- Theorizing a Spectrum of Aggression:Microaggressions, Creepiness, and Sexual Assault
You may have heard of microaggressions—in the news, in a diversity training session, or during casual conversation with colleagues—but in case you haven't, let me begin with the basics. Chester Pierce coined the term in his 1970 article "Offensive Mechanisms," yet microaggressions remained relatively undiscussed until Derald Wing Sue's 2010 book Microaggressions in Everyday Life popularized the concept. Sue defined microaggressions as "the brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual-orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group" (5).1 Although each individual microaggression may seem negligible, when repeated over time, microaggressions can seriously damage the target's mental and physical health (Sue 88). Perpetrators may be unaware of the damage they are doing, but the target is well positioned to see how the words and actions fit into a larger pattern of discrimination (Sue 54).2
In the years since the publication of Sue's book, microaggressions have sparked debate both within and beyond academia. Many universities and workplaces have begun to offer trainings on how to avoid microaggressions, but some critics have challenged the appropriateness of such measures.3 In a recent Perspectives on Psychological Science paper, Scott O. Lilienfeld suggests that the current conceptualization of microaggressions is too vague and preliminary to justify its use in training sessions (140). Among other critiques, he asks a question that strikes at the heart of the Microaggression Research Project (MRP): "Where is the aggression in microaggressions?" (148).4
It's a reasonable question to ask. After all, microaggression training sessions stress the unintentional nature of these acts, and as Lilienfeld points out, [End Page 91] most theories of aggression require intent to harm the target (147). If the harm is done unintentionally, perhaps another term would be more appropriate. Lilienfeld suggests "inadvertent racial slights" in place of "microaggression" (161), and he recommends "the somewhat ungainly term 'deliverers' in lieu of the pejorative term 'perpetrators' to avoid any connotation of intentionality or malevolence" (141). Furthermore, Lilienfeld argues that this is not merely a semantic dispute. He claims that calling the act an "aggression" and the person who commits the act a "perpetrator" raises the emotional stakes and encourages the target to "respond aggressively in turn" (147). Inaccurate terminology may turn a misunderstanding into a perceived attack and lead to hostility and pain on both sides. Removing the associations with aggression can ease tensions and avoid further conflicts.5
I take these concerns seriously. The microaggression research project needs to defend its terminology. Since Lilienfeld's article was published so recently, Sue has not yet replied at length, but in § 2, I'll use his already published work to outline the best defense that can be given for how microaggressions are currently discussed. However, Lilienfeld has a rebuttal to this line of defense. Therefore, in § 3, I'll turn from the psychology literature to another source of inspiration: Bonnie Mann's response to a parallel problem in her article "Creepers, Flirts, Heroes, and Allies." She explores what unintentional creepiness has in common with more explicit threats like sexual harassment and rape. Finally, in §§ 4–5, I will show how Sue could adapt her solution and give an answer to Lilienfeld. The kind of aggression involved in microaggressions is the same kind of aggression involved in creepiness: microaggressions constrict the target's agency and threaten the target's capacity for self-definition.
2. The Best Reply, Given the Current Conceptualization of Microaggressions
In response to Lilienfeld's objections, Sue could simply reiterate a point he has made before: microaggressions exist on a spectrum and come in many different types. They range from intentional microassaults to (predominantly) unintentional microinsults and microinvalidations. Microassaults are "purposeful discriminatory actions" "meant to hurt the intended victim" (Sue 29). Yelling a sexist slur or leaving a noose on a black colleague's desk demonstrate a clear intent to threaten and demean (Sue 28, 30). The other two types of microaggression are more subtle. Microinsults are "communications that convey rudeness and insensitivity" (Sue...