Microaggressions, the Anti-PC Movement and the N-Word

A microaggression is the casual degradation of any marginalized group, often done without negative intentions and without a lack of understanding of systemic racism.  The Political Correct (PC) movement was started to help counter implicit racism, such as microaggressions, but has since been co-opt by the far right, with a revised “thought police” narrative, to win political votes by demonizing any attempts to correct racism. The N-word is a word that white people should never use, regardless if non white people use it


Table of Contents

Microaggressions

Anti-PC Movement

N-Word


Microaggressions

A microaggression is the casual degradation of any marginalized group.  Often the person committing the microaggression is unaware they are doing it but not always.  Microaggressions can be used as a passive or aggressive degradation.

How is Works by Look Different

“Racial microaggressions may be sent verbally (“You speak good English.”), nonverbally (clutching one’s purse more tightly) or environmentally (symbols like the Confederate flag or using American Indian mascots). Such communications are usually outside the level of conscious awareness of perpetrators.”

Why it Matters by Look Different

“Racial microaggressions are often constant, continuous, and cumulative for their targets. Even if they’re statements that are intended as positive (e.g. “You speak such good English!”), they can have a negative impact when piled on top of other microaggressions. And studies reveal that racial microaggressions have powerful detrimental consequences to people of color. They have been found to affect the mental and physical health of recipients, create a hostile work or campus environment, lower work productivity and problem solving abilities, and be partially responsible for creating systemic inequities.”

Buzzfeed: 21 Racial Microaggressions You Hear On A Daily Basis

“The term “microaggression” was used by Columbia professor Derald Sue to refer to “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” Sue borrowed the term from psychiatrist Dr. Chester Pierce who coined the term in the ’70s.”

Some common microaggression captured from this article

While the term “microaggressions” has been a part of academic discourse for some time (“micro-inequities” was coined by an MIT Ph.D. in 1973), it became better known through the popular Tumblr Microaggressions.

The Tumblr is a project that aims to highlight the daily microaggressions people encounter through user submitted stories.

“This blog seeks to provide a visual representation of the everyday of “microaggressions.” Each event, observation and experience posted is not necessarily particularly striking in and of themselves. Often, they are never meant to hurt – acts done with little conscious awareness of their meanings and effects. Instead, their slow accumulation during a childhood and over a lifetime is in part what defines a marginalized experience, making explanation and communication with someone who does not share this identity particularly difficult. Social others are microaggressed hourly, daily, weekly, monthly.

This project is NOT about showing how ignorant people can be in order to simply dismiss their ignorance. Instead, it is about showing how these comments create and enforce uncomfortable, violent and unsafe realities onto peoples’ workplace, home, school, childhood/adolescence/adulthood, and public transportation/space environments.”

According to The Atlantic: Microaggressions Matter

“microaggressions point out cultural difference in ways that put the recipient’s non-conformity into sharp relief, often causing anxiety and crises of belonging on the part of minorities. When your peers at a prestigious university express dismay at the ability of a person of color to master English, it calls your presence in that institution into question and magnifies your difference in ways that can be alienating. It can even induce imposter syndrome or stereotype threat, both of which I have felt while studying at Oberlin. The former is feeling insecure, undeserving, or unaccomplished enough to be in a particular setting while latter is the debilitation that can arise from the constant fear of validating a stereotype about people from your identity groupings.

The turn towards political correctness in academia, to which the concept of microaggressions belongs, is sometimes mischaracterized as an obsession with the creation of victims or shoehorning radically liberal ideas into college students. Others have argued that political correctness evangelizes a new kind of moral righteousness that over-privileges identity politics and silences conservative viewpoints.

What these critics miss is that the striving for “PC culture” on college campuses is actually rooted in empathy. The basic tenets of this culture are predicated on the powerful impulse to usher both justice and humanity into everyday social transactions. Given the visible (albeit slow) rise in diversity on campuses, the lexicon of social justice invites students to engage with difference in more intelligent and nuanced ways, and to train their minds to entertain more complex views of the world.

Take for instance, the prevalent use of non-traditional gender pronouns at Oberlin College, a practice becoming increasingly common elsewhere, as well. They acknowledge that people can identify with many genders, not just along the binary of male and female. Using a person’s preferred or desired gender pronouns (such as the gender neutral “they” instead of she or he) is not a meaningless exercise in identity politics—it is an acknowledgement of a person’s innermost identity, conferring both respect and dignity.”

SheKnows created KidsSpeak content for grown-ups to educate parents on the concept of “microaggressions,” and their impact on teens’ self-esteem.

