Microaggressions and the “Pristine Self”

Howard S. Schwartz

Is there a new political correctness? Many think so, and I agree.

How is the new PC different from the old? Megan McArdle writes:

When I was in college, people who wanted to censor others were forthrightly moralistic, trying to silence "bad" speech. Today's students don't couch their demands in the language of morality, but in the jargon of safety. They don't want you to stop teaching books on difficult themes because those books are wrong, but because they're dangerous, and should not be approached without a trigger warning. They don't want to silence speakers because their ideas are evil, but because they represent a clear and present danger to the university community. If the school goes ahead and has the talk anyway, they build safe spaces so that people can cower from the scary speech together.

Central to this distinction is the concept of “microaggression.” Derald Wing Sue, godfather of the concept, defined “microaggression” as "the brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities and denigrating messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned White people who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated" (Sue and Rivera, 2001). Generally, the category "racial" has been expanded to include other designations of "marginalization."

But there is an obvious problem here. Sue claims “microaggressions” are unintentional. But a microaggression must first of all be an aggression. It must refer to something going on in the person who sends the communication, not just the one who receives it. The claim of being microaggressed against must rest on certain assumptions about the mind of the microaggressor. But what can they be, especially given the stipulation that microaggressions are not generally meant to hurt? And how are they construed to form the conclusion that one has been microaggressed against?

To answer that question, I turned to the Internet, where microaggressed people regularly post their stories of oppression. (An entire Tumblr blog is named “microaggressions.com.”) My frame for understanding these expressions is a concept that I call the "pristine self," an idea I develop in my forthcoming book Political Correctness and the Destruction of Social Order: Chronicling the Rise of the Pristine Self (in press: Palgrave Macmillan). The “pristine self” is the fictionalized idea of a self touched by nothing but love. When "marginalized" students demand “safe spaces,” trigger warnings, and protection from microaggressions, they work upon the assumption that they deserve a “pristine self” unchallenged by invalidating ideas or opinions. In our society, it is said, white people, especially males, have their pristine selves validated as a matter of course. That validation is what they call "white privilege." In this understanding, "marginalized" people have been deprived of such love. The charge, in effect is that the white males have gained their love at the expense of the marginalized; now the marginalized demand the return of the love of which they feel they have been deprived.

Consider this reported microaggression:

Was biking through town when two women yelled “Konichiwa!” at me…

I’m Vietnamese. And I was born in California. 

(Also, where’s the female solidarity?)

The term konichiwa is Japanese for “Good afternoon”—hardly a phrase of aggression. The microaggression, evidently, was that two women addressed another woman (a stranger to them) in Japanese, presuming that she understood Japanese, even though she was Vietnamese and born in the US.

That this was experienced as an aggression can only mean that the two accidental microaggressors were supposed to know that the woman was Vietnamese, and possibly even that she was born in America. And they were supposed to know this without asking. Asking where a person is from is itself a paradigmatic microaggression, according to Sue. Supposedly the question suggests the person being asked does not belong here (Sue, 2001: p. 36).

The presumption that others should immediately know who one is runs through many of the entries in the annals of the microaggressed. This presumption is often accompanied by the belief that not knowing who one is sends a hostile message, as in this recorded microaggression:

Stranger: What do you do?
Me: I’m a professor.
Stranger: You’re way too young to be a professor. You look like a student.

I’m in my 30s and I dress more professionally than my colleagues. But I’m also petite and female. My male partner, who has the same age and occupation, is never told that he doesn’t look like a professor. It sends me the message that I’m an imposter, merely play-acting at being a serious scholar or authority figure. Made me feel like no one will take me seriously despite my accomplishments.

One breeding ground for perceived microaggressions is the realm of self-defined identity. One reported microaggression, posted on the Tumblr blog under the topic “Trans,” noted:

Two classmates were talking about “the only guy in class,” in referencing the other guy in class. I said, “hey man…” they glanced at me, and then continued talking. None of my peers have noticed that my male name comes with male pronouns. Nobody’s training them to ask for pronouns. We’re in college, and they don’t know that people like me exist. Made me feel erased, frustrated.

The microaggressed also expect those around them to exhibit emotional responses that conform to their own self-definition. One woman complained about the insufficiently sympathetic rhetoric some used after her partner was ill:

So my girlfriend had to go to the ER and I went to join her. I introduced myself to ER staff (when asked) as her girlfriend. Every staff ended up referring to me as her friend. Then I had to let my professors know I wouldn’t make it to classes that day and they could cancel my interpreters because I was supporting my girlfriend through an emergency situation. Every single one of them replied “I hope your friend is okay.” Thanks for the well-wishes, maybe you could do it next time without de-legitimizing same-sex relationships. 

This sensitivity is demanded even from people who are not aware that the potentially-microaggressed person is there and listening. Evidently, we are all supposed to have every potential microaggression in mind:

While whale watching on a touristy boat in Maine, we were having trouble getting close to a whale who kept diving farther away from us. I was standing at the very front of the boat and overheard this exchange between two strangers:

Man #1: The whale keeps diving away from us and getting farther out. (laughs) It probably thinks we want to mate with it.

Man #2: It's definitely a female whale, then. It's like, "Get away from me, please, get away from me!"

(They both laugh and Man #2 continues to say things such as, "Get away from me! Stop coming close!" in a high pitched, feminine voice)

I am a 20-year-old sexual assault survivor. I felt shocked, worthless, depressed.

Individuals see themselves as being microaggressed against when an interaction does not support their feelings of goodness and importance, in the terms they use to define their own goodness and importance. The basis upon which they feel validated is never defended, or even openly stated--but it is assumed to be understood and its validity self-evident. This means microaggressions are not limited to things that are said or done; microaggressions can also be things unsaid, support and validation not given. One's membership in a "marginalized group" is the basis of one's demand to be loved and validated by all others. The charge of microaggression represents the accusation that another person has violated one’s pristine self.

The theory of “microaggressions” assumes that privileged people enjoy their privileges at the expense of marginalized people. That is, they see validation as a zero sum game. For example, in the wake of the popular Black Lives Matter movement, it is politically incorrect to respond that all lives matter. Suggesting that everyone’ s life is important, regardless of skin color, invites the charge of committing a racist microaggression. Simply affirming the value of non-Black lives fall afoul of the new political correctness. The normalization of the pristine self harms the social order. Under the new PC social order, some pristine selves must be regarded as more pristine than others—which flatly contradicts the principles of equality and individualism on which Western civilization has been built. How our civilization can defend itself, when it has been forbidden from valuing itself, is a matter that should be of great concern.


Sue, Derald Wing (2010) Microaggression in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation. New York: Wiley

Sue, Derald Wing and David P. Rivera, (2010) Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life. Is subtle bias harmless. Psychology Today

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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