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Even an unintended slight can sting: A stranger asks an Asian-American student, “No, where are you REALLY from?” A professor seems surprised when a black student aces an exam. A growing number of college students are chronicling and discussing these perceived insults on blogs and social media, under the heading of “microaggression.” Kojo asks whether such slights are a hurtful form of prejudice or an unavoidable result of an increasingly diverse society.
- Jennifer Oki Educational Editor, The Microaggressions Project
- Amitai Etzioni Professor of Sociology and International Affairs, George Washington University; Author of "The Spirit of Community: The Reinvention of American Society" (1993, Touchstone)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, why we like our bad guys so much, "Villains, Scoundrels and Rogues: Incredible True Tales of Mischief and Mayhem." We'll be talking with the author Paul Martin.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first, maybe you've had this experience. You're a person of color and someone asks you where you're from. When you say Washington, D.C. the questioner persists, now where are you really from? Or a professor seems surprised when you ace an exam or a stranger says to you, your English is so good.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThis type of perceived insult or slight often with racial or ethnic or gender undertones is drawing new attention on some college campuses. In blogs and websites and photo essays students are chronicling the so-called microaggression, sharing their own stories of how it feels to be repeatedly judged in this way. The discussion of microaggression comes at a time of growing racial diversity in the United States and raises new questions about racism and political correctness. Is this a hurtful form of prejudice or a benign reflection of our increasingly diverse society?
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining me to have this conversation is Amitai Etzioni who is a professor of sociology and international affairs at George Washington University. He's also the author of "The Spirit of Community: The Reinvention of American Society." Amitai, good to see you again.
DR. AMITAI ETZIONIGood to be with you, sir.
NNAMDIAlso joining us from studios in New Orleans at WWNO is Jennifer Oki, educational editor of the Microaggressions Project. Jennifer, thank you for joining us.
MS. JENNIFER OKIThank you for having me.
NNAMDIYou too can join this conversation, 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com or send us a Tweet @kojoshow. I'll start with you, Jenny, what is microaggression? Can you give us some examples?
OKISure. I mean, we use the definition as put forward by Professor Derald Sue at Columbia University's Teacher College thinking about the brief commonplace daily verbal behavioral or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional and often unintentional, that communicate hostile or negatives like in insults. He kind of started this through the lens of racial microaggressions. But as he and his students and others have seen, this can really occur along any lines of power.
OKII think there are a few things that are important around microaggressions. One is understanding that it has nothing to do with intent. It has everything to do with impact given that they often are unintentional.
OKIThe second being that, you know, different from just being, you know, inconsiderate between two individuals, these really only occur along lines of power. So they are intricately linked with the macro the systemic where we see lines of dominance. That is where microaggressions occur. So white folks towards people of color, straight folks towards LGBT identified folks. That gradient is what creates microaggression as opposed to just some insensitive or inconsiderate language or action.
OKII think the other piece that's important is that there are underlying biases that drive microaggressions. And so when we think about why it's important to identify them and to think about their impact, it really is that underlying bias that is reinscribed every time a microaggression is felt. And in your intro when you were kind of naming examples, you know, these are classic examples of microaggressions. And the weight of the microaggression doesn't come from the instance in and of itself but more the cumulative impact of a lived life of consistent microaggressions every day with a backdrop of systemic oppression.
NNAMDIFour years ago, two of your Columbia University classmates started something called the Microaggressions Project. What prompted them to begin chronicling perceived insults and how has the project evolved since then?
OKIYeah, the beginning of the project was really around how can you visualize the experiences of those who are on the receiving end of microaggressions? How do we kind of display the experiences of the day-to-day experiences and the accumulations of experience? So it actually began as an art project and moved over to the website in the form that we use now, to think about like how can we show that it isn't about an individual and since it is these accumulations.
OKIAnd so what it has evolved into, right -- we get thousands and thousands upon thousands of submissions from across the world of folks sharing their lived experience, so we've seen that on our website. We also run a Facebook page where you can see kind of conversation between folks. It's a way of showing, you know, how do we experience these? Can we create community between folks who experience these and to give voice to them and to really focus on the recipient and not on the perpetrator, but on the recipients of microaggressions?
