WE BEEN BAMBOOZLED: Why POC should stop using the term Micro-Aggressions


Scenario: Student of color tells story of a professor, a person not of color, who embarrasses her/him in class for allegedly being late. The individual had entered the class prior to the professor being there. They left their bag and went to use the bathroom. They returned prior to class time. When they returned the professor, although class hadn’t officially started, proceeded to yell at the person of color for being late. Next class two students, not of color, entered class late—class had commenced. The professor did not reprimand these students for being late


Scenario: Person of color drives onto campus with proper credentials. Security guard stops him/her–denying entrance. Security guard questions the individual, while waving through cars driven by individuals not of color.


Scenario: Three persons of color greeting each other. Security guard, in an unmarked car, drives up. Guard drives slowly while lowering the passenger window. As the guard, a person not of color, gets parallel to the small group they come to an almost stop, looks at the group and smiles. Then drives on. One of the individuals of color states, “That was weird, that was very weird.”


What do these scenarios have in common?


A common thread is that the people of color characterized their experiences as “micro aggressions.”


My response: “Did the experience feel micro to you? What constitutes “micro”? Why not use the term racism?


This got me to thinking why are (some) people of color apt to use the term micro-aggression to explain their experiences with racisms? What are they hoping to get by deploying some terms? Clearly in talking to the individuals involved in all these scenarios, there was a feeling of hurt, of distrust, of being singled out. But more importantly, they recognized these events as not random or singular but as part of a much larger pattern of the treatment of people of color on majority campuses.


My thought is that we been bamboozled by those in power to use their language to explain our experiences. Meanwhile when we employ the language of “micro aggression” to talk about racism we are down playing the prevalence of our experiences and the resulting pain.


So who does the language of micro-aggression and the resulting responses benefit? I would dare say it doesn’t benefit people of color.


The on-going discussion on the relationship between micro-aggressions and free speech is truly misplaced, especially for those who experience racism on college campuses. This conversation, while interesting, fails to critically interrogate micro-aggression, as a concept, and instead belittles much of the experiences of racially minoritized individuals on college campuses. Simply put, the conversation on “hurt feelings”, micro-aggressions and free speech just misses the point. That’s why I argue that those harmed by racism and racial violence should reject the terminology of micro-aggressions and the resulting narratives that we are talking about “hurt feelings.”


The basic premise underlying the conceptualization of micro-aggressions is flawed. It plays into the larger narrative of “color blind racism” as it fails to truly explain and as such challenge the underlying structures of racial hierarchy and the exercise of power within these structures. Thus, when some argue, such as Elliott Snyder, that “no one wants to offend others, and no one wants to erode free speech—our goals are the same” the possibility of discussing and challenging racism on college campuses is further eroded. Offending others is not the same thing as racism. So the question should be how do we engage in meaningful discussions on racism on college campuses?


In defining the theory of micro-aggression, psychologist Derald Sue, states that such aggressions are “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” Furthermore, Sue argues that perpetrators of micro-aggressions are often unaware they are causing harm and generally intend no offense. This is where I argue that the theory of micro-aggression is flawed and as such fails to fully account for the experiences of racially marked individuals and collectives on college campuses.


The theory of micro-aggression is ahistorical. It fails to adequately explain why individuals are primed to respond to racialized individuals in a particular manner. Specifically, the theory of micro-aggression fails to account for how Blackness is marked and how those who encounter Blackness are primed to respond in a particular way. To suggest that there is a type of “innocence” associated with such behavior ignores how racial roles, expectations and oppressions are often explicit in our society. It also fails to critically interrogate why there is such “innocence” and how innocence is racialized. Thus, the ideology of white superiority becomes mystified and often denied by suggesting that there is a type of innocence associated with what some are now calling “slights” and “hurt” feelings. Racially coded language allows for the use of racist appeals without being explicit. So these “innocent” questions or statements must be fully analyzed and critiqued as products of historical, cultural, social and economic situations.


Additionally, the claim that micro-aggressions are “brief” is also flawed. Micro-aggressions are cumulative acts of racism that for those who experience them seem to blend and bleed into each other. For example, when a Black female student sits in a class and there is a discussion on race and she is the only Black student and all eyes turn on her, there is nothing brief in that moment for that student. This same student then encounters a professor who runs her hands through her hair while stating, “You look very ethnic today.” A security guard then asks her “are you a student here?” These are real-lived experiences of Black women on Historically White campuses. So suggesting that micro-aggressions are brief serves to individualize the experiences on the part of the individual engaging in the racist behavior while ignoring how such behaviors are woven into the fabric of institutions. Furthermore, there is a failure to account for the cumulative experiences of the recipients of said behavior. Speaking of racial harm as micro ignores the macro impact of such behaviors. Thus, the theory and rhetoric of micro-aggressions erases the individual and collective historical and systematic trauma experienced by those of African descent.


Finally, the theory and rhetoric of micro-aggression erases the reality of the level and extent of racially motivated hate crimes that occur on college campuses. A 1988 FBI report, based on the reporting of 450 colleges, indicated, “57 per- cent of hate crimes were motivated by race, 18 percent were motivated by anti-Semitism, and 16 percent were motivated by bias based on sexual orientation.” The National Center for Education Statistics, 2012, reported that race continues to be a primary motivator, followed by sexual orientation, of hate crimes on college campuses.


Race matters. Yet, we continue not to talk about it. Interestingly, some choose not to talk about race as college students of color are organizing against racism. Maybe this is a coincidence, but it cannot be overlooked. As these students seek to talk about racism those in power work to reconstruct their experiences as micro. The result is that institutions are further marginalizing racialized students. This is why I argue that we must talk about racism.


So, what do you think? Should POC use the term “micro-aggressions”? Is it politically expedient?



  • calwatch

    Like political correctness, micro-aggressions are a term used by the Right to marginalize those who have been offended. Either it’s racism and aggression, or it isn’t. Or if calling something racist is too loaded, then it’s just disparate treatment, and just call it out as it is – which may mean that everyone gets stopped and questioned, or everyone gets scolded for being late – but it would be equal and equitable.

    • Julia Jordan-Zachery

      Equality–is indeed the ultimate way for us all to be treated.