About Microaggressions

Editor’s Note – Ronald E. Wheeler Jr., Director of the Fineman and Pappas Law Libraries
Associate Professor of Law and Legal Research, and 2016-2017 President of AALL (American Association of Law Libraries), granted LLRX permission to republish the beginning portion of his article, “About Microaggressions,” the full text of which is published in 108 Law Library Journal 321 (Spr 2016), and on SSRN. LLRX is grateful to Prof. Wheeler for the opportunity to share a portion of this comprehensive, timely, deeply significant article, especially in light of recent events including the mass murder in Orlando and the Brexit vote by the UK.

Professor Wheeler discusses the concepts of microaggressions (including microassaults, microinsults and microinvalidations) specifically against LGBT individuals, and proposes some solutions to preventing microaggressions from occurring within one’s organization.

Definitions

Marginalized populations in our society commonly experience microaggressions. They are a fact of daily life, showing up in contexts such as families, workplaces, and neighborhoods. AALL members have even written about their impact.1 The most commonly used definition found throughout literature defines microaggressions as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative . . . slights and insults toward the target person or group.”2 However, also true is that microaggressions are experienced by members of oppressed groups3 differently, 4 they negatively impact performance in the workplace,5 they can contribute to physical and mental problems,6 and they can evince illegal discrimination and lead to employer liability.7 Given the pervasiveness and impact of microaggressions, I therefore consider them important enough to warrant discussion here as part of our Diversity Dialogues series.

I will structure my discussion in a meandering and somewhat unorthodox way. Most of the literature on microaggressions in the workplace focuses on race and racially motivated microaggressions.8 Nevertheless, a growing body of research addresses microaggressions targeting women and LGBT people.9 Because discussion of race can be especially emotionally fraught, and because I have not yet discussed LGBT issues in this series, I will frame this discussion, using the literature on both race and sexual orientation. I will focus my personal anecdotes using my experiences as a black gay man touching on issues of race and sexual orientation. However, when I move to discussing illegal discrimination, I will again rely on the more robust body of literature on racial microaggressions as there is no federal legislation that protects LGBT people from employment discrimination.

Types of Microaggressions

The modern evolution of antidiscrimination law combined with other social and political developments have caused contemporary forms of discrimination to become “subtler than the overtly prejudiced behaviors of the past.”10 Subtlety makes these contemporary microaggressions easy to dismiss as unimportant or insignificant. It can also allow perpetrators to label targets as hypersensitive or somehow neurotic. Several types of microaggressions are identified in the literature, and it can be helpful to label them and explore them in the context of some personal anecdotes and examples. No matter what the type, microaggressions can be used as evidence of illegal discrimination, and if severe and pervasive, they “may rise to the level of harassment under certain circumstances.11

Microassaults

“The first and most overt form of microaggression is microassault.”12 Microassaults are “attacks meant to harm the victim”;13 thus they are fairly easy to identify. Most of us are used to thinking about these types of attacks because they are similar to traditional forms of overt discrimination that we have all witnessed, read about, or at least heard about. Although it is difficult for many of us to imagine facing this form of attack at work, it certainly does happen.14

Growing up in Detroit in the 1970s and 1980s, I was extremely lucky to have remained somewhat sheltered from much of the racism that permeated our existence at the time. My father worked for Ford Motor Company in the famous River Rouge Complex located in Dearborn, Michigan.15 Our home in Detroit was situated just a few blocks from Detroit’s border with Dearborn, which was convenient for my father’s daily commute. It was also a source of stress for my parents. Dearborn is infamous for its segregationist policies. Its notorious mayor, Orville Hubbard, was mayor from 1942 to 1978. His popularity and consistent reelection are attributed to his dedication to the campaign promise to “keep the niggers out.”16 Although my parents feared that my sister and I might be harmed if we rode our bikes into Dearborn, and my father tells of repeated harassment by the Dearborn police as he drove to and from work daily, I really did not experience any overt attacks that I can recall until law school in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I recall with surprising clarity that during my first year of law school, as I strolled through campus with friends one evening, a car full of white men drove by, and as they passed someone yelled the words, “nigger faggot.”

Although this incident did not happen in the employment context, I relay it here for a couple of reasons. First, because it is one of the few terrible and trauma provoking examples from my personal life that I clearly recall. But second, because it happened on a university campus while I was in law school. Admittedly, this happened in 1988, but when I speak with students of color and queer students today, it becomes clear to me that these things still happen.17 Surprisingly, what has stayed with me for all of these years is the overwhelming fear and helplessness that I felt that night. I recall being overwhelmed by terror and the realization that if that car stopped, I could be killed or severely injured. I also recall feeling surprise and chagrin that this could happen in liberal Ann Arbor, the Berkeley of the Midwest. I remember that my fear developed later into anger, which I carried around with me to classes and elsewhere. So when I attempted to engage in conversations concerning race in my law school classes and when well-meaning yet insensitive comments were made, I became unable to respond or to engage. I became overwhelmed. This incident definitely impacted my academic performance at the time in negative ways.