OKIYou know, sometimes we talk with folks, do workshops from time to time. But the main point really is still that blog, can we help folks give voice to what they are?
NNAMDIIs this focused essentially on college campuses or on society at large?
OKISo ours is, you know, for anyone, and we get submissions from across the globe and from folks from all walks of life, you know, anyone who experiences or has a target identity. Will it likely experience microaggressions? So ours is very open. I think it's telling that on college campuses there has been a resurgence. But this idea of microaggressions, I think, you know, Professor Sue's language began in 2007. But when we think about subtle bigotry, this isn't a new phenomenon. And so what we -- our contribution I think is really the web medium, using social media to bring anyone into the conversation, not just college campuses.
NNAMDIAmitai, the term microaggression dates back to the 1970s. It surfaced again in that aforementioned 2007 article by the Columbia University psychology professor, titled Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life. He said all interracial encounters are prone to microaggression. Do you agree?
ETZIONIWell, I just need to take one quick minute to say that somebody who taught 20 years at Columbia University, I'm delighted to hear that the students are active. Believe me, mot all the students in my days were active. And I followed Columbia since then and it's just good news that students care about anything other than their grades and money. So that is fine.
ETZIONIThe very term microaggression already gives the story away because micro means by definition of course small. And the creation is what happened to macroaggression. They're no longer homeless people right there on Morningside Heights Campus. They're no -- has the last date rape happened on that campus? Do people of color who try to rent an apartment on Columbia University or get a job treated the same way as white people or get a loan at the bank around the corner?
ETZIONISo the question -- the most elementary question is, given the world, outside the United States, inside the United States, which such horrible thing happening every day, why would you use your energy -- because all is limited -- to talk about micro stuff?
ETZIONIThe other issue arise -- now, I'm -- will also deny there is such a thing. If -- everyone knows that we should know that if you use the N word to an African American, you are being deeply offensive and insulting. And you should at least have your mouth washed with soap or be sent to a month of sensitivity training. But the other stuff, which we just heard, you don't even know that you're doing it.
ETZIONIFor instance, the Los Angeles Times at one point had a list of 5,000 words you cannot use. You cannot say, I want to go Dutch with my date because it's insulting the Dutch. You didn't mean to. You just wanted to share the cost of the evening. You cannot ask somebody not to welsh on their commitment. That would insult the Welsh people. Well, if you live like that, frankly I'm afraid to open my mouth because I'm very hard put to come up with a line, there'd be somebody who will say, well you didn't intend to but you insulted me.
ETZIONIBut the most peculiar thing I heard a few minutes ago -- I wanted to be sure I heard right -- did we hear that the only people who can insult a white, because it was suggested, it has to be down the domination line. Can minority people never insult white people? Can gay people never insult straight people? I wonder.
NNAMDIWell, Jenny, what is the relationship between microaggression and power? Why do you think it's important to call attention to incidents or patterns of microaggression, because you seem to be making the point that A. microaggression is related to macroaggression and B. microaggression can only be practiced by people who have relative power against people who don't.
OKIYeah, thanks so much for asking that question. So one -- and I think it is important to say that calling attention to microaggressions is not to take attention away from macroaggressions. I know certainly in our project as folks dedicated to dealing with the systemic inequities daily, but more to highlight the lived experiences of those of us who deal with microaggressions. They are directly related. Microaggressions both derive their power from and reinscribe macroaggressions every day. They are directly related to systemic oppressions.
OKIAnd so when we think about -- in some ways every time someone is experiencing microaggression, what we are doing is reifying dominance. We are reinscribing the dominant relations of dominance. So those innocent things when we talk about where are you really from, right, painting someone who is not white as a perpetual foreigner in the United States or getting that bias that's underlying that, is mapped onto when we think about xenophobia, when we think about racism, when we think about nativism, right, those are connected.
OKIAnd so these really are connected and it's not an either or and it can't be an either or. That doesn't mean we don't ignore -- that we can't ignore rather the daily slights. Another thing I'd say to that point about power, that is important, right. What we're not saying is that folks can't insult each other. Absolutely, right. You could be thoughtless and directly rude. I think it's important to understand that microaggression is largely and usually unconscious. That's different from calling someone a racial slur, right, a very intentional derogation.
