Microaggressions and Intention

13 August 2021

Can subtle slights cause serious harm? Does it matter if no harm was intended? Are microaggressions in the eye of the beholder? Or are they a way to keep certain groups in their place? This week we’re thinking about Microaggressions.


Microaggressions are everyday slights that demean or debase others based on their race, gender, sexuality, etc. However, they don’t always look or sound like insults. In fact, the person committing the microaggression might think they’re paying the other person a compliment. For example, when Asian Americans are told they have "excellent English," even though they grew up here speaking English like everyone else, that is offensive and demeaning, even if it is meant as a compliment. It assumes that Asian Americans will lack English proficiency based purely on their appearance and racial stereotypes rather than any facts about the individuals in question. 


Joe Biden received a lot of pushback when he described Barack Obama back in 2007 as “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” Obviously he thought he was paying Obama a compliment, but what he was implying with his comment is that African Americans are usually inarticulate, dull, and dirty, and that they look bad. Obama, being “the first,” was the surprising exception to that rule. Even if Obama himself didn’t take offense (or so he said), the comment was nevertheless demeaning to other African Americans, which is why Biden received a lot of criticism for his remark.


This example illustrates that when it comes to microaggressions, intentions are not what’s really important. Someone may think they’re being nice, that they have no intention to demean any group, and yet the impact of their words may not align with their avowed intentions. No one should get a pass for being racist or sexist or homophobic just because they weren’t intentionally trying to be.


You might think this is too harsh. People can intend to do something nice and simply mess up sometimes, but we don’t treat those kinds of mistakes the way we treat intentionally harmful behavior. Lumping them all together fails to recognize an important distinction. Suppose I stomp on your foot on purpose, just for the fun of it. You’d be justified in calling me a jerk for doing that. But suppose I’m just a klutz and I accidentally step on you. The pain you feel in your foot might be the same in both cases, but we don’t judge the klutz the same way we judge the jerk. Why? Because intentions are important. If we only look at impact and ignore intentions, we would have to treat these two cases as the same, and that seems unfair to the klutz.


If we are considering a once-off incident, like accidentally stepping on someone’s toe, then sure, it would be unfair to treat the klutz like a jerk. However, if the incident is part of a larger pattern of harm and mistreatment, that distinction starts to lose its explanatory power. 


Imagine that, because you’re part of some marginalized group, you have to occupy a particular place, and spending time there means it’s much more likely that people are going to step on your toes. Are you going to feel better if someone says that none of the individuals intended to hurt you? Even if it keeps happening over and over again? At a certain point you will start asking why you have to occupy this space where this keeps happening to you, when clearly those with more power and status never have to worry about it happening to them. 


I think this is a more apt analogy because microagressions are part of larger patterns of discrimination and abuse. If only one Asian American was told on only one occasion they have excellent English, we might be willing to chalk it up to one person’s ignorance. But the fact is that this happens to many Asian Americans, and it happens on a regular basis. 


And it’s not just this particular comment. Asian Americans born and raised here, like other Americans of color, are often asked where they’re “really from,” (“You’re obviously not originally <wink, wink> from Wisconsin...”). They are often assumed to be good at math, bad at driving, and so on. If you’re on the receiving end of these kinds of microaggressions that keep reminding you that you are considered “other” or not truly belonging, or you are not seen as an individual, but as a stereotypical member of a homogeneous racial group, the intentions of the individuals committing the microaggressions start to fade from importance. 


So what is the best way to combat microaggressions? Do we just need to educate people so that they better understand the impact of their words and actions? Perhaps, but this assumes it is the ignorance of individuals that is the main source of the problem, and I’m not so sure about that. It seems that microaggressions do serve a purpose and that is to reinforce social hierarchies and to remind people belonging to marginalized groups of their place in that hierarchy. As such, they are a part of systems of oppression and need to be tackled systemically. 


Our guest this week is Lauren Freeman from the University of Louisville. She’s co-editor of a new volume called Microaggressions and Philosophy, and she’s also writing a book about microaggressions in the context of clinical medicine. Most scholarship on microaggressions, starting in the 1970s, has been done by psychologists such as Derald Wing Sue. Lauren thinks it’s important for philosophers to make a contribution to the debate, so I hope you’ll listen to this week’s episode to hear what insights philosophers have on the subject.


Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Comments (3)

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Saturday, August 14, 2021 -- 11:00 AM

Biden is an interesting use

Biden is an interesting use case in change and acceptance. There is an age of plasticity to microaggressions and a stultification. I intend to be as plastic as possible for as long as possible. This blog helps, as did the show - https://www.philosophytalk.org/shows/microaggressions .

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, August 16, 2021 -- 6:34 AM

I made some remarks earlier

I made some remarks earlier regarding this subject. Still don't quite get the distinction being made. To my mind, Microaggression is little different from other discriminatory attitudes and behaviors. Prefixes such as micro and macro are fancier labels, attached to terms and intended to bestow an air of intellectual sophistication and social respectability. One cannot, however, make a silk purse from a female pig's ear. (My tablet will not accept the colloquial term for that appendage) So, call this what you will. It remains abhorrent and insulting---just a devious means of belittling others for whom one has less respect. Is it a form of unlawful discrimination? I don't think so. Not yet anyway. Could that change? Maybe so---if the politically correct crowd decided to attach it to the me-too movement. If that seems petty or far-fetched, consider the motive(s) for microagression. Birds and feathers flocking, and all that.

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, September 25, 2021 -- 12:52 PM

Had an epiphany of sorts

Had an epiphany of sorts about this tired subject. Dealing with microexpressions. These are split-second looks which convey notions about how/what we are feeling about things/people/situations..There appears to be some correlation with your microaggression thesis.. I asked my source about this. Will see what they think. My suspicion is, as often, it is all connected..Stay tuned. There is no subatomic stuff here. Only pragmatism.

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