Queer Corner: Microwaves

Kris Pfister

Oh wait, that’s not it. Micro…aggressions! You’ve probably heard this highly debated word floating around, especially after the recent sit-in in the Hurwitz Center for Admission. There are a lot of cases where microaggressions apply to race, but that is by no means the only application of this term. Take a seat and listen up, because we’re about to unpack some controversial jargon.

So what is a microaggression? Columbia University Professor Derald Sue describes it as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative [racial] slights and insults.” Basically, it’s the everyday occurrences. It can be words, actions or environments, intentional or not and negative in nature. But even this definition is vague. What qualifies an “indignity?” The fact that microaggressions are not necessarily intentional adds a whole other layer to the mix.

Sometimes it’s easier to have an example of these things to better understand them. A verbal microaggression might be: “James, why are you wearing pink? You can’t wear pink to school; that’s a girl color!” A behavioral microaggression: coworkers in a meeting are speaking, and no one stops a male worker from constantly interrupting a female worker. And finally, environmental: “Choose your gender: male or female,” which does not take into consideration people who identify as non-binary. (Note that these terms are often used incorrectly. Male and female describe sex, not gender).

As you can see, there are a lot of things that can be considered microaggressions, but a lot of them are also in the gray area of “is this one or not?” That’s where most of the controversy about this phenomenon comes in. See, many people would argue that asking for a person’s sex is no big deal, and may get very frustrated that some people find it offensive. But consider how uncomfortable you would feel if you were someone identifying as intersex, with a combination of male and female parts. What answer do you choose? What if you don’t publicly appear the way you identify your sex on this form or for this employer? And don’t think this problem is uncommon. According to the Intersex Society of North America, there is about one person in every 100 that does not have the standard male or female body. Based on the United States population of around 320 million, that’s 3.2 million people that may not know whether to use the dropdown for “male” or “female.” While I can understand where the underlying frustration lies with debate about such “pointless” little things, they are nonetheless full of importance to a large group of people.

The tricky thing about microaggressions is that they’re difficult to recognize unless they’re happening to you. This also fuels a lot of debate. Microaggressions are real, and until you experience one yourself, it’s hard to really know how detrimental they can be to a person. Even the University of New Hampshire has a PDF specifically about gender microaggressions. An entire institution recognizes the harmful effects of these, literally everyday types of occurrences. That’s saying something.

So to sum it up: microaggressions are derogatory and usually subtle, they do not have to be intentional to be harmful, some microaggressions are situational or environmental (like the “male or female” dropdown), they are difficult to recognize if you are not a member of that minority group and can do real harm to a person and should be taken seriously. On a more personal note, if you think you or a friend has been harassed, you can anonymously (or not) submit a form to the Colgate Equity Grievance Panel by searching “EGP” on the Colgate website. Don’t think microaggressions are not worth noticing, because they can have macro-sized influences.