More Examples of Microaggression from Mic: 11 Things White People Should Stop Saying to Black People immediately

“More often than not, many white people resort to putting the onus back on the people who are experiencing the pain of racism. This tactic often derails the broader conversation, allowing white people to continue ignoring their own biases, and prevents a frank examination of the larger systems and powers accountable for enshrining the dehumanization of and discrimination against blacks and people of color. That larger system is white supremacy, a version of which has little to do with neo-Nazis or the KKK as most would assume.

A growing number of black people have been ruthlessly beaten, shot and killed by white police officers of late, a fact all too easy to gloss over for white people who will continue moving through American life with white privilege. White privilege means not having to deal with the disproportionate impact of police brutality, racial profiling and exclusion from everyday social settings and public accommodations.

Rather than tackle a thorny issue with tact and honesty, however, privilege also allows people to ignore the conversation, mock it or walk away from it altogether. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Americans don’t have to let this type of ignorance stop us from examining the many subtle, insidious attitudes and beliefs that help perpetuate racism through microaggressions — a term coined by African-American psychologist Chester Pierce and further developed by Derald Wing Sue and researchers at Columbia University to explain smaller instances of systemic, cumulative racial indignities.

Here are a few problematic examples that can be used to help elevate a much-needed dialogue as the images streaming out of Ferguson, Mo., bring us face to face with America’s legacy of institutional intolerance.

1. “Why do black people have to make everything about race?”

If it seems as though black people talk about race so much, that’s because America, as a government and as a power structure, has made everything about race, from the moment Columbus landed in 1492 to the recent shooting of Michael Brown at the hands of a cop with institutional power and privilege on his side.  White people will never fully understand how racism impacts the everyday lives of black people and people of color. That’s because they benefit from a racial system that enshrines institutional racism and racial prejudice as the rule of law and social order. If the continuing conversation about racism upsets you, take a second to imagine what it’s like for the black people who deal with racism everyday, and who are tired of thinking and talking about it, but discuss it anyway because for them, it’s not just a dinner table dialogue.

2. “I don’t have white privilege. Stop saying that I have white privilege.”

White privilege isn’t inherently about being raised in an affluent, two-parent home with high educational attainment and markers of upward mobility in American society. White privilege is the many built-in perks afforded to white people by virtue of being born with white skin and white ethnicity in a social and legal system that enforces white supremacy as the rule of law. It’s not having to seriously think about or discuss how the situation in Ferguson will affect friends and relatives or even how a broader justice system will work to protect (or to not protect) the constitutional rights of black people.  White privilege is being able to walk away from the conversation, or to stop reading a piece about racism when it stirs up discomfort, rather than wrestling with the subject matter and owning up to personal biases and limits to understanding.

3. “I’m not racist. I have black friends.”

Aside from the lazy logic of such a statement, this phrase describes the phenomenon wherein people use black people as accessories and distractions. Having a black friend, or any relationship with a person of color, doesn’t mean your everyday habits and politics are exempt from having racist implications. For proof, look no further than Donald Sterling, who told his girlfriend, a person of color, to stop bringing black people with her to basketball games because he feels blacks are inferior.

4. “These protesters speak so well, but they’re such violent people.”

Most of the protests in Ferguson have been peaceful, but that fact hasn’t stopped some characterizations from making it appear as though a race war is brewing. In effect, blacks are being typecasted as loud, irrational people who shouldn’t be paid attention to, when they actually have valid concerns about the abuses from their local police force.  These types of remarks go hand in hand with an amazement about how poised, well-spoken and presentable some black protesters have been amid the chaos. In other contexts, “You speak so well” may sound like earnest praise, and sometimes it’s received by black people as a commendation because of the apparent intent. However, more often than not, this sentiment is a backhanded compliment that assumes most black people speak with rudimentary grammar and communicate using “lesser” linguistic patterns such as Ebonics. If a black person has great oratory skills, it’s certainly possible to say so in a way that isn’t infantilizing or denigrating.

5. “You probably voted for Barack Obama just because he’s black.”

Unlike many other presidents and political leaders before, Obama has a better understanding of black issues, given his lived experiences as a person of color and his education. But don’t treat black people as though they can’t make an informed political decision that uses a cost-benefit analysis, or even a pragmatic approach to politics, in order to cast their vote. The vast majority of African-Americans vote for Democratic candidates like President Obama in major elections, but this is often because of a sense of “linked racial fate” — in other words, the candidate that represents the issues most relevant to the everyday lives of black people is most likely to win a disproportionate share of votes from black constituents. So it’s not as much about skin color as it is about positions on issues, which is how most anyone else votes.

