Our microaggression obsession risks holding minorities back
The list of things which I can’t get my head around grows with each passing week. The latest addition to the roll call, which already included TikTok, NFTs and Nadine Dorries, is microaggressions. The term apparently refers to any “statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalised group”. Examples of microaggressions include complimenting a person of colour on how good their English is, asking them where they are from or asking if you can touch their hair.
I have experienced all three and can confirm it can feel a little embarrassing and uncomfortable. However, according to Nova Reid, an anti-racism campaigner whose comments made headlines this week, it is much worse than that. Microaggressions, she has claimed, are more than “overt acts of hate” since people repeatedly exposed to them can develop post-traumatic stress disorder.
I am not convinced. I find it very hard to get too offended by microaggressions because I grew up in a time when aggressions were far from micro. Anyone who lived through the Seventies and Eighties as a minority will recall those were dark days, when the threat of racist violence and even death felt palpable. Tell anyone who survived those years that we should be fretting about microaggressions and they will laugh in your face.
That isn’t the only reason why talk of microaggressions makes me queasy. I also feel it is a betrayal of how my parents raised me, which was to combat the racism that undoubtedly existed and exists by working harder and being better. The reality of racism forced us to become resilient. My worry about this obsession with becoming outraged by minor slights is that it risks turning minorities into perpetual victims. That is no way to live or to thrive.
It also important to make a distinction between those who might be accidentally insensitive and those whose abuse is intentional or institutional. When an immigration officer stopped me at Heathrow after I had travelled to LA and wanted to know how was able to afford the fare — this was when I was in my twenties — I was angry. When a smiling stranger started gushing about how much they loved my work only to reveal they were confusing me with another Asian writer, that’s tough on the ego but it was not traumatising.
Each generation finds new solutions to old problems and maybe it is a failing on my part that I have not become angrier at past microaggressions, have not kicked up a fuss or called out such actions. I just always believed that rather than waste my time getting mad, I would get even. The danger with being overly offended by microaggressions is that we risk conflating the accidental with the deliberate and labelling it all racist. In so doing we forget that empathy and education are more potent weapons to foster greater understanding than name calling.
In other news...
I spent most of 2020 at home writing a book. The country was in various stages of lockdown, libraries and bookstores were closed and, most distressingly for me, there was no Hay Festival of Literature. I have attended Hay every year since 2006, and met my wife there, so not having it in my life felt momentous. I was writing a book but was unsure when and where I would ever get to talk about it.
Fast forward to today and I am currently in Kuwait, where I am attending a literature festival and then travelling to another book festival in the Maldives before heading to Hay. I will be talking to Jarvis Cocker at Hay and also doing a session about my book.
Sun, sea, sand and stars; it almost feels like it was worth enduring those strange claustrophobic days locked in the study staring helplessly at the blank screen.