I hate the expression “microaggression.”
Don’t get me wrong– I think the concept itself is important. The idea behind it is that it is often not large overt actions but a never-ending series of small slights and assumptions that keep people marginalized.
We should all try to be more aware of the little things that we might do that uphold unfair systems.
But I hate calling these behaviors “microaggressions” because calling it “aggression” assumes that the person who mis-genders someone, or makes the knee-jerk assumption that the woman is the secretary not the boss, is doing this purposefully in order to harm the other person and keep her in her place. It assumes that the speaker intends to uphold a system that marginalizes other people. They intend to harm you in order to assure their own elevated place. In the vast majority of cases this is not true. These are not microaggressions but microignorances.
Here is why I think this matters. If you assume a person is behaving with a violent intent– that they mean to do you harm– there are only a couple of ways to respond. You can attack the enemy or you can wall them off and avoid them to avoid being attacked again.
Neither of these responses does anything to solve the problem of ignorance. In fact, if the other person feels attacked, it can have quite the opposite effect, causing them to write you off as an enemy and use that as evidence that their prejudices are justified.
I would like to share a moment from last night’s Equality Town Hall on CNN. This is presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, who is gay, talking about finding common ground with people who have been taught that people like him are sinful. (An attitude that actually goes beyond “micro” behavior to overt discrimination.) Buttigieg’s view is that faced with people who have a hard time changing their views “we are called to compassion. We are called on to seek out in one another what is best…”
This is what viewing the problem as ignorance rather than aggression looks like.