Microaggressions are “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities” (Sue et al., 2007) that are particularly pernicious as attackers are often unaware of the offense and thus unwilling to acknowledge it and apologize. This neglect can communicate further invalidation to the victim.
In this article, I want to give a little background on the subject of microaggressions and provide references to more formal studies, for the topic has recently been the center of several heated debates on DeviantArt and image boards.
Pierce et al. (1977) observed that “the chief vehicle for proracist behaviors are microaggressions. These are subtle, stunning, often automatic, and nonverbal exchanges which are ‘put-downs’ of blacks by offenders,” which is probably the first use of the term. Since, the definition, specifically of “racial microaggressions,” has been widened 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 et al., 2007) They observe furthermore that “perpetrators of microaggressions are often unaware that they engage in such communications when they interact with racial/ethnic minorities.”
This definition can be further expanded to include a wider range of minorities. Kevin L. Nadal, author and associate professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, adapted the definition to “Microaggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults toward members of oppressed groups.” (Emphasis added)
I doubt that mules are oppressed in Equestria, but apart from that, there are two instances in which two of the mane six inadvertently insulted a mule (in “Applebuck Season” and “Hurricane Fluttershy”). Of course they promptly apologized (“No offense.”) when they noticed their faux pas. What this example, by analogy, also shows is that, as Burn et al., (2005) put it, “heterosexuals, deprived of seeing whom their comments ultimately harm, are not inclined to carefully monitor their colloquial speech (Thurlow, 2001).” (The mule was voiced by James Wootton, by the way.)
Nadel et al. (2011) conducted a qualitative study to test and refine a originally seven-point, now eight-point taxonomy of microaggressions. They term these categories “themes,” as they are largely perpendicular to a previously established taxonomy of three “types,” microassault, microinsult, and microinvalidation (see Sue et al., 2007). It should be noted, however, that “this study focused solely on sexual orientation microaggressions or microaggressions experienced in everyday lives by LGB people. Although there may be similarities between sexual orientation and transgender microaggressions (i.e., microaggressions experienced by transgender or gender-nonconforming people), there are complex differences between these two groups, warranting separate studies. In addition, because it is important not to conflate sexual orientation and gender identity, the researchers believed it was important to examine the experiences of these two groups separately.”
The following are the eight classifications taken directly from the study, which illustrate and exemplify very well what forms microaggressions can take.
“Use of heterosexist terminology.” This very central theme refers to both intentional and unintentional denigration of LGB individuals, e.g., through heterosexist jokes or comments. In particular, “participants described certain words such as ‘faggot’ and ‘dyke’ as denigrating to them, sending the message that it is inferior or undesirable to be LGB.” A quote from a participant:
I recently opened up to my friend about [being gay] and he’s a guy … and just the other day I was at his house and were talking about other people and he would describe them as like, “faggot,” and it would get to me.
The researchers observed that in some environments it still seemed socially acceptable to use such language, be it directly (“When you’re angry at someone, you can call them a ‘faggot’ and that’s still okay.”) or what Silverschanz et al. (2008) call ambient heterosexual harassment: “Participants also described that peers used the word “gay” in negative contexts (i.e., as synonymous to ‘bad’ or ‘weird’). According to the participants, hearing such remarks was hurtful, distressful, and made them feel uncomfortable or unsafe.”
“Endorsement of heteronormative culture/behaviors.” Another form of microaggression occurs when LGB persons have to hide or disguise their sexual orientation, be it within the social context of their families, at the workplace, or publicly. One participant described her experiences with the first:
[My mother] knows that I’m a lesbian, but she is in denial. She doesn’t want to see it, so I have to act a certain way. You know, act heterosexual, not mention anything about me having a girlfriend or anything like that to make her feel uncomfortable or make her say anything offensive toward me. So, I have to act completely different at home.
“Assumption of universal LGBT experience.” This theme describes the degradation experienced by LGB persons when others expect them to comply with societal stereotypes they don’t identify with. Two participants reported:
They’re making it seem like everybody is sexual and smutty-buddy and, you know, every gay man is an interior decorator or sells hair for a living, you know. Even at my job … if you work in stocks, then it’s a straight guy, but if you’re on the beauty floor and/or you’re a cashier, you’re gay.
Since I dress a little bit more feminine than most other lesbians they might take [my identity as a lesbian] as a joke or make offensive statements.
