Microaggressions* have been a highly debated topic, particularly on college campuses. Some have suggested that the discussion of microaggressions, essentially, is making people overly sensitive. Others value labeling this subtle, persistent, often latent form of bias, expanding the discussion from solely conversations of race to include other areas of microaggression such as gender or sexuality.
Given that much of this work has been done in higher education settings, it’s no surprise that my familiarity with microaggressions started when I left my working-class world of needs and entered my elite, liberal arts college of wants.
My classmates wanted newer, better pillows for their chic dorm rooms. They wanted higher quality snacks for their parties. They wanted to eat off campus because dining hall food was “so gross.”
I wanted to fit in and be liked. I ignored the comments that hurt me, the pitying looks I got when I said I couldn’t pay for a concert, wouldn’t be going anywhere for break, or didn’t ski (not because I didn’t know how – I had been skiing since I was five when my dad took me to work on the mountain with him). Back then, I so desperately didn’t want to be who I was, trading my them-ness to be part of “us.”
I now realize those instances were ones of microaggression. This realization has opened my eyes to see the ways class-based microaggressions are still at play in my life. Based on my experiences, I’ve come up with a starter pack of microaggressions that I define and give an example of (based on real world experiences). After you’ve read this, I hope you’ll comment with your own additions!
This microaggression is typified by interruption and/or avoidance. This is the comment that derails the conversation, recenters it on the person with privilege, and very clearly communicates to the person from the lower class, “We don’t want to hear it.” It might go something like this:
The Silencer: Oh, I love your necklace. Is it a family heirloom?
Working Class person: No. My family is poor. We don’t have heirlooms. The trailer I grew up in …
The Silencer: Well, it’s a very pretty necklace. I have one just like it that my grandmother gave me. I’ll show it to you.
If you’re in the position of the silencer, just shut up. Button your lip and listen to the person who is willing to share a vulnerable moment with you. That’s a pretty precious gift.
The Me-Too is tricky because at first it seems like you’ve found someone who gets it. (How else do working class and poor people find each other than through storytelling and shared experience?) Until you realize they don’t at all.
Working Class person: We’ve really had to cut back since my partner lost their job. We’re down to one income and that’s just making it impossible to stay on budget without giving up a lot.
The Me-Too-er: Oh I totally get it. Last month I had to reduce my weekly maid service down to twice a month.
Again, for the Me-Too-er, stop yourself from trying to relate. Since this microaggression also happens a lot between oppressed classes, don’t do this as a poor white person to a person of color (conflating your class experience with their racial experience), a poor person to a disabled person (conflating your class experience with their disability experience), etc. Accept that you can’t relate to everything or everyone. Instead, feel honored that someone is sharing their experiences with you.
Made popular by the 1938 play (and film adaptations) of the same name, gaslighting refers to the process whereby a person, usually a woman, is made to feel that she is “crazy” for thinking something is wrong. In the play/film, the woman’s husband gradually turns down the gaslights in their home, but every time the woman brings it up, he pretends not to notice. In the context of class-based microaggressions, gaslighting entails refuting someone’s experience and/or changing the conversation to focus on how the gaslighter is the one who is “hurt” by the other person’s comments.
Low-income/poor person: I don’t like that comedian because he throws around the term white trash. It really bugs me.
Gaslighter: I think you’re being overly sensitive. You have to take it in context and see the humor.
Low-income/poor person: It’s not funny and I think laughing at it does more damage than good.
Gaslighter: Well, I found it funny, and it hurts my feelings that you think I’m a bad person. I’ve been a really good friend to you.
Low-income/poor person: (genuinely doubts their own experiences) I’m sorry.
Another example of gaslighting:
Working class person: I am really uncomfortable when you describe yourself as “poor.” You might be broke right now, but you’ve never really experienced poverty.
Gaslighter: What makes you think you know me? I am poor right now. Just look at the poverty line. I’m earning under that amount.
Working class person: But your parents help you out every month.
Gaslighter: So, what, I’m supposed to feel bad because my parents are wealthy? This really sucks. I work really hard for what I have and I don’t want to feel guilty that you don’t have the same things.
Simply put: don’t make others feel like their experiences are invalid. You don’t have to see it, believe it or approve it for an experience to be true.
The “Helpful” Correction
This one is omnipresent and annoying as all get out. You know it. It’s the “super helpful” correction of one’s grammar, accent, or syntax. A few examples:
Low-income/poor roommate: I need to warsh my hands.
