Is It a Micro-aggression or Oversensitivity?

Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 6.53.31 PM.png A few months ago, a respected colleague remarked to me that he'd noticed that I've chosen to "...wear a nappy hairstyle." This comment was made in a calm, matter-of-fact tone in front of a large class. To him, a white-male, it was a friendly observation of my afro textured hair.  To me, it was a micro-aggression. My testosterone surged and I immediately flashed back to the disgraced Mr. Don Imus. I felt angry and humiliated - but no one else seemed to notice - to others it was a seemingly normal interaction, failing to recognize that the word nappy conveys a demeaning message toward a disenfranchised group.  Even though no harm or malice was intended by the comment, I made the decision to initiate a request for an apology. My request was greeted with defensiveness, surprise and an inquiry as to my fixation on this minor slight. The perpetrators style of apologizing was code for "I didn't realize you were so sensitive."

As I write this post, I realize that this issue seems trite compared to our current world where macro-aggressions abound (i.e.: choosing not to allow Syrian refugees to live in the US out of a generalized fear of Muslims and the Middle East). I've also read the {brilliant} article in The Atlantic discussing how the increased demand for posted trigger warnings and the rise of the "victim-culture" is making it more difficult for teachers to educate out of fear of using incorrect language.

"For example, by some campus guidelines, it is a microaggression to ask an Asian American or Latino American 'Where were you born?,' because this implies that he or she is not a real American."

-The Coddling of The American Mind

There certainly is a nuance to understanding micro-aggressions, which is why we must incorporate that same level of nuance when seeking clarity on what constitutes one. It is without question that I, too, have unwittingly committed micro-aggressions against others, as the subtle prejudices and slights are used by even the most liberal parts of our polity.

Here are two examples that may allow us to begin a conversation in an effort to differentiate between micro-aggressions and innocuous comments:

Example #1: An Asian student does not get an A on a test. His fellow Caucasian students respond with a mock shock. Is this a micro-aggression or a case of oversensitivity?

Angela's two-cents: I view this to be a micro-aggression. Whether the student chooses to address this with his peers is up to them. I, an educator, and one who seeks to practice and point out inequalities, would likely use this as an opportunity to elicit consciousness in an effort to eliminate vestiges of racism, ableism and sexism wherever they exist.    ***This response is not required.

Example #2: ‘‘Come on now, we all have a disability of some kind!’’ Is this a micro-aggression or a case of oversensitivity?

Angela's two-cents: What do you think? I've purposefully left out any context for this statement as I'd like to hear your thoughts. 

It is important that we allow the victims of the micro-aggression to tell us whether a phrase felt irksome, innocuous or hurtful to them.  One reason micro-aggressions prevail is that by definition, the aggressor is always a person in the majority, or in a position of power - making it even more difficult for a minority to speak up about the infraction. Let's not confuse tone-policing with someone being hypersensitive.