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Microaggression is the new face of racism



Barcelona's Brazilian defender Dani Alves brilliantly got past a nasty racial slur on him. He ate away the banana thrown at him during a soccer match at Villareal in Italy. Bananas have "long been the projectile of choice for racist soccer fans, targeted at black and South American players in attempts to compare them to monkeys." Apparently, throwing banana may look an innocuous deed but deep within it was a virulent racist action aimed at inflicting serious affront — a perfect example of microaggression.

Immediate response to this racial attack on Alves or display of microaggression has been sweeping and overwhelming. Scores of soccer players, irrespective of their race, stood in solidarity with Barcelona's Brazilian star and condemned the slight. Many of them posed with banana and tweeted their photographs.

Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature of Columbia University John McWhorter asks: Is microaggression the new racism? Yes it is.

Take the example of that black female student of a university in Britain. On her way to a campus cafeteria she was complimented on her look by some white students. That was an affront of not any ordinary degree. And again when in Australia or in the United States and elsewhere in Europe students and professionals from Asian countries are frequently commented upon for their "cute" and "handsome" looks and accents the slights are deeply racial masked behind what the perpetrators claim innocuous.

At a ball in New Zealand my friend was told that two hundred years of colonial rule in India taught the natives how to dress perfectly. It was a cringe-inducing praise not overtly aggressive in nature but extremely demeaning in essence.

Such slights are apparently not the language of traditional racism but as McWhorter says even small slights can carry a lot of weight. Yes they do for they, in subtle manners, underestimate and insult people on the basis of their colour, ethnicity, gender, economic status and intellectual capabilities. These slights, microaggessions, create barriers and painfully differentiate belittling humans.

Today, racism is a taboo word. We are taught from our infancy that discriminating on the basis of stereotype is not just a crime but a sin. But has this teaching erased the blight completely? We may have grown more conscious and avoid being too overt nowadays in expressing our racial feelings. The scourge, in fact, has now found subtler ways of expression through microaggression.

This concept or the nomenclature isn't new but was coined in 1970s by Harvard professor of Education and Psychiatry Chester M. Pierce. For long the concept of microaggression had remained a matter of discussion, study and research of the academics. Recently, since 2007 to be precise, people began to use the term to describe the slights — the covert and subtle expression of racism.

Microaggression is essentially, according to Derald W. Sue, a Professor of Psychology at Columbia University, microassault, microinsult and microinvalidation. In his book, Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation, Professor Sue "attributed the increased use of the term to the rapidly changing demographics in which minorities are expected to outnumber whites in the United States by 2042."

Of late, the concept has amplified and has assumed a broader connotation. My friend's dinner with his wife was recently punctuated when a gentleman from the United Kingdom walked up to him and admired some of the recent Indian writers in English language. This incident happened a day after Khushwant Singh passed away. Did he mean that had the Indians not been ruled by colonial powers they would not have mastered the language?  None felt the remark amusing or witty. It smacked of prejudice and aggression based on chauvinism expressed subtly and wrapped in warped humour.  

McWhorter is spot on and I agree with him on the fact that microagggression is a filthy way to keep some perceived grievances going where it gets ever harder to call people on naked bigotry.

In Europe and in the United States microaggression is on the rise. There was a time when such slights were either ignored or laughed away or considered as harmless jokes. But no more are these slights taken as harmless or unintended jives. Since past few years victims have become more outspoken in sharing their insults. Blogs and social media are getting flooded with reports of microaggressions.

Responses against such reports and complaints of microaggressions have been macro aggressive. There are deniers who believe that microaggression is a misnomer which is not the new face of racism. Microaggression do not express discriminations on stereotype, apartheid and assert superiority of any kind. These respondents feel that the hue and cry over microaggression is only a means to create a mountain out of a mole hill.

Kenneth R. Thomas of the University of Wisconsin – Madison is obviously a critic and feels that microaggression will only restrict rather than promote candid interaction between members of different racial groups.

Kenneth and his ilk are wrong. In their sweeping exoneration of a growing curse microaggression deniers are denying what Tori DeAngelis has put forth very powerfully and with absolute certainty. Some racism is so subtle that neither victim nor perpetrator may entirely understand what is going on — which may be especially toxic for people of colour.   

The author is the Opinion Editor of Times of Oman. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman.


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