In 1988, there was no one on my law school faculty with whom I could comfortably speak about these issues. I was a pariah even among other LGBT students for being “too out.” The one black professor at Michigan Law School at that time, Sallyanne Payton, was either visiting another law school or on sabbatical, and there were no LGBT law professors or people writing, teaching, or thinking about LGBT issues. In my opinion, these facts helped to sustain a culture where an incident like this could happen. The young men who yelled insults at me that night had every reason to believe that they would not face consequences if they were caught or if I told someone. There was no precedents of the university caring about, investigating, or punishing what we now call hate crimes. If there had been an organizational culture in existence at the university where a student would have been expelled for incidents such as these, would this incident still have occurred? I ask this question because creating and sustaining a culture that either tolerates or condemns these kinds of microassaults is everyone’s responsibility.

Microinsults

The second type of microaggression are called microinsults.18 These “include behaviors that are insensitive, rude, or inconsiderate of a person’s identity.”19 Microinsults are especially difficult for people to understand because “they tend to be subtle in nature and may be unconscious and unintentional, but [they] nonetheless demean the target or their group.”20 An example used in some of the literature is telling a racial minority that they are a “credit to your race.”21

An odd type of microinsult used to happen to me fairly often when I was younger. It occurred in various contexts and revolved around shaking hands. I would be introduced to someone, a work superior or a professor or some other authority figure, and that person would interact with me differently than with my white colleagues. When introduced to the others, the authority figure would say “hello Robert” or “hello Greg” and shake their hands in the normal way. However, when introduced to me, the authority figure would say “hey Ron” or “hey Ron my man,” and then begin an elaborate and unorthodox hand-shaking ritual involving twisting out of a traditional handshake and into what I presume was considered a black handshake.22 While I felt clear that the authority figure meant well and was trying to demonstrate coolness, compassion, or liberalism, I always felt singled out, insulted, and belittled. It seemed to me that he felt I somehow required more than a normal hello and a traditional handshake to communicate a warm welcome. The person committing the microaggression probably thought he was building a relationship with me; however, the message I received was that I am not as professional as my white colleagues. Often, when a microaggression occurs, the person who commits the act does not realize she is actually being offensive—in fact—she may think she is giving a complement or building a relationship. Though the intent was not to hurt my feelings, the impact was that I felt stereotyped and misunderstood and marginalized.

Microinvalidations

The third category of microaggressions are called microinvalidations.23 Microinvalidations “are characterized by behavior that minimizes the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiences of targets.”24 Like microinsults, microinvalidations are subtle and often unintentional. They are sometimes labeled “interpersonal discrimination,” “incivility,” or “microinequalities,” and they can be either verbal or nonverbal.25

One example of a microinvalidation from my personal life happened to me recently. I was on vacation, and I was with a couple of fairly new acquaintances. We were walking through an inner city park when we encountered a group of people that my new friends knew. I was introduced, and I began chatting with the people whom I had just met. At one point, one of the women in the group asked, “I see you’re wearing a wedding ring, is your wife here with you?” I responded with, “I have a husband not a wife, but he is not with me on this trip.” She was clearly embarrassed. Her previously radiant smile turned to a look of embarrassment and discomfort, and she said, “Oh?” Then someone changed the subject, and we all pretended that my husband had never been mentioned.

People have asked me why this incident in particular is so upsetting to me.26 What I felt most at that moment was put on the spot. I felt singled out on a really nice day with really nice friends. I felt unfairly and without any warning forced to make a really difficult choice. I could choose to swallow my pride, to grin and bear it, to simply answer “no,” and to become invisible and closeted and irrelevant. That choice, for me, has psychological consequences.27 I have spent most of my adult life fighting for LGBT civil rights in various ways.28 I have struggled to be out29 in every aspect of my life and to remain out and proud and positive, which necessitates pushing back against those who would, intentionally or unintentionally, render me invisible as a gay man. So, failing to address the incorrect assertion that I am married to a woman, would belie all of that work as well as the ongoing work I do to maintain positive self-esteem and a positive sense of self. That is why, although I knew it would make everyone uncomfortable, it would make me look hostile and confrontational, and it would possibly cause a well-meaning and friendly woman some embarrassment, I chose to answer in the way that I did.

