Inclusive Pedagogy: Is the microaggressions concept helpful?

In December 2018 I was still working in industry, yet I was wrapping up applications to a number of colleges and universities, hoping to start back to school in the Fall 2019 semester. I knew that going back into academia would be difficult, but I was ready to face the intellectual challenges that stood between me and a doctoral degree. However, I was not mentally prepared for the level at which certain ideologies/concepts were prescribed in orientation, mandatory workshops, and the classroom. One of these concepts that I heard over and over again over the course of my first year in school was microaggressions.

Microaggressions are basically a comment or action of one individual that offends another person, where the offender does not intend to offend the other individual with their comment or action, making it only “micro” aggressive. They are sometimes likened to mosquito bites in that one small mosquito bite may not be a big deal to someone; however, many small mosquito bites that occur over and over again, day after day, are likely to make someone feel belittled or disparaged. To lay the groundwork for this blog post, I believe that we as human beings should do everything in our power to uphold the sanctity and dignity of human life, and as part of that, we should never intend to make people feel belittled, disparaged, or devalued. With that as a foundation, I also believe that there are serious problems with the concept of microaggressions. Below I will attempt to convey the 2 primary issues I have with microaggressions as I make my case for why I think this concept should be abandoned.

 

Issue 1 – Declaring guilt on those who are (perhaps) innocent: There is no doubt that if you have been paying attention to the news lately, you have heard the word ‘justice’ being used in multiple contexts. You’ve seen marches on the streets of U.S. cities where people are demanding justice for individuals killed by police officers. You have also seen government representatives hold press conferences where they assure us that investigators are working hard so that justice may be served. I don’t want to get into the details of individual cases; rather, I just want to point out that these are two different uses of the word ‘justice’ and these different uses have distinct implications. In the first situation where ‘justice’ is used, before an investigation is completed, before a grand jury announces their decision, before a trial is conducted, and before a verdict is issued, the offender is declared guilty by those offended, followed by immediate demands that justice be served to the (declared) guilty offender. In the second situation, the offender is declared innocent until proven guilty in a court of law where the facts of the case are presented from both sides and a citizen jury decides whether or not the offender is guilty of the alleged offense. I do not intend to start a philosophical discussion as to how the justice system in the United States should be (re)constructed or operated. Instead, I am intending to show the inherent goodness of the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ principle by offering one important piece of evidence – our own preference should we be the ones on the ‘other side.’ It is important to recognize that throughout much of U.S. history, this principle has not held true for all people, and it is important to acknowledge that this was morally wrong. The dilemma we face today is whether or not to uphold the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ principle despite the atrocities committed in the past, and I think for society to progress towards unity, the answer must be an unhesitant yes.

Our natural human instinct is to prefer an immediate and proportional response. We get hit, and we want to hit back. We get insulted, and we want to insult back. So when another individual is offended by a comment or action, it is merely our human nature that we desire a swift and proportional response to that perceived injustice. But what if the comment or action was not intended to harm or offend someone else? Does intent matter? I would argue yes, that intent does matter. Dr. Murzi offered a powerful and simple illustration of this in his interaction with his son and the knock-knock joke. Did Dr. Murzi intend to make his son upset? No, Dr. Murzi was actually intending to engage with his son in order to please his son – Dr. Murzi just didn’t know what his son was expecting of him. Therefore, I do not think it is right to say that Dr. Murzi did anything morally wrong – for how is he supposed to know something which he does not know? Similarly, people who unintentionally offend others with a comment or action should not be declared guilty of any moral wrongdoing on their part. Rather, they should be given grace and instructed on why the action/comment was offensive and how it can be avoided in the future.

Now what about the person who was offended or upset? Just because Dr. Murzi did not intend to upset his son, does that mean that his son’s feelings should be minimized or disregarded? Of course not. His son was still upset, regardless of the intent, and that has to be acknowledged.  In the same way, people who are offended by someone’s comment or action that was not intended to offend should still be recognized as an offended party. Their feelings/emotions are real and should be acknowledged and cared for by the one who offended them.

At this point, you might be asking the question “Well what about situations in which the person ought to know better or does know better?” That is indeed a great question. If a person does know that his comments/actions are offensive to someone else, and that person proceeds with the comment/action with the intent to offend or belittle or diminish someone else, then that is really just flat out ‘aggressive’ on the part of that individual, not ‘microaggressive.’ There is nothing ‘micro’ about intentionally wanting to offend other people. This is why I think the concept of microaggressions is unhelpful. It does not make any distinction between the people who intend to offend other people and the people who have good intentions but are misunderstood or uninformed.