OKIWe were talking about largely unconscious biases that are playing out in microaggressions. But those do occur along lines of power. People of color can of course be rude to white folks, absolutely. But when we're talking specifically about a microaggression, we are talking about an invalidation or an insult that is directly mapped onto systems of power.
NNAMDIWhat do you mean by the word invalidation?
OKISo a micro invalidation, right -- so a classic example actually often occurs when we're talking about microaggressions, right. So when someone in a position of power tells a person, so let's -- if we're talking about racial microaggressions, a person of color surfaces racial microaggression and they're told by a white person, you're being sensitive. That's actually an example of a micro invalidation, Invalidating the lived experience of a person of color to be able to shape to describe their experience, right, against the white norm, right.
OKIAnd when we put the onus on folks with the least systemic power in society to steel themselves against the world of inequity, right. That is reaffirming, right, the inequitable world that we live in. That is restrengthening or continually strengthening the systemic pieces we are talking about. So that's where microaggression occurs.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're having a conversation on the debate over microaggression, insults real or perceived. We're talking with Jennifer Oki. She's an educational editor with the Microaggressions Project. And Amitai Etzioni, who is a professor of sociology and international affairs at George Washington University, and author of "The Spirit of Community: The Reinvention of American Society." We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Let's go to Joshua in Vienna, Va. Joshua, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi Joshua, are you there?
NNAMDIGo ahead, please.
JOSHUAI wanted to make two comments about the real or perceived and that it takes both parties, you know. If it's a real threat or a perceived threat it takes both parties to make that interpretation. And I think that using the term microaggression, while it's a scientific term, complicates it because aggression is a negative word.
JOSHUAAnd so I'm just going to segue into how I address people and how I figure out where they're from. And I ask, where's your family from, because the family is a place of honor. And it's a great conversation starter and it's a great way to figure out someone who might be ambiguous in their appearance. Not usually figure out where they're from or what their origins are. But their origins are important.
JOSHUAAnd so to have the conversations with people which are so important on a humanistic level, we all need to have some ways of communicating that are effective. Because it is really interesting to find out where people are from and what their story is and what they've suffered and what they've celebrated.
NNAMDIIf somebody is someone, Jennifer Oki, who has an ethnicity that is not European or Caucasian and somebody is interested in that person's ethnic and family background, even though that person may be born in Washington or in California, what do you say to the person who wants to know where that person's origins -- family's origins are?
OKISo I think one -- I could definitely answer that, and I think it points to an important part about understanding and dealing with microaggressions, which is I understand it as someone who has dominant identities as a straight person, as a sex-gendered person who has been in a place where I'm in a position to microaggress against others. We often, right, go to that defensive place that centers the conversation around the perpetrator and not around the folks who experience it. And our project very intentionally does not do that.
OKIBecause in fact, right, the person who's able to say this is or is not a microaggression is the person experiencing it. And the purpose of kind of naming those is to help us think about what is the underlying bias that is driving the way we're interacting with folks? So when I think about that question you ask around where are you from, I mean, one question I ask myself is, do I ask everyone that question, right? Do I ask everyone that question?
OKIAm I curious about where white Americans are from? Do I ask them their family origin? Am I interested, are they German, are they Swedish? Is that what I'm looking for in every person that I'm talking to or am I asking that of people of color? And in particular are there certain groups that I'm asking that of? Is that related to how they speak or how they appear? And if that's the case, what is it that's driving that besides general curiosity about our backgrounds? Because if I'm assuming that the white Americans that I see are American and folks that I don't -- are not, right, there's an underlying bias there.
OKII think it's not to walk on eggshells, right, or not ask questions but I think we need to be honest about why we are asking those things and be prepared for the response. So one thing I think, you know, I'm interested in this and this is why I'm asking that question, I will have my own way of answering it. I also think if someone raises up, you know, that feels oppressive, I'm interested in why you ask that question. I didn't ask you that question. What do you think -- where do you think I'm from or where do you think my people are from?
OKIWhat we have to do on the side of those who might perpetrate microaggressions is to not sink into that defensive place. That's not what I meant. I'm just interested in your story but to hear them, right. I see that, right. You get asked every day, when you think about Asian Americans or my family's experience in this country, perpetual foreigners being asked where you're from, how many times my mother's been told that she speaks good English, being born and raised in the United States.