Sexual Orientation in Particular

Modern researchers have created a taxonomy “to identify and demonstrate the specific types of microaggressions that affect LGBT individuals.”30 As one might guess, microaggressions manifest themselves differently when targeting sexual orientation and gender identity. Heterosexism, defined as “marginalizing LGBT persons while praising and normalizing heterosexual people,”31 plays a huge role and is more subtle in contemporary society, yet nonetheless it is harmful.32 Moreover, its impacts “may cause even more psychological distress in LGBT women and LGBT people of color.”33

The taxonomy created by Nadal and his colleagues has seven categories: (1) the use of heterosexist terminology, (2) the endorsement of heteronormative or gender-conforming culture/behaviors, (3) the assumption of universal LGBT experience, (4) exoticization, (5) discomfort/disapproval of LGBT experience, (6) denial of societal heterosexism/transphobia, (7) assumption of sexual pathology/abnormality.34 These categories really resonate with me, so I will share a couple of anecdotes about how some have impacted me personally.35

Assuming a Universal LGBT Experience

The third category, the assumption of universal LGBT experience, is one that I used to experience fairly regularly. I would be at a work event or meeting with a social component during which people were casually discussing spouses and home life. At some point I would mention my husband, thus outing myself and asserting my gayness.36 For some, however, my opening the door to my sexual orientation publicly signals an openness to be questioned about anything related to or assumed to relate to gay life.37 So, the next question to me would sometimes be, “So, which gay clubs do you like to go out to?” When I was living in San Francisco and visiting another city, the question might be, “You probably live in the Castro, right?” There are other even more bizarre and presumptuous questions that people have asked me over the years. As I’m sure readers can see, these questions presume that all gay men love and frequent gay clubs38 and that all gay men in San Francisco live in the Castro neighborhood. These types of comments provoke all types of emotions for me, including sadness, anger, and frustration. They make me feel as if no matter what I say or do, no matter what degrees I earn or what professional accomplishments I achieve, I will always be first and foremost a dance club frequenter and a resident of the Castro. It’s not that I don’t want to be perceived as gay.39 That is not the issue. The issue is that although I want to be out to the world, I also want to be perceived as and recognized for all that I am, and not just a stereotype or preconception. To help illustrate, one would almost never, in the same context, ask a person “so which straight clubs do you like to go to?” Right?

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1 Catherine Deane, Why Talk About Race in the Library, AALL Spectrum Blog (Feb. 26, 2015, 10:39 AM), http://www.aallnet.org/Blogs/spectrum-blog/55447.html [https://perma.cc/DU5Q-8YTY].

2 Eden B. King et al., Discrimination in the 21st Century: Are Science and the Law Aligned?, 17 Psychol. Pub. Pol’y & L. 54, 56 (2011).

3 For the purposes of this essay, I am choosing not to define the phrase “oppressed group” so that all readers may imagine themselves as targets.

4 See Derald Wing Sue, How Does Oppression (Microaggressions) Affect Perpetrators?, Psychology Today (Feb. 27, 2011), https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/microaggressions-in-everyday-life/201102/how-does-oppression-microaggressions-affect [https://perma.cc/SAJ5-ZBWP]   (discussing the unique impact of microaggressions on whites); Derald Wing Sue, Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Is Subtle Bias Harmless?, Psychology Today (Oct. 5, 2010), https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/microaggressions-in-everyday-life/201010/racial-microaggressions-in-everyday-life [https://perma.cc/J258-X2HR] (discussing the impact of microaggressions on people of color).

5 David W. Fujimoto, Thrown Under the Bus: Victims of Workplace Discrimination After Harris, 48 U.S.F. L. Rev. 111, 138–39 (2013).

6 See Kevin L. Nadal et al., Sexual Orientation Microaggressions: Processes and Coping Mechanisms for Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Individuals, 5 J. LGBT Issues Counseling 21, 30–32 (2011); Sue, Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life, supra note 4.

7 See, e.g., Fujimoto, supra note 5, at 137–42 (discussing the Stray Remarks Doctrine); King et al., supra note 2, at 57–58, 60 (discussing how the article will describe “ways in which judges may weigh evidence of microaggressions in line with extant laws and decisions” and asserting “that reports of microassaults, or frequent experiences of microinvalidations and microinsults, will support disparate treatment claims” respectively).

8 See, e.g., Chester M. Pierce et al., Television and Education 62–88 (1978); Derald Wing Sue et al., Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice, 62 Am. Psychologist 271 (2007).

