In January, a white female knitter, Karen Templer, wrote a blog about her excitement at being able to finally take a trip to India. She talked about the beauty and exoticism of a place that she had admired for so many years. “I’ve wanted to go to India for as long as I can remember,” she wrote. “I’ve a lifelong obsession with the literature and history of the continent.”
The backlash to the post was swift. An avalanche of readers accused her of being immersed in her white privilege, incapable of seeing how her description of India as an “alien” place was offensive and demeaning. The blogger immediately got the message and provided this supine apology:
“I have hurt, angered and disappointed a lot of people this week,” she wrote, explaining: “I perpetuated the harmful notion that Indians (and POC in general) are ‘other,’ or even to be feared. People who are the target of racism every day were rightly offended by it, as were others. And I am so sorry.”
The apology is almost worse than the attacks of “white privilege,” because it shows how quickly we can be bullied into thinking that we have done something wrong simply because another person tells us we have.
Posts like Templer’s are often accused of containing micro-aggressions. As defined in Psychology Today, micro-aggressions “are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. In many cases, these hidden messages may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment.”
Micro-aggressions are not your grandparent’s form of bigotry. A noose hanging from a tree branch, a swastika on a tombstone, a beheaded statue of the Virgin Mary, or the word jihadist painted outside a mosque are all forms of psychological terrorism. They can also be the prelude to dangerous acts of physical terrorism, like the massacres at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh or the Mother Emanuel church in South Carolina.
But micro-aggressions have moved us to a new level, one that threatens to make us forget what true persecution looks like. Rather than focus on acts clearly committed to hurt a specific group of people, like the hate crimes described above, micro-aggressions can be any action someone perceives to be prejudiced.
It is never a good thing to deliberately try to hurt someone’s feelings. Intentional cruelty is a corrosive acid, and we should call it out in the most vocal terms when we see it. There has been no dearth of criticisms of the president, and most are deserved.
But let’s be clear. Saying mean things about someone is a breach of courtesy and kindness. It is not an assault on human dignity. To even suggest that micro-aggressions — such as using insensitive language in the knitting post, saying a female boss is too demanding (and I love you anyway, Amy Klobuchar), accidentally calling a trans person by the wrong pronoun, or even complimenting someone clumsily (such as Joe Biden’s calling his future running mate, Barack Obama, “articulate”) — are “shocking” and “egregious,” on par with hateful prejudice, is outrageous.
You know why? Because that suggestion diminishes more consequential acts of dehumanization — concrete instances of violence and discrimination — that lead to horrors like the Holocaust. It can make us lose perspective on the continued, very real assaults on humanity still occurring, like the horrific wave of anti-Semitism sweeping France this month.
At worst, the preoccupation with micro-aggression lowers the bar on conceptions of evil — a troubling thing when there is so much real evil in the world to worry about.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.