“Exoticization.” This theme is closely related to the previous one, but describes the aspect of objectification and dehumanization LGB individuals are exposed to, for example, when they are treated like a stereotype. Again the researchers point out that “although the intention of the perpetrator is to be complimentary, the victim experiences a microinsult.”
This woman came up to me one night and she said … I think I made some joke or something and she said, ‘Do you know who you remind me of?’ and I knew what was coming, I just knew what was coming. She’s like, “You’re just like that Jack on Will and Grace. You’re so funny.” And I looked at her, and I said, “Ma’am, no offense, but that’s actually not a compliment.” And she was like, “What do you mean? What do you mean? No, no, I was saying you’re funny, and you’re cute, and you dress nice.”
A lot of guys would think, you know, because I’m into both guys and girls that I’ll be like down with the threesome kinda thing, and it’s like ugh, get over yourself.
“Discomfort/disapproval of LGBT experience.” This name is fairly self-explanatory. One of the participants in the study gives an example:
I was in college, and I came out to a friend who was very conservative Christian, and she didn’t say “I’m going to stop being your friend,” but she did say she was sorry to hear that because “I believe you are condemned.”
Others gave examples of disapproving glances, overt ridicule, and also legislation such as the overturned Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy.
“Denial of the reality of heterosexism.” Sometimes people fail to realize the extent to which individuals with minority sexual orientations are subjected to heterosexism. Through overt disregard for their situation they can feel invalidated, or children and adolescents may even be plunged into self-doubt about the validity of their perceptions. This theme also encompasses situations in which people who have perpetrated microaggressions fail to admit their error.
“Assumption of sexual pathology/abnormality.” This theme occurs when societal stereotypes lead uninformed individuals to assume that LGB people were suffering from psychological disorders related to their sexual behavior (being “oversexualized, sexual deviants, or both”) or were suffering from HIV/AIDS.
Well, in my case, I’ve actually had some friends stop being my friends, because they were like, “Oh, since you’re bisexual and you might try come on to me” so they stopped being my friend.
“Threatening behaviors.” The participants reported another kind of experiences that did not neatly fit into any of the categories established by the previous themes. They often found themselves in threatened with physical assaults. Such assaults, of course, could not be classified as microaggressions, but the hostile environment created by the threat can. These situations can be temporary as in the example below, but may also be permanent and recurring, for example, in the case of children and adolescents constantly threatened by the presence of bullies at their school or in their class.
I was walking with three friends of mine—all male, all gay. … It was pretty late, probably about two in the morning, and two guys were standing near a park, and we just passed by them, and one of them said, “What did you say?” We didn’t respond … and then they continued and said, “Did you just call me gay? Did you just call me a faggot?” They followed us for about two blocks and tried to start a fight.
What is also interesting to observe is how many of these themes of heterosexist microaggressions can easily be extended to accommodate forms of animadversion upon bronihood (or pony fan identity). The analogue to “endorsement of heteronormative culture/behaviors” could be the propensity of certain authors or pundits to endorse the idea that adults mustn’t like a show intended for children (even though Lauren Faust of course created it with the parents in mind) or that men mustn’t like a show intended for a female audience. The counterpart to the “assumption of universal LGBT experience” could include perpetuating the cliché of the immature, disheveled brony, the homosexual brony, and the exclusively male brony. “Discomfort/disapproval of LGBT experience” could find its counterpart in disapproval of pony T-shirts, cosplay, or the public unpacking of merchandise. “Denial of the reality of heterosexism,” of course, could translate into some authors’ idea that we are all just facetious about our love for the show.
Homonymy and Polysemy
When different words (or rather lexemes) share the same spelling and pronunciation, it’s called homonymy; when the same word (or rather lexeme) has different meanings, we talk about polysemy, “the greedy habit some words have of taking more than one meaning for themselves,” as Erin McKean put it. (The notion of identity between lexemes is beyond the purview of this article.)
