I first heard the term “microaggression” while eating dinner with a group of Asian-American students at Williams College back in 2012. I had been invited to address the group about an article I had written in New York magazine about the undercurrent of distress that shadowed the (then and now) largely obscure, neglected personal lives of Asian-Americans. The students were engaged in an (it must be admitted—exceedingly polite) activist campaign to bring an Asian-American studies major to the college.
As I discussed the article and its reception, the students interjected various bits of jargon from their ethnic-studies courses that named the notions I described. When the students asked if I had encountered racism, I said that the racism I had encountered had seldom been overt but had typically taken the form of something too subtle to call an act of open racial animosity. The students explained that what I had encountered were “microaggressions.”
I hated the sound of that brutal academic neologism, but I suspected it had a bright future ahead of it. It named something that didn’t have a name. It named something real. The paradigmatic microaggression that the term’s creator, Derald Wing Sue highlighted in his 2010 book, Microaggressions in Everyday Life, was when Joe Biden, intending to praise Barack Obama, managed to do so in part by subtly denigrating all other black people. “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”
Sue goes on to explain what made the statement microaggressive:
While on the surface the comment by Biden can be interpreted as praise, the metacommunication (hidden message) communicated to blacks is “Obama is an exception. Most blacks are unintelligent, inarticulate, dirty, and unattractive.” Such a racial microaggression allows the perpetrator to acknowledge and praise a person of color, but also allows him or her to express group stereotypes.
There was acuity, even subtlety, in Sue’s description of what a microaggression was and how it functioned. Yet if the term “microaggressions” was new, the phenomenon was hardly the product of modern American life. People have, of course, always exposed their conscious or unconscious biases in backhanded statements. The comedic novels of Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse hinge on them. In retrospect, Seinfeld wasn’t actually a show about nothing. It was a show about microaggressions.
But Sue is not just an observer of the way people talk. Nor is he funny. He is a psychologist operating in a context in which therapeutic concepts of harm have metastasized to encompass what we all once understood to be the unavoidable vicissitudes of daily life. The critic Daniel Mendelsohn, writing in The New York Review of Books, recently described the phenomenon of “declining student resilience,” citing, among other instances, a case in which college students sought counseling after seeing a mouse. In turn, what rendered this claim plausible was a model of the human personality that regarded the psyche as inherently fragile. Adversity had ceased to be a stimulus to growth and strength. It had become a source of trauma that we now had the morality, the wisdom, the will, and the means to combat.
The liberal ideal of formal equality before the law, premised on the existence of autonomous individuals capable of self-government, has increasingly begun to give way to a rival doctrine, which holds that administrative agencies must take responsibility for protecting people from the subjective experience of injury, no matter how minor. “Although they may appear like insignificant slights, or banal and trivial in nature,” Sue writes in an article summarizing his work in Psychology Today, “studies reveal that racial microaggressions have powerful detrimental consequences to people of color.”
Sue goes on to claim that microaggressions:
(a) assail the mental health of recipients, (b) create a hostile and invalidating work or campus climate, (c) perpetuate stereotype threat, (d) create physical health problems, (e) saturate the broader society with cues that signal devaluation of social group identities, (f) lower work productivity and problem solving abilities, and (g) be partially responsible for creating inequities in education, employment and health care.
The invocation of the juridical term “hostile climate” clearly signaled that microaggression was, wittingly or not, always fated to become the tip of the spear of a quasi-legal campaign to weaponize therapeutic language in pursuit of an audacious goal: the eradication of the residual biases and prejudices that linger in people’s unconscious.
Sue’s description of the microaggression oscillated in the tone with which it treated the microaggressor. He readily acknowledged that microaggressors were often well-intended people who meant no harm. But the crux of his theory was the claim that microaggression was just as psychologically injurious as overt racism: perhaps even more so. “It is not the White supremacist, Ku Klux Klan members, or skinheads, for example, who pose the greatest threat to people of color,” writes Sue in the preface to Microaggresions, “but instead well-intentioned people, who are strongly motivated by egalitarian values, believe in their own morality, and experience as fair-minded and decent people who would never constantly discriminate.” The sentence contained the thesis of one of 2016’s most popular and acclaimed films, the horror movie Get Out, which portrayed ostensibly well-meaning white liberals as racist monsters.
Why have racial disparities outlasted the attainment of formal equality before the law? Microaggression was one part of a battery of concepts intended to explain those disparities with reference to a persistent and pervasive racism built right into the structure of reality. One line of inquiry focused on the practical difficulty of enforcing civil rights law that rendered it a notional protection in many or even most instances. Still another noted the de facto persistence of discrimination in housing, lending, policing, and sentencing that permitted the maintenance of segregated communities.
