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Posted by A Mani

Some of your friends may mildly suggest that you wear skirts or saris by simply stating that, “You look great in skirts and saris”. Some others may say that, “You should wear skirts or saris instead of jeans”. There is big difference between the implicit messages underlying these statements. The latter, though ambiguous, reinforces a number of patriarchal rules. It is ambiguous precisely because it is also suggestive of dress policing. Sociologists would refer to such expressions as microaggressions.  

A spoon of cement may not be a substantial part of a building, but many spoons do make a substantial and essential part. So is the case with microaggressions but from an entirely negative perspective. Historically, the term was defined in the early seventies (1970s) and much theoretical and empirical work has been conducted from sociological and psychological perspectives. Microaggressions are the very common verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership, and also prevent people from identifying with a marginalized category.

Most scholars agree that eventually microaggressions play a big role in defining regressive aspects of culture, social norms and support systems for various types of macro aggression because typically they contain hidden messages that may invalidate the group identity or experienced 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.

Most scholars agree that eventually microaggressions play a big role in defining regressive aspects of culture, social norms and support systems for various types of macro aggression because typically they contain hidden messages that may invalidate the group identity or experienced 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. If one wants to improve society, then they need to work on eliminating such small things in all facets of social life.

In this article, I will focus on the nature of a number of microaggressions that relate to sex, sexuality and gender, possible methods of combating them and their connection with evolution of culture. Some instances of sexism fall under microaggression, while others are macroaggressions. The boundaries between the two are not sharply defined. In fact, the personal experiences reported in microagressions.com confirm as much.

Do microaggressors actually understand that they are causing hurt? Some may not think much about the same and may be merely repeating things that they have heard often, while others may be doing so willfully with an intention to hurt the target persons. Some may also be lacking empathy – often it is necessary to teach people about empathy. Women, in particular, encounter microaggressions from the cradle to the grave. After that their memories continue to encounter the same. 

Examples

Context: A womxn is proactive at job, while her male colleagues show less diligence.
Reaction: The team’s boss attempts to praise her by saying that she is the only man on the job, and that her colleagues behaved like women. 
Explanations: This definitely amounts to blatant sexism, but many fail to recognize that it is even a microaggression. 
Related Examples: Even Indian Historians have demonstrated similar commitment to gender essentialism; Rani Laxmibai is often referred to as Mardaani, when bravery is actually any oppressed person’s trait.
Context:  An assertive women is labeled as a bitch,  while an assertive man is usually a boss or a leader.
Explanation: The implicit message is that women should be passive and allow men to be the decision makers.
Related Examples: A number of perfect translations of this are available in Indian languages. 

The next example is a public Facebook post (by a junior doctor Debangshi Ghosh) that illustrates the kind of proactive action that a person can take in the face of micro and macro-aggressions:

Trolled enough on Neha Dhupia? Now let’s talk about some serious issue…

Currently I’m being posted in paediatrics for my internship. Now, female intern doctors in a government setup are called by any names like ” masi”, ” sister” “sister didi” but “doctor” and we don’t even mind. what’s the need? They will never learn and it’s pretty tiresome.

But today, what a 5 year old boy called me infront of his mother, is something I couldn’t imagine. I was doing a i.v cannula to him, and I even did it in single attempt, no multiple times pricking. As I was collecting blood from him, from the cannula itself, he was constantly abusing me, slut shaming me and his mother was laughing each time he uttered a swear word …I finished what I was doing, and then I said, “Apni haschen baccha amke gali dicche? (Are you seriously laughing while your child is using cuss words at me?”

His mother be like “Betha legeche tai boleche (that is because he is hurt due to the cannulation)”…and some of my colleagues thought it’s pretty okay and asked me to ignore the matter… luckily my co intern thought otherwise and stood up for me, thoroughly scolding the mother, but even then she was unapologietic…

Yes, a girl is abused even by a 5 year old boy in this country. They grow up in an environment where they feel it’s okay to be abused if you are a girl, or abuse a girl whenever and wherever if you are of opposite gender. So even if Bollywood makes progressive feminist movies, the basic problem lies the same…strong women are always wh***…(the boy used various synonyms of the word)”

Often it happens that a womxn doctor wearing a stethoscope is mistaken as a nurse. This act essentially carries the message that women should occupy nurturing and not decision-making roles, and that women are less capable than men.

Sexuality

In Bengali (and in other Indian languages) slang, variants of the word gay are used to indicate incompetence or stupidity. In other cultures, people use similar words to indicate dislike as in, “that movie is gay!”. This conveys the message that being gay is not desirable, abnormal or suggestive of decadence. 

If you are at the receiving end of a microaggression, then you can consider doing the following to help yourself and others. First and foremost, listen to yourself. If there is any moment where you feel emotionally unsafe, do not doubt yourself and step away. Try and see things as rationally as is possible and react as per your own derivations.

Two lesbians are told not to flaunt their sexuality – this is something that lesbians in urban locales may hear in India. The implicit message is that public display of same-sex affection are abnormal and offensive, and that they may be punished for the same. A number of real examples can be found at microaggressions.com. Three of these are very relatable across cultures and are mentioned below. It will help if you try and construct the implicit messages in the micro or not-so-microaggressions.

Also read: A Year After Section 377: Where Are We Now?

A.
I (a lesbian) requested training for my coworkers on working with LGBTQ clients after noticing a number of microaggressions at work. I was told that this was not necessary. A gay male colleague requested the same thing two months later after observing similar events. He was told it would occur eventually but there were more immediate priorities. A straight male colleague requests this and it is immediately granted.

B.
Visiting my University’s doctor for a depressive episode.
Doctor: Any relationship problems? Parents, brother, sister?
Me: No
Doctor: None? What about boys?
I’m a lesbian. But I was too emotionally down and tired to correct him. Also, afraid he might factor my sexuality into my mental issue.

C.
“You’re a lesbian? Why? You’re so pretty you could have any man you want?”
The male half of a middle-aged heterosexual couple during a UK LGBTQ Pride Parade. Made me feel shocked, demeaned and patronised. 

Many other examples of microaggressions can be found in older articles at FII.

Handling a Microaggression

If you are at the receiving end of a microaggression, then you can consider doing the following to help yourself and others. First and foremost, listen to yourself. If there is any moment where you feel emotionally unsafe, do not doubt yourself and step away. Try and see things as rationally as is possible and react as per your own derivations. Also do reach out to your circles or extended activist circles and discuss the issue at hand and last but not the least, remember that it is for the offensive people who need to learn by themselves. Therefore, do not waste time in long and exhausting explanations.

Also read: Microaggressions: Don’t Let These ‘Subtle’ Exchanges Fool You!

Typically one needs to Identify, evaluate, classify and reflect on neutralizing microaggressions at different levels. For this some knowledge of feminism (working knowledge at least) can be most useful. 


A. Mani is a leading researcher in rough sets, algebra, logic, vagueness, mereology and foundations of Mathematics. She is a senior member (elected) of the International Rough Set Society, and a visiting faculty/researcher of HBCSE, TIFR Mumbai. Mani is also an active feminist, lesbian rights and free software activist. She has been involved in few projects and has published a number of academic and popular articles on these subjects as well.

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