Most common words have several meanings, and some (like “set” and “run”) even several hundred. This is relevant to the topic of microaggressions as especially the term “gay” has acquired very different uses in recent decades. Researchers of the University of Canberra and the Australian National University have studied the usage of the term among different age groups and found that, in addition to the meaning of “gay” as synonymous with “homosexual,” older people still recognized the sense of “ ‘happy,’ ‘carefree’ and ‘frivolous,’ ” while younger Australians increasingly understood it to mean “ ‘stupid’, ‘lame’ or ‘boring.’ ”
Usually, of course, the intended denotation is clear not only from the pragmatic context of the conversation, but also from its immediate grammatical context, as “young people (18–30 year olds) understand the meaning of ‘gay’ differently depending upon whether the subject is animate (e.g. ‘he’, ‘she’) or inanimate (e.g. ‘that film’); whether it is used with the [linking] verb ‘to look’ or the copula ‘to be’; and whether the word ‘gay’ is used in conjunction with the intensifier ‘so’ (e.g. ‘They’re gay’ compared to ‘They’re so gay’).” (Lalor et al., 2007) The microaggression, instead, lies in the implication that the homosexual person lives amidst a society that would allow a term for their sexual orientation to acquire a pejorative meaning.
The term “fag” is a different case, as it has different meanings that are typically regarded as separate lexemes as they don’t share the same etymological roots, the one meaning “drudgery,” the one in “fag-end,” which is also used to denote a cigarette, and the disparaging and offensive term for a homosexual, derived from “faggot.” Distinguishing “meanings” (of homonyms) and “senses” (of polysemes), Rodd et al. (2002) observe in their experiments that “while multiple word senses do produce faster responses, ambiguity between multiple meanings delays recognition. These results suggest that, while competition between the multiple meanings of ambiguous words delays their recognition, the rich semantic representations associated with words with many senses facilitate their recognition.”
Interestingly, the third sense of “fag” is not only widely used as insult, but has also acquired neutral and positive meanings in some limited sociolects, especially within compounds. All these senses and meanings, however, are usually well-distinguished by the context of their usage, and thus exist in parallel with minimal influence on one another.
Even though different senses of words can exist in parallel without one dominating or supplanting the other, and the intended meaning is usually clear from the context, sufficiently advanced speakers of a language are easily aware of the various shades of any given term. Any pun can attest to that: “Atheists don’t solve exponential equations because they don’t believe in higher powers.”
Effects of Microaggressions
Compared to the overt hate violence that gays may experience, the use of derogatory terms for gays by heterosexuals to refer to each other may seem innocuous and minor. However, this behavior perpetuates anti-gay prejudice and violence by suggesting that it is socially acceptable to exhibit bias against gays. In other words, it contributes to heterosexism, which Herek (1990) defines as the denigration and stigmatization of any nonheterosexual form of behavior, identity, relationship, or community. (Burn, 2000)
Numerous studies linked to minority stress theory have also confirmed that “socially marginalized groups, including sexual minorities, can experience mental and physical health problems resulting from negative social environments created by stigma, prejudice, and discrimination (e.g., Fischer and Shaw 1999; Gee 2002; Harrell et al. 2003; Kessler et al. 1999; Meyer 2003; Williams et al. 2003),” (Silverschanz et al., 2008) and a study of the behavior of 14- to 15-year-old high school students confirmed the “increasingly well-documented daily assault on the psychological health of young homosexual people.” (Thurlow, 2001) In their qualitative study cited above, Nadal et al. (2011) list a few of these mental and physical effects.
- Among the emotions that participants reported to have experienced due to microaggressions were “anger, frustration, … sadness, … belittlement and hopelessness.”
- In several cases, these experiences also led to “detrimental relationships with their family members, friends, coworkers, and others.”
- Participants also discussed the detrimental role of microaggressions in “their ability to be comfortable with their LGB identities.” Especially adolescents’ self-worth can suffer, as Nadal et al. point out, affecting their personal and professional prospects: “For example, many studies discussed how LGB youth who experience school violence, heterosexist threats, or damage to their property may avoid going to school altogether (Garofalo, Wolf, Kessel, Palfrey, & DuRant, 1998; Grossman et al., 2009).”
- Also discussed were “chronic mental health effects,” including “post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” They also cite reference literature that documents that “LGB youth also experience higher rates of emotional distress, higher amounts of suicide attempts, risky sexual behavior, and substance abuse (Garofalo et al., 1998; Remafedi, Frendh, Story, Resnick, & Blum, 1998; Resnick et al., 1997).”