6. “It’s not fair that you all can say the n-word, but we can’t.”

The n-word has hundreds of years of slavery, segregation and institutional racism attached to it. But in recent decades, it’s been reclaimed by black people, which now means that some blacks use it in a variety of different ways, often to refer to one another in a not-so-derogatory manner. But just because some black people have reclaimed the word in their everyday vernacular, or even in their cultural productions, doesn’t mean white people get to participate in that same reclamation. White people irrevocably lost that opportunity the day the n-word coincided with lynchings, whippings, mob beatings and police shootings.

7. “I’m clutching my purse or my wallet when you walk past, because I think you might steal from me.”

Anyone of any race can perpetrate a mugging, or commit any other crime that involves physical or personal property. But because of how white overrepresentation in America’s police departments and the justice system impacts the enforcement of laws, research shows there’s a disproportionate impact on how blacks are caught and publicly held accountable for their wrongdoing.

8. “I don’t understand why you people…”

The phrase “you people” is coded language, a euphemism for the n-word, black people, outsiders or “the other.” By being an outsider to whiteness and white supremacy, “you people” suggests that blacks (and other people of color) do not belong in the same rooms, venues or halls of power as white people.

9. “When I see you, I don’t see race.”

Color-blind racism is still racism. Without facing history and the present realities, it’s impossible to understand how racism affects the everyday life of peoples of all races and ethnicities. Almost everyone, save for those who ascribe to a racist system or retain deep-seated racial prejudice, wants to be able to unite across races, ethnicities and cultures to live in harmony. But with the systems and structures of previous generations still in place, which codify and promote racism in politics and everyday life, we’re nowhere close to being post-race or being able to “not see” skin color.

10. “If black men don’t want to get stopped by police, maybe they shouldn’t dress that way.”

It shouldn’t matter what a young person is wearing, or how they walk down the street, or how they talk, how they speak or where they come from. It doesn’t matter if black men wear suits everywhere, or stop sagging their pants, or stop wearing hoodies — a “classy” dress code isn’t going to stop police brutality.  In fact, many white young people wear the same kinds of clothing, yet are not subjected to the same kinds of the racialized subtexts. It is never the victim’s fault. And no change of clothing will hold the people and systems accountable for murdering young black people.

11. “Racism ended in the 1960s. Stop making such a big deal out of nothing.”

This statement couldn’t be farther from the truth. In fact, if you pay attention to news coverage, there’s a laundry list of big and small issues proving that American racism is far from being a thing of the past.The killings of Michael Brown, Renisha McBride, Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and many other nameless, faceless black young people — all at the hands of police and whites — come at a time when black women like Marissa Alexander are simultaneously being denied the “stand your ground” defense and instead threatened with decades in jail for firing a warning shot at an allegedly abusive spouse.”

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The Anti-PC Movement

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Starting in the 1970s the phrase, “Politically Correct” was used to describe attempts or lack of attempts to recognize and challenge systemic, implicit, and microaggression racism.  This movement spread through colleges around the country as a way to counter racism and xenophobia.  But the political right soon learn how to use this anti-racism strategy to create a myth that people who cared about challenging racism were actually suppressing and policing white people’s language, much like an authoritarian government.  Conservatives were able to portray white people who were perpetuating systemic, implicit, and microaggression racism, as victims of the thought police whenever someone challenged them to be less racist/more political correct.  This fiction viewpoint helped divide the working class and the academic world and was and continues to be a powerful propaganda tool for conservatives, helping people like Trump win over many working class white people.

According to The Guardian: Political correctness: how the right invented a phantom enemy

“If you search ProQuest, a digital database of US magazines and newspapers, you find that the phrase “politically correct” rarely appeared before 1990. That year, it turned up more than 700 times. In 1991, there are more than 2,500 instances. In 1992, it appeared more than 2,800 times. Like Indiana Jones movies, these pieces called up enemies from a melange of old wars: they compared the “thought police” spreading terror on university campuses to fascists, Stalinists, McCarthyites, “Hitler Youth”, Christian fundamentalists, Maoists and Marxists.

…PC was a useful invention for the Republican right because it helped the movement to drive a wedge between working-class people and the Democrats who claimed to speak for them. “Political correctness” became a term used to drum into the public imagination the idea that there was a deep divide between the “ordinary people” and the “liberal elite”, who sought to control the speech and thoughts of regular folk. Opposition to political correctness also became a way to rebrand racism in ways that were politically acceptable in the post-civil-rights era.