The ‘innocent until proven guilty’ principle is inherently good because it does not put the burden of proof on someone who is accused of committing a crime to convince everyone beyond a shadow of a doubt of their own innocence – that would be next to impossible. Rather, the burden of proof lies on the prosecution to convince the jury beyond a shadow of a doubt that the defendant is guilt of committing the crime. Likewise, in the context of microaggressions, individuals should not be presumed guilty of an immoral comment or action if their intent was good. They may be uninformed or misunderstood; however, to declare that such a person is guilty of an immoral comment or action based solely on the perception of the offended individual is actually creating a ‘guilty because I felt so’ environment. If you were the one who unintentionally offended another person, would you prefer to be declared guilty based on another person’s feelings? If you were accused of committing a crime against someone else that you did not do, wouldn’t you prefer the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ principle?

 

Issue 2 – Creating divisions, not unity: There is much to be said about the things happening in today’s culture. Lines are drawn and people are encouraged to pick a side and stand firmly in opposition to everyone who isn’t on their side. This ‘us versus them’ mentality is everywhere, and it is actually refreshing to find a place where this mindset is lacking. I would argue that this concept of microaggressions contributes to the division we see in our culture without actually attacking the root of the problem. But what is the root problem? Going back to the example of Dr. Murzi and his son – what caused Dr. Murzi’s son to become upset? It was the fact that Dr. Murzi did not respond according to his expectations. Why did Dr. Murzi not respond according to his expectations? It is because he did not know how he was supposed to respond – this is the root problem. If Dr. Murzi knew how to respond correctly to his son, his son would not have become upset. However, if Dr. Murzi knew how to correctly respond and chose to respond incorrectly with the intent to make his son upset, then that would be an act of aggression – an intentional offense – not a microaggression. So the root problem is knowledge and understanding. Again, this begs the question, how are people supposed to know what they do not know?

The concept of microaggressions causes division in that it declares that the offending party has done something morally wrong. This automatically divides the two parties, putting them at odds with one another because when someone is accused of doing something morally wrong when their intent was actually good, they tend to defend themselves. Why do they defend themselves? Because when someone does something morally wrong, there are usually consequences or punishments that follow, the least severe of which being some form of penance owed to the offended party. Thus, people get defensive in these situations because the ‘punishment’ does not necessarily fit the ‘crime.’

Instead of pointing out the faults of other people and demanding their repentance, it is probably a better use of time and energy to help people understand why their comments or actions were offensive and how they can change for the better. I think in most instances, honesty about why someone was offended usually leads the other person to sincerely apologize for (even unintentionally) offending them. Strong relationships can be forged in this kind of honest engagement, rather than creating a divided, hostile situation via moral accusations. For anyone who has made it this far in reading my thoughts, I sincerely thank you for the time you spent engaging with me on this topic, and I encourage you to post your thoughts in response. I can assure you that I will take no offense over disagreements to my post. I will make every effort to thoughtfully respond to your comments, although please forgive me if my response is delayed in this very busy semester.

– Steven

6 thoughts on “Inclusive Pedagogy: Is the microaggressions concept helpful?

  • October 1, 2020 at 12:52 am
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    Steven,

    I could not agree with you more in your blog post. I have been thinking some of the same things while trying to write my blog post, but haven’t been able to put them into words. Up until now in my program, my classes have been very focused on my degree’s subject matter, and I have not really taken any classes where these types of topics even enter the discussion since my first or second year as an undergraduate. It seems that we have jumped past the point of discussing whether or not concepts such as microaggressions are valid or helpful and are now expected to just go along with it.

    As you expressed, “I believe that we as human beings should do everything in our power to uphold the sanctity and dignity of human life, and as part of that, we should never intend to make people feel belittled, disparaged, or devalued”. I am a quiet person who keeps to himself, and never would want to do anything to hurt anyone, intentionally or unintentionally. I do not have a problem with anyone who does not do any harm to me, and I hope others feel the same way about me. However, there has to be a point at which we are not at fault for unknowingly offending someone. We cannot know every single thing that will offend anyone on earth. There are way too many people from way to many backgrounds, cultures, and situations for that. Not to mention the fact that what is considered offensive often changes frequently. While there is something to be said for being cognizant of when we are offending others, there is also something to be said for others needing to be patient and understanding with someone who has good intentions. Instantaneous volatile reactions to someone unknowingly saying or doing something slightly offensive only creates division and makes people, especially quiet people like me, not want to talk to anyone at all for fear of being ridiculed for something we are not aware of.

