Picture this: a woman is at a clothing boutique and asks the shop assistant for some help. She can’t decide which colour shirt to buy and holds up the shirts to her face while the shop assistant brightly remarks, ‘Any of those colours would suit you, you’re so pretty for an African!’ Is this remark a compliment, insult, or racial vilification? Here’s a clue: unless you have an aptitude for interpreting legislation, the current Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act can be a little mind boggling, which leaves you with the first two options. Actually, it’s a trick question, because we should have added the option ‘microaggression’ (the correct answer). But it did get you thinking, didn’t it?
The term ‘microaggression’ was used by Columbia professor Derald Sue to refer to ‘brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of colour.’ You can find other examples of microaggressions here or here.
People often say and do things that hurt others. Sometimes those behaviours are deliberate and sometimes they’re not. The example scenario is not straightforward because the shop assistant may not be aware that she has said something offensive and as a result, is unlikely to understand the impact it may have. However, it is intent–as opposed to impact–that plays a central role in microaggessions. A common reaction when people are called out on their actions or words is, ‘Oh, I didn’t mean it like that!’ People tend to feel guilty and defensive after they realise they have offended someone and rely on their intent to somehow justify the comment: ‘I meant it as a compliment’, ‘I’m not racist, my best friend’s African’, or ‘Wow, you’re so sensitive.’
It’s understandable why this is a common reaction. If these comments do indeed perpetuate negative or racist attitudes, then no one wants to be labelled a racist. But microaggression is less about you and more about the impact of your words on others. Impact outweighs intent, always. That’s the black and white of it. This doesn’t mean that if you’re called out on microaggression, you’re racist. But it might be a red flag that you need to step back and reflect upon the effect of your words because such everyday communications are not as ‘normal’ or harmless as you might think. This is what needs to be made visible: there is no such thing as being racially neutral because whiteness is the norm and our default way of thinking (at least in Australia). In our society, whiteness is invisible: white people are not ‘ethnic’ or non-Asian or non-black. In contrast, people of every other race are made conspicuous by their difference, by their being non-white.
Most people most of the time don’t intend to offend others. But people don’t also get to choose what other people should or shouldn’t find racist, especially when it’s coming from a privileged position. The invisible nature of microaggressions is really what is at stake here. We need to make visible the racial power hierarchy that underpins it so that our ‘normal’, everyday interactions can be conducted on equal footing regardless of where you come from.