Soon, Republican politicians were echoing on the national stage the message that had been product-tested in the academy. In May 1991, President George HW Bush gave a commencement speech at the University of Michigan. In it, he identified political correctness as a major danger to America. “Ironically, on the 200th anniversary of our Bill of Rights, we find free speech under assault throughout the United States,” Bush said. “The notion of political correctness has ignited controversy across the land,” but, he warned, “In their own Orwellian way, crusades that demand correct behaviour crush diversity in the name of diversity.

After 2001, debates about political correctness faded from public view, replaced by arguments about Islam and terrorism. But in the final years of the Obama presidency, political correctness made a comeback. Or rather, anti-political-correctness did.

As Black Lives Matter and movements against sexual violence gained strength, a spate of thinkpieces attacked the participants in these movements, criticising and trivialising them by saying that they were obsessed with policing speech. Once again, the conversation initially focused on universities, but the buzzwords were new. Rather than “difference” and “multiculturalism”, Americans in 2012 and 2013 started hearing about “trigger warnings”, “safe spaces”, “microaggressions”, “privilege” and “cultural appropriation”.

This time, students received more scorn than professors. If the first round of anti-political-correctness evoked the spectres of totalitarian regimes, the more recent revival has appealed to the commonplace that millennials are spoiled narcissists, who want to prevent anyone expressing opinions that they happen to find offensive…

…The climate of digital journalism and social media sharing enabled the anti-political-correctness (and anti-anti-political correctness) stories to spread even further and faster than they had in the 1990s. Anti-PC and anti-anti-PC stories come cheap: because they concern identity, they are something that any writer can have a take on, based on his or her experiences, whether or not he or she has the time or resources to report. They are also perfect clickbait. They inspire outrage, or outrage at the outrage of others…

…Trump did not simply criticise the idea of political correctness – he actually said and did the kind of outrageous things that PC culture supposedly prohibited. The first wave of conservative critics of political correctness claimed they were defending the status quo, but Trump’s mission was to destroy it. In 1991, when George HW Bush warned that political correctness was a threat to free speech, he did not choose to exercise his free speech rights by publicly mocking a man with a disability or characterising Mexican immigrants as rapists. Trump did. Having elevated the powers of PC to mythic status, the draft-dodging billionaire, son of a slumlord, taunted the parents of a fallen soldier and claimed that his cruelty and malice was, in fact, courage…

…The most alarming part of this approach is what it implies about Trump’s attitude to politics more broadly. His contempt for political correctness looks a lot like contempt for politics itself. He does not talk about diplomacy; he talks about “deals”. Debate and disagreement are central to politics, yet Trump has made clear that he has no time for these distractions. To play the anti-political-correctness card in response to a legitimate question about policy is to shut down discussion in much the same way that opponents of political correctness have long accused liberals and leftists of doing. It is a way of sidestepping debate by declaring that the topic is so trivial or so contrary to common sense that it is pointless to discuss it. The impulse is authoritarian. And by presenting himself as the champion of common sense, Trump gives himself permission to bypass politics altogether.”

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Is PC Culture Anti-Free Speech? | Decoded | MTV News

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The N-Word

Ta-Nehisi Coates Breaks Down Why White People Can’t Say The N-Word

Everyday Feminism: 4 Reasons White People Can’t Use the N-Word (No Matter What Black Folks Are Doing)

“I’d likely be a wealthy man if I had a dime for every time I’ve heard a White person ask “If Black people can just throw the n-word around all the time, why is it not okay for White people to use that word?”

I can only imagine the number of dimes Black people would have. Innumerable. And despite how important listening to the voices of marginalized and oppressed people is to social justice work on the part of those with privilege, White people on the whole really seem to have hard time with this one.

Perhaps this is because we don’t like being told that anything is off limits to us. Or perhaps we just have trouble hearing the voices of those we consider, at some basic level, to be lesser, not fully human. Regardless of the reason, maybe it’s time for a different tact.

Perhaps you can hear it better or differently if a White person explains why exactly we don’t get to use the n-word, regardless of what Black folks are doing. So here is my message to you.

Dear White Folks,

We have to stop using the n-word. Like really, really. And I know what you’re thinking, “But—But—‘They’ get to say it all the time!” Well, tough cookies.

Here’s why it’s not okay for us to say it, no matter what Black folks are doing:

1. We Lost the Privilege

You know that whole 600 year time period when White Europeans were buying and selling Black Africans as chattel?