A third body of social psychological research sought to measure and provide remedies at the level of the individual psyche. Terms like “unconscious bias” and “stereotype threat” were part of a general account of “aversive racism.” “Aversive racists,” writes Sue, “genuinely believe they are non-prejudiced, espouse egalitarian values, and would never consciously discriminate, but they, nevertheless, harbor unconscious biases that may result in discriminatory actions.” While the Implict Assesment Test sought to measure unconscious bias, it was the “microaggression” that made hidden biases manifest in the world. The “microaggression” was the actionable part of the battery of concepts describing aversive racism. Through the constant iteration of small slights, the theory went, minorities and women were subjected to massive cumulative injuries that taught them their marginality in a world that belonged to white men.
The exponents of implicit bias sought to create programs to train people out of their unconscious biases. The microaggression was the discrete act that could be reported and punished. And while the claim that the IAT test can measure implicit bias has crumbled under scrutiny, the interventions designed around such instruments continue apace, with hundreds of universities now maintaining bias-response teams to whom microaggressive statements and acts by students and faculty alike can be reported.
Enumerated lists of microaggressions to avoid include statements such as “America is the land of opportunity,” “America is a melting pot,” and “I believe the most qualified person should be hired.” By redefining what had once been a series of unexceptional statements expressing the common wisdom of a previous day as microaggressive, the exponents of the microaggression campaign sought to resolve a series of contested political questions by administrative fiat. There is a substantial body of empirical data demonstrating that the ladder of mobility has been withdrawn from Americans of all colors, with unusually injurious effects on black Americans—with the exception of the immigrants (chiefly Asians) who still experience high levels of upward mobility. But the debate is increasingly no longer something to win or lose, but rather something to police out of existence.
Much of the attention on speech issues on campus has focused on the behavior of student activists. But what truly matters is that college administrators have turned the spaces they regulate into laboratories in which various schemes for a merger of therapeutic premises with administrative power can be enacted as proof of concept of an intended racial future for the United States. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. noted in 1993, it is a vision in which claims of psychological harm license an unconstrained exercise of power, one that is “scarcely consistent with human freedom.”
The model of the human personality as inherently fragile and susceptible to trauma was, of course, a premise of the recovery movement of the 1980s and 1990s, whose avatar was the television talk-show host Oprah Winfrey. That the atavistic spasm of the Trump presidency should give way to a Winfrey presidency—two different aspects of the cultural of narcissism conjoined in apparent opposition—seems a more or less irresistible terminus for the American experiment.
Or is it? Yet another parallel for the campaign to police microaggressions may be the ACLU’s long campaign to oust Christian observance from the public square, which used the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to restrict the expression of the vast majority of the country in deference to the sensitivities of a tiny minority. The minority told the majority that they weren’t allowed to do things that they had long been habituated to doing, and which they regarded as a core part of their own identity and faith. The impetus for this legal campaign, whose reasoning was judged to be sound by the Supreme Court, was of course not purely formalistic or doctrinal. It emerged from out of the status politics of everyday life—an exercise of power by a rising minority, namely Jews, to remove practices that made (some of them) feel like aliens in their own land.
The curbing of open religious displays in American public spaces was a symbolic concession to the equal dignity of the Jews sought by a faction of a group no longer content to occupy a marginal place in the life of the country. In turn, the success of the campaign helped incite the emergence in the 1970s of the Christian right, which helped bring Ronald Reagan to power, beginning a series of conservative political victories won on the basis of culture war issues that in the end proved powerless to prevent the eventual triumph of secular, liberal values, no matter how many statehouses or branches of the federal government Republicans control.
Both the movement against religious displays and the current campaign against microaggressions were attempts by minorities to restrict the freedom of expression of majorities. Both assailed unspoken but strongly held premises: In the case of the ACLU campaign, that America was a Christian nation, and in the microaggression campaign, that America is a white nation. Both were bold incursions on the liberty of the majority of the country.
Through the constant iteration of small slights, minorities and women were subjected to massive cumulative injuries that taught them their marginality in a world that belonged to white men.