OKII mean, that's where it's accumulated. It's not that -- it's not the specific incidents. It really is having the curiosity around why people might feel that way and being prepared for what we might get back.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation on the debate over microaggression. You can also go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on the debate over microaggression. We're talking with Jennifer Oki, educational editors of the Microaggressions Project. She joins us from studios in New Orleans. And Amitai Etzioni is a professor of sociology and international affairs at George Washington University and author of "The Spirit of Community: The Reinvention of Society." Amitai, you wrote a piece for The Atlantic in which you said, some microaggression comes from long held biases among people of the same race or ethnicity against others from nearby communities. Can you explain?
ETZIONIIn effect the discussion's very helpful because it raises a very profound philosophical issue. And that is are we trying to move away from evil? Are we looking for perfection? The reason I'm raising that issue is if you accept to be a basically flawed human being, the different extend our flaws, but perfection is not given to us, that leads to a rather different place then if you look to face -- to shape the perfect human being.
ETZIONINow the study you mentioned was actually done at Columbia University many years ago in which one of my students went to 80 small ethnic groups. Not the big ones but like black and white and such. But she went to Dominican Americans and to Puerto Rican Americans and different -- Iraqi Americans from Basra and from Baghdad. And she asked all those members of those 80 groups one question, what do you think about the others? And without exception -- without exception they all had unkind things to say about the others.
ETZIONIIs that welcome? Absolutely not. Is it normal? Tragically, yes. So then you come to the question, given that we all have limited amount of energy, should I tackle these imperfections or should I ask myself where is the really major grievances I can get my hands on? Or should I rather organize a demonstration at the United Nations as I did in my days at Columbia University about what's happening in Sudan or Syria or should I go about the fact that somebody unintentionally use the wrong words? So I say, I'm not given to perfection and therefore we should focus on major flaws.
ETZIONIJust to jump back to one other point. If it -- the insult is in the eyes of the beholder. It should come up before when we talk about what makes for a hostile work environment. And as long as the person who attacks presumably, there's nothing I -- I don't need to know why I'm doing it. I have no say about it as long as the other person at all times can claim I've been injured. And I have no control or say about it. That creates for a very difficult environment, frankly an environment in which I wouldn't open my mouth.
NNAMDIAnd before you respond to that, Jennifer, I think there's a caller we have, Hammond in Vienna, Va. who wants to say something essentially along the same line. Hammond, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
HAMMONDHi, Kojo. Hammonds here. So I have sort of an inverted element. I'm disturbed by the conversation that -- from both a political correctness standpoint and then also from a standpoint of let's say microaggression racism. I travel the world. I celebrate cultural diversity. I'm extremely good at being able to look at a person and tell where they are from.
HAMMONDAnd when I walked into a tire store in Vienna recently, I looked at this fascinating individual and I looked right at him and I said, are you from Asmara? Everybody knows where Asmara is, right?
HAMMONDOkay. He looked at me and he said, I cannot believe you know where I'm from. And I said, well, you know, I'm fascinated with people. I'm fascinated with the world. He and I have had lunch since then. Now, was -- just because I'm savvy enough at physical anthropology, am I being a racist by being fascinated and cultivating a friendship with this guy?
NNAMDIJennifer Oki, care to respond?
OKII mean, I don't know how to respond to the question about whether one is being a racist by wanting to have lunch with someone. I do think there is something to -- I was having a reaction in the studio to the language on fascination. I mean, I think we can rate around about oriental-ism and the other-ing of folks, you know, on our own.
OKIBut just thinking about -- this goes back to this idea around nativism and same versus other. And part of the experience -- I mean, it's interesting and not surprising, right, that this conversation is set -- we continue to go back to centering on the experience of the perpetrator. When what we're trying to do is highlight, that's not the point. It's not about what you meant. It's not about what you're seeking to do. It's actually the accumulated impact that this has on folks who live in this world and go through this every day and to think about the...
ETZIONI(unintelligible) the judge and the jury.
OKI...to think about the impact of those, right. And so I think there is something to needing to own up to our experiences.
