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17/06/2019 Communication Science news and articles

(Un)Intentional hostility: microaggressions

With the controversy of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet fresh in our minds, this article looks at the complexities of microaggressions.


Without going into a festive paraphernalia I am not familiar with, the yearly appearance of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet did spark some in-class discussion before Christmas about what some perceive as acceptable and what others feel is offensive. Now that the spirit of Christmas has left us, I thought it might be a good time to reflect on a complex aspect of interpersonal communication: microaggressions.

First, “microaggression” is an umbrella term that potentially encompasses all the everyday expressions and behaviours one might engage in that are hostile, derogatory and generally express a negative prejudice or insult towards another. Leaving hostility to one side, the other fundamental characteristic of these aggressions is that they can be intentional or unintentional, however subtle their delivery, and here is an example to better illustrate my point. The Oxford Living Dictionaries defines a microaggression as “a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority”. Thus, by focusing on the marginalization of the recipient of such unwanted attention as one of the defining factors, they are unintentionally implying that women, common targets of microaggressions and half humanity, are necessarily marginalized groups.

Here is an instructive explanation through the use of Hollywood films of what forms these unkind gestures can take. In short, there is a continuum to this issue, where one end represents the deliberate and conscious employ of violent or offensive language, and the other describes their unconscious use. Then, within that spectrum, three types of microaggressions can be found: microassaults, what we would identify as conscious and outright racism or chauvinism, for example; microinsults, subtler and more cunning behavioural patterns in which a person is demeaned on the basis of gender, ethnicity or any stereotype; and microinvalidations, instances in which a seemingly unimportant claim assails and negates the identity or thoughts of a person for similar reasons.

Now, going back to the basis on which these aggressions may be inflicted, ethnicity and gender are not the only ones. Besides them one can find violent attitudes arising from negative stereotypes on sexual orientation and disabilities. Just the same as there can be non-verbal and environmental aggressions when one might tend to think this is a concept that is necessarily verbal. The list of possible targets of this behaviour are endless if there is no self-awareness that might prevent it, and while it certainly is difficult to manage unconscious biases, gaining awareness of the idea that there is such room for improper interpersonal communication is a very important first step.

Note: it is also worth checking micro-inequities and micro-affirmations.

Cover: Unsplash/Hasan Almasi (https://unsplash.com/photos/OwqLxCvoVxI)

 

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