Microaggressions

A reflection piece from Scarlett Sozzani, a member of the community. We will be happy to publish additional posts (anonymously or otherwise) on the subject.


By Scarlett Sozzani

In response to and in support of recent activism around sexual assault and inclusivity at large, I want to take an opportunity to argue that issues of harassment, discrimination, bullying, and other egregiously insupportable actions can only exist when the victims are perceived to be weak, vulnerable, and powerless. And this kind of perception is often (and unwittingly) perpetuated through microagressions by many members of our academic community. Even though microaggressions are arguably even more frequent than outright forms of discrimination and harassment, this issue remains largely unaddressed.

Microaggression is formally defined (on dictionary.com) as:

a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority.

A microaggression is difficult to identify because it is so subtle – what one person may consider a microaggression may seem like merely a rude or tactless comment to another person. And comments that do not overtly mention race, gender, class, sexual orientation, etc. are more difficult to directly attribute as an act of microaggression.  Furthermore, microaggressions are sometimes unintentional, so the perpetrator might not even realize they are committing a microaggression against someone. It’s a very personal judgment, so perhaps a good question to ask is: “What is the likelihood that the perpetrator would have made this same comment to a person who identifies with the privileged majority?”

Microagressions also come in many forms: not just in words, but also in tone, attitude, gestures, writing, and in all forms of interaction. The accumulated damage over many instances, over time, cannot be understated. It elicits an intuitive response in the receivers of such microaggressions – a nagging feeling of self-doubt that one doesn’t belong, or isn’t good enough, or isn’t as good as the rest of the people in the room.

And beyond the predominantly discriminative definition of a microaggression, I would argue that any action that makes a person feel like their contributions are not valuable, and that they are not good enough to be standing where they are, is counterproductive to the collective aspirations of a community, especially an ambitious, high-flying research community.

Here are some examples of a few microagressions that I have felt in my very short time as a graduate student and in my various roles as a colleague, advisee, collaborator, and teaching assistant.

-“It’s a hard paper to read, especially if you don’t have the necessary background.”

-“You should be able to get the fellowship, right? You’re a young girl.”

-“How is that not what I just said?”

-“I erased your Piazza post answering a student’s ask for supplementary materials because I didn’t like the paper you referenced.”

-And the classic: “Hey guys…”

Let’s all aim to do a little bit better. Perhaps even go above and beyond in pushing against the current by acknowledging, highlighting, and talking about hard-earned and worthy contributions from our under-represented mentees and colleagues.

6 Comments on Microaggressions

  1. bendigeidfran // August 14, 2018 at 9:33 am // Reply

    Obviously telling someone they could get a fellowship because they’re a young girl, or a minority, is incredibly offensive. But “hey guys…”, or “how is that not what I just said?” or “It’s a hard paper to read, especially if you don’t have the necessary background?” are statements that I believe could be made to someone of any group, and made with no ill will. Why do these sorts of statements get interpreted as microagressions? Why is it that we can’t assume the innocence of the speaker, but immediately paint them with the brush of hate?
    One explanation is that the listener has a history of dealing with actual aggressions, and analyzes input from the external world with the distribution of their interactions with the world in mind. However, sampling random strangers from the world, and a random peer from our community produce very different sorts of people, with very different incentives. People in our community are incentivized to help mentor their bright young colleagues, not to dismiss them because of the color of their skin or their sexual identity. I guess all of this is a longwinded way of saying that you should expect much more from folks in academia, and also try to treat them with a presumption of innocence, instead of malice. If something they said really was questionable, I hope you (the author, and anyone else who identifies with the content of this post) will be comfortable and brave enough to tell them about it.
    I don’t want to paint too idealistic of a picture about our community. There are, and will be bad-actors. As posts in the blog sphere have shown in the past year, sexual assault and questionable behavior occurs even in the highest echelons of the community. My belief is that these constitute a small fraction of the community compared to the overall world, where people with ill will that hold xenophobic or sexist positions and act on them are (at least as of 2018) more widespread.

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  2. Clement Canonne // August 14, 2018 at 10:39 am // Reply

    @bendigeidfran The issue is not that all people saying this little, seemingly innocuous things are necessarily malicious. The issue is that, even when those things are said (most often innocently), on average there *tends* to be a noticeable bias towards some categories of researchers. (Then well of course after many repetitions this bias is very clear to the people on the receiving end, even though each remark individually looks perfectly fine.) And this ends up being death by a thousand paper cuts.

    So if we can as a community keep that in mind to actively correct this bias, even so slightly, then every one wins in the end. Nobody says that starting off a meeting with “Hi guys” makes you a monster. But refraining from doing so makes, in the long run, the research environment a bit better.

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  3. @bendigeidfran The problem is not with the content of the statement but with the frequency with which they are said to particular groups of people. As another female student in theory, I do perceive that I am interrupted more often than my male counterparts and that statements such as “how is that not what I just said?” are more often said to me than others (other male students). So microaggressions don’t just consist of directly sexist statements like “You should be able to get the fellowship, right? You’re a young girl.” If any abrasive statement is said more to a particular group because of physical characteristics, it is considered a microaggression.

    You make a good point though that perhaps such statements are made without any malice (or out of ignorance) so we should be able to point it out when they are spoken. However, since I am already a minority in the community, such an action is very daunting. I do hope that my male student counterparts can also take part in pointing out such behaviors such that the burden of creating a more welcoming community does not solely lie in the hands of those who feel less than completely welcomed.

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  4. I honestly had the impression that “Hey guys” is just an informal version of “Hello everyone” and is considered to be an appropriate gender-neutral greeting for a group that includes females or even is entirely female. Is that not the case? or am I missing something?

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  5. bendigeidfran // August 14, 2018 at 12:55 pm // Reply

    @Clement Canonne, @tcs-student: Thanks for your replies. I now understand how such a feeling can be built up over many repeated experiences, and especially when you observe some event (“didn’t I just say that?”) happening much less frequently to members of a more privileged group. I’m not sure what the solution is, other than everyone being more mindful of this phenomenon and thinking before speaking. As pointed out, individual utterances are rarely said with malice, but as they are so often the product of habit, they tend to reveal whatever unconscious biases are within us (preference for our own sex, our own ethnicity, fear of others).

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  6. In a particular context, most of these examples could be completely legitimate. Also, for some phrasing (such as using `guys’ for a mixed or even all-woman group) there are conflicting perspectives. What this post emphasizes is that comments of dismissive or otherwise negative nature are inflicted with higher percentage towards specific subgroups and have a seriously adverse cumulative impact. So in my opinion, the key is not in policing particular speech (unless clearly offensive) but rather in the awareness to the challenges of others and in the deliberate attempt to make everybody feel welcomed. This is of course, my own opinion that may deviate from that of the author and I welcome the debate (in comments or subsequent posts).

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