OKII also think though that there's something around the language I think you used, Professor Etzioni, around, you know, wanting to be perfect, right. And I think there's something around needing to name our implications in perpetrating systems of domination. And I think one of the challenges around this conversation that comes up often, right, it's happening with folks who we believe ourselves to be good people, moral people. And that's part of what's challenging on these.
OKIBecause this is, as Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, right, she calls it the smog, right, that we breathe, that we are in a racist society. We are in a classist society. We breathe the smog. We all do. And so when we want to think about ourselves as good moral people who are doing things out of the -- you know, for good reasons, it's hard to then step back and have to be honest about the ways in which our actions are actually perpetuating relationships of domination.
OKIAnd so we go to this defensive place of what I meant to say was I'm just interested in people. And do you want me to not just say things? Like if we can step back and actually think about okay, can I sit in a space for a second and acknowledge that something that I'm doing or saying or ignoring or using omission, right, to invalidate, is having a negative impact on other folks, right? And that is reinforcing systemic oppression. If that is the case, then we can actually begin to create this more just world we want.
OKII'd say the other thing I think -- I mean, I think it's worth repeating and important to repeat, nobody who's talking about microaggressions that I have ever encountered is arguing that those need to happen at the expense of dealing with the systemic. In fact, every single person I know who works in this project dedicates their lives to dealing with systemic injustices and that this is a part of that conversation.
OKIIt is not an either or and I think for those of us who experience microaggressions and system oppression on the daily, there is no ability to think about limited energy our entire lives, right. When I think about what a marginalized experience is, it is suffering system oppression and the everyday indignities that are microaggressions. That's our lives.
OKISo we talk about we have limited energy to what shall we focus on. We have to focus on both. And we have to focus on both. We have to focus on the systemic because...
NNAMDIWe have to walk and chew gum at the same time.
OKI...yes, because that is our experience. Yep.
NNAMDISo people are generally not curious about the familiar. People are generally curious about the unfamiliar. So if you happen to be living in a country that is predominantly black, a country where presumably in the power relationship you are in the majority, and you see a person who looks of a different ethnicity, white or something else, and you ask that person where are you from, are you in fact practicing a form of microaggression?
ETZIONIWell, different -- even among the microaggressions, let's buy for a moment that's what we need to focus upon. There are actually differences. To say as I discussed this last night with some high school students and they told me that the new phrase among them is to say that something which they don't like to do is boring or difficult to say, oh that's so gay. Well, I would think that's a very serious offensive way to talk about things.
ETZIONIBut to ask somebody where are you from, in comparison, no we cannot treat all insults and all phrases as equal. And I respect young people who think that they can take on anything and everything in their unlimited energy, at least it would be true. But in the end of the day to be honest about it, we can do only that many demonstrations. We can write only that many letters to the editors or whatever it takes.
ETZIONIAnd the question of not squandering our moral energy is very much at issue here because fair enough, let's assume that micro and macroaggressions are indeed linked. Well, if they are linked let's pick it up from the end of the beast which is the most damaging from the macro end.
NNAMDIAfraid we're almost out of time. Jennifer Oki, can you talk about what happens next? Do you think publicity about microaggression will spark a broader dialogue in this country about biases and prejudices?
OKII mean, our hope is that it does, right. It's in the naming and uncovering of this that we can actually have the conversation that moves us to different action. I think that part of why we imagine this -- I think, as having this resurgence is that in this moment when there are many impulses to pretend or claim that we oppose racial, to think that things are different in some kind of structural way, that the attention to how this is actually playing out every single day in the interactions that we have is heightened.
OKIAnd we can create those connections. I also think it's a time when those of us who consider ourselves to be on the side of justice have the opportunity to interrogate our lived experiences and how our everyday actions are actually perpetuating or undermining those relationships of dominance.
NNAMDIJennifer Oki is educational editor with the Microaggressions Project. Thank you very much for joining us.
OKIThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIAmitai Etzioni is a professor of sociology and international affairs at George Washington University and author of "The Spirit of Community: The Reinvention of American Society." Amitai, thank you for joining us.
ETZIONIThanks for having me.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, why we love our bad guys so much, "Villains, Scoundrels and Rogues." Paul Martin tells "Incredible True Tales of Mischief and Mayhem." I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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