9 See also M.P. Galupo & C.A. Resnick, Experiences of LGBQ Microaggressions in the Workplace, in Sexual Orientation and Transgender Issues in Organizations: Global Perspectives on LGBT Workforce Diversity 1–32 (Thomas Koolen ed., forthcoming 2016) (advance copy of chapter on file with author). See generally Derald Wing Sue, Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation (2010); Kevin L. Nadal et al., Sexual Orientation and Transgender Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Experiences of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, and Transgender Individuals, in Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestation, Dynamics, and Impact 217–40 (Derald Wing Sue ed., 2010).

10 King et al., supra note 2, at 55.

11 John M. Robinson, The New Face of Exclusion: Microaggressions, State Mag., Nov. 2016 at 6, 6 (quoting a letter from the State Department chief diversity officer warning that microaggressions may count as harassment).

12 Id. at 56.

13 Id.

14 Fujimoto, supra note 5, at 112.

15 See Ford Rouge Factory Tour: History of the Rouge, The Henry Ford, https://www.thehenryford.org/rouge/historyofrouge.aspx (last visited Feb. 18, 2016) [https://perma.cc/GE9B-GASY] (describing the Ford Rouge facility and its history).

16 These words were relayed to me by my father as a child and attributed to Mayor Hubbard, although I cannot find a quote of him making this campaign promise anywhere. What I have found are numerous references to his promise to “keep Dearborn clean,” which was widely understood to mean “keep Dearborn white,” and his segregationist and profane tirades using the term “nigger.” See William Serrin, Mayor Hubbard Gives Dearborn What It Wants—and Then Some: Mayor Hubbard of Dearborn, N.Y. Times, Jan. 12, 1969, at SM26 (quoting Mayor Hubbard saying “Goddammit. . . . I don’t hate niggers. Christ, I don’t even dislike them. But if whites don’t want to live with niggers, they sure as hell don’t have to. Dammit!”); see also Orville L. Hubbard, America Pink, http://america.pink/orville-hubbard_3351939.html (last visited Feb. 4, 2016).

17 See, e.g., Steve Annear, Harvard Police Calling Marred Portraits a “Hate Crime,Bos. Globe (Nov. 19, 2015), https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2015/11/19/harvard-police-investigating-after-tape-placed-over-portraits-black-law-professors/OaexgDJcyJPP3YyFh2ubeL/story.html [https://perma.cc/AK46-6PT8] (discussing recent race-based hate crime at Harvard Law School and quoting students discussing microaggressions).

18 King et al., supra note 2, at 56.

19 Id.

20 Id.

21 Id.

22 See John Baugh, Out of the Mouths of Slaves: African American Language and Educational Malpractice 79–85 (1999) (for a robust discussion of the black power handshake and its significance).

23 King et al., supra note 2, at 56.

24 Id.

25 Id.

26 It is important to note that asking this question itself minimizes my experience, implies that I am hypersensitive and histrionic, and suggests that I am somehow overreacting.

27 There are many well-documented psychological consequences of either staying silent or speaking up. See, e.g., Nadal et al., supra note 6, at 22 (for a discussion of the behavioral, cognitive, and emotional reactions to microaggressions and their impact on targets).

28 I recently realized that my numerous and ongoing LGBT involvements, from student activism to grassroots organizing, fund-raising, nonprofit work, AIDS direct action, and AIDS services provision are not chronicled in a publicly available place. Readers may contact me directly for more information.

29 See Steven Seidman et al., Beyond the Closet? The Changing Social Meaning of Homosexuality in the United States, 2 Sexualities 9, 12–19 (1999) (for a detailed discussion of the origin, evolution, and meaning of “coming out of the closet”).

30 Nadal et al., supra note, at 23.

31 Id. at 22.

32 Id. at 25.

33 Id. at 23.

34 Id. at 23–24.

35 The wedding ring anecdote discussed supra is an example of a microaggression that falls into categories 1 and 2 of this taxonomy.

36 This is, of course, an overstatement because I am fairly certain that most people experience me as a gay man in the world.

37 This is, in itself, absurd because there is no monolithic gay life.

38 Although I do love dance clubs of all types, the reality of middle age has taken its toll and sadly I have no idea where most gay clubs are, even in my current hometown of Boston.

39 In fact, the opposite is true in my case. To illustrate my point: a very long time ago my father once asked me, in a sincere desire to know and to learn, why I had to be so obviously gay? My reply was that I would be a failure as a gay man if no one knew I was gay. What would be the point?

Editor’s Note – Ronald E. Wheeler Jr., Director of the Fineman and Pappas Law Libraries Associate Professor of Law and Legal Research, and 2016-2017 President of AALL (American Association of Law Libraries), granted LLRX permission to republish the beginning portion of his article, “About Microaggressions,” the full text of which is published in 108 Law Library Journal 321 (Spr 2016), and on SSRN.

Posted in: American Association of Law Libraries, Civil Liberties
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