• Mitchell R. Campbell

Not "micro" and not "aggressive": Time for a new term

A Black student is asked if he’s in the wrong classroom on the first day of an advanced engineering course. A female executive is asked to take notes during a staff meeting. A family member refers to a genderqueer individual using the pronouns that individual was assigned at birth instead of their preferred pronouns. We would refer to all these experiences as microaggressions: subtle and ambiguous behaviors that have the effect of alienating or denigrating members of different social groups, even if that wasn’t their intention.

At least, that’s what we have been calling them. Dr Tiffany Jana and their coauthor, Dr Michael Baran, argue in their new book that we shift to a term that is also the book’s title: Subtle Acts of Exclusion. In my view, this transition makes sense, largely because it addresses some of the major problems with the term “microaggression” that I have discussed in academic and non-academic settings in the past few years.

The term “microaggression” was originally coined in 1970 by Chester M. Pierce, but the term didn’t rise to prominence in public and scientific discourse until the 21st century. Its rise has dovetailed with that of “implicit bias,” as the two concepts are tightly linked: both fundamentally concern how unconscious attitudes may affect our behavior absent any conscious animus. Leaving aside debates about the evidence for this claim, the term “microaggression” itself has always been a flawed label for these incidents. They are not “micro” to their targets, nor are they usually “aggressive” on the part of the perpetrator.

Individuals belonging to marginalized social groups are constantly on the lookout to identify individuals and situations that may be hostile to them. A low grade in an introductory biology class is more discouraging to women and people of color, for example, because it acts as a kind of referendum on their belonging in the pre-med track, whereas their white, male peers are less likely to have their path upended by such a setback. To an individual belonging to one of these groups, then, these experiences are often anything but “micro.” They can have substantial impacts on that individual’s mental and physical well-being, sense of belonging, and even life trajectory.

Meanwhile, a central feature of microaggressions is that they are often unintentional, based on passively formed mental associations as opposed to active desires to do harm. This feature makes the usage of the term “aggression” untenable, because that term assumes intent on the part of the perpetrator. Some people doing diversity work imagined that the term “microaggressions” would be more neutral than calling someone’s behavior racist, but reactions to the new terminology are often just as defensive because of the assumed intent built into the term.

For a while, then, both diversity scientists and real-world practitioners have been looking for an alternative to this term that is both more precise and more likely to be responded to with curiosity instead of defensiveness. Jana and Baran’s “subtle acts of exclusion” is a great candidate because it directly addresses the issues with the term “microaggression” I’ve discussed. First, it focuses on the quality of the incidents (i.e., “subtle”) rather than the size (i.e., “micro”). Second, it focuses on the impact (i.e., “exclusion”) rather than the intention (i.e., “aggression”). And, finally, it focuses on a behavior (i.e., “act”) and doesn’t infer an attitude.

Jana and Baran argue that this term is more likely to be responded to with curiosity as opposed to defensiveness or avoidance, and I’m inclined to agree. In my work, I emphasize the idea that both a target and a perpetrator are on the same team, united against the biased behavior that occurred. To the extent that we can separate our description of a behavior from our description of a person, we should better be able to bring people into conversations and achieve outcomes that are better for everyone.

I personally plan to make the switch from “microaggressions” to “subtle acts of exclusion,” and I hope the information I’ve provided here gives enough justification for you to do so too. The new term is both more precise and more likely to be used productively to stop such incidents from occurring unchecked. The terminology we use matters, and when we have an opportunity to embrace terminology that is both more precise and more pragmatically useful, we’d be foolish to let it pass us by.

It’s also worth checking out the book and an interesting Q&A with Dr Jana here.

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