but what would you consider average articulation?

    As for “I don’t see race”, I’m not sure if it’s because it’s said to one specific person that makes it a problem, but I think that “I don’t see race” is in general an innocuous phrase.

    Bonus round: I personally disagree with using “he” instead of “they”, but using “he” as the default third person pronoun is still taught here. My teachers considered using “they” grammatically incorrect. “Should have known better” really depends on the person’s background.

  32. Posted May 20, 2018 at 1:42 am | Permalink

    The only thing I will say to this is that if you look for the negative in others you will be sure to find it and the same is true of looking for the positive in ourselves. If we spend all our time looking for things to be offended about we will end up with a very negative and distorted view of the world around us. If someone says something bad about you and you know it’s not true, why does it matter – it’s their problem, not yours

  33. Paul
    Posted May 20, 2018 at 3:31 am | Permalink

    If you try to provide some restricted list of words or phrases you’ll forever need to be adding to them. You’ll create a complicated, stressful world for people to navigate.

    Also, people can close ranks together, turn their backs, sigh, roll their eyes etc.

    Some people may be well-meaning but socially clumbsy. Not everyone is a good communicator. Some autistic people struggle with communication, for example.

    I think we should be trying to encourage kindness to others which will then ripple out to others. Maybe programmes in workplaces where people can get a paid day off a year to volunteer somewhere etc.

  34. Posted May 22, 2018 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    I’ve noticed that the “where are you (really) from?” question is more offensive or incomprehensible to Americans than to Canadians, at least in my circles in both countries.

    There’s much more of a “erasure of the past” in the former case in general. Might have come out as a result of the revolutionary vs. evolutionary development of the two countries, but I really guess here.

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