October 16, 2013 | 3
Please welcome the next guest group, the Microaggression Tumblr!
The discussions sparked by the recent removal of DNLee’s blog post about her treatment by a member of the scientific community is a great teaching moment on how marginalization in the sciences, or any sector of society, operates in everyday life.
These incidents may seem specific or isolated, but it is necessary to recognize how they are always tied to larger social power dynamics. Bias and bigotry do not appear from thin air. In order to properly combat them, we must elevate the discussion beyond one simply about explicit bigotry to one about social power and privilege.
In the lives of women, people of color, and members of other and multiple marginalized social identities, hostile interactions toward them – especially ones that are subtle or unintended – happen so often that one wishes it were possible to collect them all and display them, side by side, to demonstrate how power is exercised today.
Three years ago, this is exactly what we did.
Initially posting on a Tumblr blog, we founded The Microaggressions Project, a collection of reader-submitted stories about moments of subtle bigotry in people’s everyday interactions that marginalize, silence, or oppress. Borrowed from counseling psychology literature, “microaggressions” are subtle forms of aggression in everyday life that convey derogatory messages towards people on the basis of their race, gender, class, sexual orientation, or other marginalized identities (Sue, 2007).
Microaggressions take many forms. Some of them rely on the use of stereotyping. (A car salesman has doubt about whether a woman can drive a stick shift even after she indicates that she can.) Many of them are formulated as positive remarks or compliments. (A professor believes an Asian student is innately gifted in the math and sciences on the basis of race alone.) Others are used to police a person’s self-expression. (A mother expresses disapproval about her son’s choice of clothing, which she perceives as “too gay.”) The common thread underlying these “microaggressive” incidents is that, for those on the receiving end, these expressions accumulate over the span of a lifetime to uniquely impact their thoughts, emotions, and lived experience. Experiencing chronic microaggressions can act as a form of trauma for some, particularly because microaggressions’ frequent invisibility often denies targets the agency to claim being discriminated against. Microaggressions work to perpetuate stereotypes and social inequalities that constrain the behavior and possibilities of individuals with marginalized identities.
Microaggressions occur in all sectors of society, the sciences included. Microaggressions can decide the division of labor in a lab or group. (A professor asks the only woman graduate student in his laboratory to spend time arranging a social event.) They can diminish, discourage, or discount the intellectual accomplishments of members of marginalized groups in academia. (Fellow graduate students showing surprise and doubt when a black graduate student gets a better grade.) They can internally discourage students from getting the academic support they need. (A female student is afraid to reach out for academic help because she worries she is perpetuating a stereotype of female incapability.) They can limit the advancement of academics from underrepresented groups in the sciences. (Senior professors express concern over the rigor and potential of a junior professor of color, although he or she may have the same qualifications as other white professors.) Most insidiously, they can even influence the very formation of hypotheses in scientific research, a notorious example of which is the conflation of the social constructions of race or culture with conceptions about biological reality. (Investigators may attribute social or cultural distinction between two racial groups to their biological difference, or geneticists may classify individuals into discrete racial groups determined by American or European social or historical preconceptions.)
This project was founded by two members of our current staff when, as undergraduate students at Columbia University, we witnessed subtly racist and sexist publicity materials distributed by a group of students running for student government. When confronted, these students tried to detach themselves from any explicit racist or sexist intent, even though the discriminatory language behind their materials was clear. Something quickly became apparent to us: part of the challenge of articulating how certain situations are problematic lies in not being able to tie them to larger social dynamics at play. These dynamics cause women, people of color, etc. to receive and to observe hostility on a daily basis when such hostility may be invisible to people who do not share their experience.
This project was initially founded as a log of personal anecdotes, but we quickly realized the collaborative power of receiving thousands of submissions from internet users around the world. And in the process of working on this project, we have been interviewed in various media outlets and have had opportunities to speak to students at universities around the country. Each of these experiences impressed upon us the fact that microaggressions are pervasive across society and leave upon each person an enormous and lasting psychological impact. We know that there are deep truths to the idea of microaggressions that must be made visible and articulated in public.
And since the project’s founding, we have seen the term “microaggression” used in public discourse with increasing frequency among writers, academics, and activists, on topics ranging from workplace discrimination to online bullying. This is incredibly heartening. Our hope is that these interactions will be seen not as anomalies, but as trends and building blocks that form the everyday experience of marginalized people. Being able to identify what these uncomfortable and sometimes painful situations are is the first step in changing the society that causes individuals to express ideas that bias and discriminate.
To be clear, slurs like “whore” do not fall under the category of microaggressions; they are aggressions outright. It’s important to distinguish between what is and is not a microaggression, because the subtle nature of these interactions is part of what makes the idea of microaggressions so compelling. Microaggressions do not include hate speech or physical assault. Instead, they characterize moments of insult and bigotry that manifest subtlely and make up a vast part of the everyday experience of racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination.
But to begin to understand how we live in a world where it is possible for a female scientist to be called a “whore” in an email exchange with an editor and her reaction to be excluded from discussion in the scientific community, we have to talk about how racialized and gendered power dynamics impact the culture of scientific research, science communication, and scientists’ professional lives. Whether the science community recognizes the influences of social power dynamics will be fundamental to preventing both explicit and implicit incidents of bias and discrimination from taking place in the future.
We can begin to ask some questions here. What is inside and outside the scope of discussion in the scientific community? What kind of discussion is considered irrelevant, threatening or inappropriate, and what does this reveal about the sciences? Why is the impact of personal experience being valued less than other types of empirical information? Who in the scientific community is treated more professionally than others? Who is more at risk of marginalization in the sciences, one who raises objections to bigotry or one whose social power enabled them to express their bigotry? In general, why is science perceived to be divorced from social politics? What are the politics of science research funding, and how do they influence findings? Why does research conducted by women attract 0.7 citations for each citation received by research by men? What are the implicit limitations imposed on the professional advancement of female scientists, and how are they fueled by gendered conceptions of work and intellectual contribution? What drives income gaps between scientists with similar qualifications?
An investigation into any of these questions would likely begin with the recognition that discrimination seems to be subtle and interpersonal and can accumulate to substantive consequences for both the scientific community and our world at large.
We’re currently accepting pitches for longform writing on unique personal experiences and perspectives on microaggressions for publication on our site. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for details. As always, we accept submissions as well.
Sue DW, Capodilupo CM, Torino GC, Bucceri JM, Holder AM, Nadal KL, Esquilin M. Racial microaggressions in everyday life: implications for clinical practice. Am Psychol. 2007 May-Jun;62(4):271-86.
The Microaggressions Project (http://microaggressions.com) is an online arts and activism project co-founded by Vivian Lu and David Zhou, and edited by Jia Ahmad and Kimberly Ashby. Vivian Lu is a PhD student in cultural anthropology at Stanford University. David Zhou is a Master’s student in computational biology at Carnegie Mellon University. Jia Ahmad is a post-baccalaureate premedical student at Johns Hopkins University. Kimberly Ashby is a doctoral student in counseling psychology at Boston College where she is the Associate Coordinator of the Institute for the Study and Promotion of Race and Culture (ISPRC) under Janet Helms, PhD. Find us on Facebook and Twitter at @microaggressive. The editorial staff can be reached by email at email@example.com.