And remember how that whole system was enforced by a violent system of repression whereby Black slaves who did not act the way the White folks wanted them to were beaten and murdered?

Oh, and remember that time after slavery when Black people were locked in a system called Jim Crow that used a similar fear of violence and repression to keep Black people in “their place?”

Well, in the midst of all that shit, there was a word invented by White people as a pejorative for Black folks. And it was used just about every time a Black person was whipped, chained, beaten, insulted, spat upon, raped, lynched, or otherwise humiliated and mistreated by White folks.

Thus, I really don’t care how much White folks want to use that word. I don’t care how unfair you think it is that someone else gets to use it when we don’t. Our people gave up the privilege to use that word the moment we invented it as a tool of oppression.

2. Why Should We Get a Say in the Conversation about That Word?  

There is a lively debate in African American communities between those who think it’s time to “Bury the N-Word” and those who think it can be reclaimed as a word of camaraderie and brotherhood/sisterhood.

In his brilliant piece entitled “Exporting the N-word,” Coleman Collins explains,

There are generally four schools of thought on the word “nigga.” There’s the first and largest group — black working-class (but not exclusively so) people who say it casually because it’s what they’ve always done, or simply because they don’t like being told what to do.

There’s the small but vocal group of middle-class black intellectuals who claim to have “reclaimed” the word, to have turned it into a term of endearment instead of a tool of oppression. It’s a neat solution to a messy problem. It ends in “A,” after all!

The third group is comprised of the “respectable Negroes,” the bootstrap types, the “don’t you embarrass me in front of these White folks” crowd. Also largely middle- and upper-middle class, the worst of these would have us believe that if black men only pulled their pants up, stopped littering, and stopped calling each other that word, racism and poverty would come to an end. 

Last but certainly not least, you have the extremely sympathetic older generation that worked to have the word eradicated from White people’s vocabularies only to find it shouted from street corners and blasted from car windows in the future they worked so hard for.

If White folks are interested in this debate, we should listen, but we should not assume that there is consensus within Black communities on the issue. That is a healthy conversation, and it’s a part of a long history of marginalized communities attempting to “reclaim” words that were once oppressive. No matter how long that conversation goes on in Black communities, though, White people do not get to take part.

I’m sorry.

As the ones from whom the word of violence and oppression must be reclaimed, we do not get to have a word in that conversation. Plain and simple.

3. Not Everything Should Be in Bounds to Us as White People

The question of why White people can’t use the n-word is, in essence, the epitome of White privilege. As White folks, we tend to think that every door should be open to us, every conversation should be ours, and every space should welcome us. We think this way because, when it comes to racialized spaces, that tends to be the case.

We have the privilege of having our voices heard and our presence recognized in just about every space there is.Thus, we hate it when we are told that we are not actually welcome in a conversation. But here’s what we need to understand: We’re the only people that get the privilege of access to whatever racialized space we want. There is hardly a single context in the United States in which a White person (but particularly White, cisgender men) cannot assert themselves into a space and have their voice heard.

White women can hopefully begin to (though never fully) understand this when you think about the ways in which you are denied voice and space by dominant men. Though these oppressions cannot be compared, hopefully this comparison can help generate a little empathy into why it simply is not okay for us as White people to expect our voices to be heard in every conversation.

Just because we are not welcome to use one word in the English language does not mean that we are being discriminated against. No, it’s not racist against White people to assert that certain things are off limits to us, as people of privilege.

4. It Is Not, in Fact, a Double Standard – It’s a Standard

There’s literally nothing more on this one I could say than what Jay Smooth of Ill Doctrine lays down here:

That’s it!  That’s all you need to know! Which means that we can put this whole thing to rest, right? Yeah? No? Alright…

Well, if you’re still not convinced, then take 5 minutes and 15 seconds and listen to Chesca Leigh drop all the knowledge (plus, her lipstick is too fierce):

And when you’re done, say it with me: “As a White person, I won’t use the n-word any more.””

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Learn More

Buzzfeed: 21 Racial Microaggressions You Hear On A Daily Basis

Mic: 11 Things People Should Stop Saying to Black People Immediately

The Guardian: Political correctness: how the right invented a phantom enemy

Everyday Feminism: 4 Reasons White People Can’t Use the N-Word (No Matter What Black Folks Are Doing)

More Examples of Microaggression from Mic: 11 Things White People Should Stop Saying to Black People immediately

Buzzfeed: 21 Racial Microaggressions You Hear On A Daily Basis


Get Involved

Race Forward

Black Lives Matters

Color of Change

Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites (CARW)

Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ)

Sentencing Project

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