The difference, of course, is that the ACLU campaign was conducted within the spirit and framework of the U.S. Constitution, with reference to its underlying principles, while the microaggression campaign seeks to bend or trash that framework in the name of some higher principle of recompense for group suffering. The ACLU campaign sought to satisfy a Jewish craving for recognition by affirming a neutral principle that would apply to all, while the therapeutic state divides the country into a class of the oppressors, whose freedom must be fettered, and a class of the oppressed, whose interests must be explicitly bolstered. To the Christian right, this was a distinction without a difference. But the terms of the Constitutional settlement have survived the onslaught of the Christian Right and become an accepted part of our understanding of our country because it was consistent with the genius of the American system. Whereas what began as a simple description of a certain kind of back-handed speech act has grown, through the slow accretion of jargon and practice, into the conceptual germ of a machinery to transform America by administrative fiat.
Asian-Americans occupy a role analogous to Jews in the midst of this campaign. They are a minority who are indeed subject to microaggression in the form of daily quotidian insults to their dignity—which fact has not prevented them from becoming the best-educated and highest-income demographic in America. A study in which emails requesting a meeting were sent to professors under a variety of identifiably ethnic names found that Asian Americans were the group least likely to receive a reply. A study done of online dating sites found that an Asian-American men needed to have an income $247,000 higher than an otherwise comparable white counterpart to have an equal chance of receiving a reply. These outcomes have everything to do with race. They reflect biases that impinge on a wide range of other domains of Asian American experience.
But the attempt to remediate such disparities through the therapeutic state would obviously be untenable. Since all of this activity exists online and is trackable, we already have the machinery of surveillance in place to begin holding people to account—perhaps simply by keeping a running index of one’s inclusiveness in one’s personal correspondence or dating choices. There are a variety of “nudges” we could conceivably begin building into the system architecture to promote inclusiveness. The end of privacy and freedom could indeed help attain a variety of goals that would make life safer, more pleasant, and more just: The challenge is to remember what would be lost with the end of privacy and freedom. In their zeal to measure other indices, many seem to have lost track of such values.
This creates a liminal condition for the Asian-American. He knows the resentments of the nonwhite person subject to aversive racism, even as his own experience would appear to disprove the claim that small traumas inflicted by well-meaning people could possibly account for the maintenance of massive racial disparities in education and income. On the one hand, it’s possible that the gap in average educational attainment and income that favors Asian-Americans over white Americans would be even larger than it already is if white people never asked people of Asian descent “Where are you really from?” On the other hand, it doesn’t seem impossible that the minor affronts to the equal dignity of Asian people serve as a stimulus to growth and strength that causes them to achieve more than they otherwise would. Is it a microaggression to entertain the hypothesis?
This is not, of course, to say that microaggression is therefore desirable or good, or that campaigns that drive awareness of them (as opposed to regimes that police them) can’t have a salutary effect. There’s nothing wrong with using social reward and punishment to sculpt behavior; that, after all, is what etiquette is, and there’s nothing wrong with organized constituencies exercising power to tilt etiquette in their favored direction. But when the expectations are unclear, the enforcement mechanism arbitrary, the sanctions disproportionate, the surveillance pervasive, and the stakes of the encounter grounded in hyperbolic and untenable claims of massive injury, one should expect something like the ramping of racial tension we’ve seen in the last few years. No lasting settlement is possible on the basis of such terms.
This is why I believe that the racial future of America hinges upon Asian-Americans to a much greater degree than anyone expects: to the choices that Asian Americans make about whether they will be guided by their interests or their resentments, and the choices the country makes in how they choose to regard and treat Asian-Americans. The Asian-American is elided from opinion surveys and demographic data for the simple reason that they unsettle the narrative of the therapeutic state in a way that induces cognitive dissonance, and calls current political alignments and assumptions into question.
We can already see the germ of the kind of role that Asian-Americans will be tasked to play in the years and decades to come. Asian-American deans were installed at Yale and the University of Missouri soon after the racial controversies at those campuses precisely because of the position that they were assumed to occupy—somewhere in-between, with a foot in both camps.
America has ceased to be a white nation. It has to make concessions to the hunger for recognition of various nonwhite groups, including Asians. It has to figure out a way to do so in a manner that will preserve the integrity of its institutions, which have managed to accommodate diversity chiefly by hewing to the core insight that only the individual deserves protection. We have some latitude to take measures that push against the margins of this guideline in deference to past injustices and continuing disparities. But the one approach that definitely will not work is declaring all white people to be irremediably tainted by racism at the level of the unconscious and all nonwhite people to be fragile to the point of inanition at the touch of slights that appear banal and trivial. The primary debility of this model of human personality is that it is false. From this debility flows a cascade of interventions that have the potential to shatter our social compact.
This is the third of three Meme Wars columns on the racial future of the United States. Read the first here, and the second here.
Wesley Yang is the author of The Souls of Yellow Folk.