In much the same vein, Burn et al. (2005) write:
Even if heterosexist language is not used to intentionally harm LGB persons, it may be experienced as anti gay harassment and contribute to psychosocial stress. Experiences of negative treatment in society and resultant lack of self-acceptance culminate to produce abnormally high chronic stress for LGB persons (Meyer, 1995). Research finds a number of negative effects from the stress related to stigmatization based on sexual orientation (APA Division 44, 2000). This stress is linked to depression, higher suicide rates among LGB persons during young adulthood (D’Augelli, 1992; Rofes, 1983; Rotheram-Borus, Hunter, & Rosario, 1994; Savin-Williams, 1994), high-risk sexual behaviors (Folkman, Chesney, Pollack, & Phillips, 1992; Rotherman-Borus, Reid, Rosario, & Kasen, 1995), eating disorders (Brown, 1986), school problems (Bendet, 1986), substance abuse, running away, and prostitution (APA Division 44, 2000). The experience of anti-gay harassment has been found to be more common among gay and bisexualmale adolescents who had attempted suicide than among those who had not (Rotheram-Borus et al., 1994).
Another interesting dimension is added by Silverschanz et al. (2008), who, in contrast to the other studies examined in this article, extended the purview of their study to include heterosexuals and the ways in which they are influenced by personal and ambient heterosexist harassment. Their analysis proved that “heterosexual identification does not shield individuals from heterosexist harassment and its association with negative outcomes.” They further hypothesize:
Because heterosexual students experiencing HH overwhelmingly reported ambient rather than personal HH (84% and 16%, respectively), it is possible that our results can be explained by bystander stress. In other words, heterosexual students tended to suffer from overhearing others make negative remarks about sexual-minority people.
“Sticks and stones may be more likely to break their bones,” Thurlow (2001) concludes, ”but the relentless, careless use of homophobic pejoratives will most certainly continue to compromise the psychological health of young homosexual and bisexual people by insidiously constructing their sexuality as something wrong, dangerous or shameworthy.”
Causes of Microaggressions
Perhaps counter-intuitively, only some of the perpetrators of microaggressions are actually ideologically heterosexist. Burn (2000) observes:
The use of terms such as “fag” or “queer” in heterosexual friendship groups is in many cases normative. That is, it is part of the group’s culture. If the individual wishes to be identified as an ingroup member, s/he must participate in the group’s culture. The terms, which may be quite creative (e.g., “butt-pirate” and “fudgepacker”), are reinforced through laughter and frequency of use. In this way, this expression of anti-gay prejudice serves what Herek (1990) would call a social-expressive function by helping individuals win approval from important others and affirm their status as “insiders.” Similarly, Sigelman et al. (1991) suggest that anti-gay behaviors may arise as individuals try to distance themselves from stigmatized persons out of a concern that they will be stigmatized by association (what Goffman called “courtesy Stigma”). By using anti-gay language, individuals distance themselves from this stigmatized social group. Kimmel (1994) suggests that the fear men have of being perceived as homosexual propels them to enact all kinds of masculine behaviors and attitudes, such as homophobic remarks, to make sure that no one gets the “wrong idea” about their manliness.
Ergo, what these groups lack is a Fancy Pants, an insider of a social group who is confident in their standing inside the group and courageous enough to question and to stand up to its memetic aberrations.
Another remedy against stereotypes is personal information. Burn et al., (2005), cite research indicating that “people will set aside their stereotypes and judge people on an individual basis when personal information is available to them (Hilton & Fein, 1989; Lord et al., 1994) and when they are highly motivated to form an accurate impression of someone (Hilton & Darley, 1991; Snyder, 1992).” Hence they conclude that “coming out is, perhaps, the most potent method of reducing anti gay sentiments (Davis, 1992; Garnets & Kimmel, 1993; Gonsiorek & Weinrich, 1991; Klein, 1993).”
In other instances where people “with otherwise accepting attitudes toward homosexuality call their heterosexual friends derogatory names,” it is possible that they “merely have not thought of its contribution to antihomosexual bias,” so that “simpler awareness efforts should succeed in changing behavior.” For instance, “many people professed that they had simply never thought of this type of behavior as gaybashing and were quite ashamed of themselves upon reflection.” (Burn, 2000)
Within a fandom made up of people who are open-minded enough to profess their love for well-animated equines, such awareness efforts should fall on fertile ground. Hence, the simplest and most effective remedy and prevention measure for microaggressions may well be to politely point them out when one notices them in the discourse of others and to train greater consciousness of the “social-expressive functions” of one’s own language. If you are a member of a tight-knit online or real-life group of friends, then you carry responsibility for the culture you cultivate—responsibility that stems from the influence you wield.