    Austin Garren

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    • October 6, 2020 at 4:08 pm
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      Hi Austin, thanks for your comment. I have also observed what you mentioned about being “expected to just go along with it,” in culture in general but especially in the academy. I think there is a bit of irony in this as well since there are entire disciplines created around engaging critically with things like cultural norms; however, critical engagement with certain ideas that are taught in the academy are not always welcomed. Like you said, it is definitely a good thing to recognize and be aware when we unintentionally offend other people, but I think there are other, more helpful ways to create this type of awareness instead of using the microaggressions concept/framework.

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  • October 1, 2020 at 3:49 pm
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    Hi Steven! I agree with your post, and found it really insightful. I especially agreed with the last paragraph, that lasting relationships can be forged when we have those conversations. At the end of the day, a university is a place for students to learn. To learn that perhaps what they were taught growing up and thought of as the “norm” can be offensive to some. Undergrad was a place for me to grow, expand my views, and allow me to become a better informed person overall. I agree with your sentiment of taking it as an opportuntiy to teach students on what a microaggression is, even if we are not exclusively using that language. In my blog post I talked about “lived experience” versus “unlived experience.” Taking it as a teaching opportunity for students allows them to turn their unlived experience into “semi-lived experience.” As a teacher, you have the ability to use your position and teach students things they will remember the rest of their life. It’s always crazy when I get a student email after the semester is over and they tell me the impact I had one them. When in reality, I go into the classroom everyday hoping no one sees through me.

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    • October 6, 2020 at 4:15 pm
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      Hi Brittany, I really appreciate your comment. I have felt the exact same thing that you mention in your last sentence and it is a very hard feeling to overcome. I heard it last semester referred to as “imposter syndrome” and it is comforting to know that many other people share similar feelings. So thank you for sharing that – and you are not alone, because I often feel the same way.

      And yes, I agree with you that higher education offers a great opportunity for students to learn about different cultures and how to engage with others from different backgrounds. However, I think that it would be more impactful for students if it were approached in another way which is ultimately why I wrote my post.

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  • October 4, 2020 at 8:15 pm
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    While I understand your points, I think that sometimes impact is more important than intentions. Your reference to Dr. Murzi’s anecdote was quite interesting to me because that situation was an example of why we should use culturally responsive pedagogy and teaching not an example of a microagression. And even in that situation, even though he did not mean to hurt his son’s feelings his son still was crying. Dr. Murzi recognized the unintended impact of his actions and acknowledged that it still hurt his son. Even if you do not agree with the concept of microaggressions, I think if you care about people then you will acknowledge instances when you hurt them even if it’s unintentional and would want to learn how to prevent hurting them in the fugture. Otherwise, you are invalidating their feelings and lived experience because of your own percieved “innocence”.

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    • October 6, 2020 at 4:35 pm
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      Hi Sophia, thank you very much for your post. I agree with you. We cannot invalidate or minimize other people’s feelings or experiences, and I addressed this issue in my post as well (I copied and pasted the section in quotes below for your convenience).

      “Now what about the person who was offended or upset? Just because Dr. Murzi did not intend to upset his son, does that mean that his son’s feelings should be minimized or disregarded? Of course not. His son was still upset, regardless of the intent, and that has to be acknowledged. In the same way, people who are offended by someone’s comment or action that was not intended to offend should still be recognized as an offended party. Their feelings/emotions are real and should be acknowledged and cared for by the one who offended them.”

      And yes, although Dr. Murzi’s story was originally used as an example of why we should use culturally responsive pedagogy, I think the story also perfectly illustrates why the concept of microaggressions is unhelpful. Dr. Murzi did not intend to hurt his son’s feelings, but his son’s feelings were hurt. Did Dr. Murzi do something morally wrong? Of course not. But does that make his son feel better? No, his son’s feelings are still hurt. The question that we must answer is “How do we respond to this situation?”

      Within the framework of microaggressions, someone has to be held accountable for the perceived offense. In this scenario, Dr. Murzi would be guilty of committing an offense – a “microaggresive” act – against his son, and Dr. Murzi and his son are divided into offending and offended parties. My argument is that this is not a helpful way to address the problem because it unjustly condemns Dr. Murzi for doing something that he didn’t know was wrong, and it creates division between Dr. Murzi and his son. If the goal is to divide people and assign blame/guilt for such an “offense,” then I think the microaggressions concept works. However, if the goal is to restore Dr. Murzi and his son’s relationship and to encourage learning and changed behavior moving forward, then a different approach must be taken. Leaving the concept of microaggressions behind and starting the discussion of what an alternative approach looks like would be a step forward in my opinion.

      Reply

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