The Corrector roommate: You mean, you need to waaaaahsh your hands?
Low-income/poor roommate: No. I mean, I need to warsh your mouth out with soap.
Another example of “helpful” corrector:
Working Class Student (raises hand in class): I’d like less people to talk at the same time, so I can hear better.
The Corrector Student: Fewer, you’d like fewer people to talk at the same time. (winks at professor, probably)
Working Class Student: It’s colloquial English, you cocksure sycophant.
Being a “grammar Nazi” isn’t cool. It’s hegemonic, rude, and doesn’t make we want to be your friend.
[gdlr_quote align=”left” ]Here’s the issue with microaggressions. As they aggregate over a lifetime, they really aren’t so micro.”[/gdlr_quote]
The Pity Party
A classic, the pity party is all about feeling bad for someone or offering to pay for something when someone says they can’t afford it.
Pity Party Thrower: Let’s all go out to dinner and drinks!
Working Class person: I can’t afford that right now.
Pity Party Thrower: Aw. That’s sad. Are you sure?
Working Class person: Yeah.
Pity Party Thrower: You know what? I’m just gonna pay for you. You can pay me back later.
Now, don’t get me wrong, if your family is going on a big vacation with all expenses paid and you want me to join, I am in. But if you ask me to join and I say I can’t afford the flight, you offer to pay for it, and I decline, then it’s time to back off. I am okay with who I am and how much money I have. Please don’t make me feel guilty for prioritizing how I spend it.
Not So Micro
Here’s the issue with microaggressions. As they aggregate over a lifetime, they really aren’t so micro. A lifetime of individuals from the power-wielding class, race, gender, ability, sexuality, etc. telling you that your experiences are less important, less valid or just plain made up has the impact of decreasing self-esteem. This silences those who most need to speak up, and further consolidating power among the already powerful.
No one is perfect. Don’t try to be. But, do pay attention to the ways you react when someone shares about themselves, how you talk to your friends from less class advantaged backgrounds, and what the message is beneath your words. Microaggressions are tricky, because they are usually unintentional. But don’t let yourself think for a second that unintentional means unbiased.
What microaggressions have you experienced other than the above? How do you cope with microaggressions? Please comment below!
*For an excellent definition and history of the term, see Merriam-Webster’s Words We’re Watching: Microaggression.
“Being a “grammar Nazi” isn’t cool. It’s hegemonic, rude, and doesn’t make we want to be your friend.”
Thanks for the tip on how to prescreen losers. What pieces like this don’t get is that most people are happy to find ways to insulate themselves from riff raff.
The idea of microaggressions is a cover for middle class privilege. Middle class activists have gentrified the entire left and every discussion about identity politics for the purpose of silencing the working class. The workig class must not legitimize the tactics the have been used to deflect and de-legitimize the concerns of workers.
Furthermore, crying about microagressions is beneath the dignity of people who have experienced genuine hardship and do not need to fabricate a narrative of oppression.
Dorothy Emerson says
I learned to call such comments “class attacks.” I haven’t had the nerve to use the term when it’s happening, but maybe sometime I will. What do you think the reaction might be?
Dorothy Emerson says
One use of this article might be to foster creative thinking by asking folks to re-frame their “well-intentioned” concern to avoid the microaggession/class attack in an non-classist way. For instance, I once had someone offer to pay for my dinner, but rather than asking if I was sure I couldn’t afford it and saying how sad that was (as in the example above, she simply said “I really want to you to join us. Would it be OK if I paid for your dinner?” I said “Yes.” I knew she was upper-middle class and could afford it.
I see ‘microagressions’ as something to let your friends know about, and people you respect, but not really worth bringing up every time someone makes a classist remark. I’ve grown up near poverty level, but my parents (together, thankfully) were very good budgeters and so we never went without electricity, water, etc. My roommate this past year would bring up her poverty in every conversation.. when her mother just couldn’t budget. She’d be complaining about how ‘poor’ she was, and then give me dirty looks from everything to me sharing that almost every item I own is thrifted or found in a dumpster, to shock that I never went to an amusement park, to offense that I wouldn’t give her money every day to buy bottled water or fruit juice (because a waterfountan is too gross for her, apparently). It was.. an interesting semester.
My current college roommate doesn’t get any FAFSA money and I have my tuition fully paid by FAFSA (because her family makes over $200,000 a year while mine makes under $50,000, just saying).
She constantly tells me that her parents cannot just dish out all of the money she needs for college.
I pointed out that, didn’t her dad just pay $10,000 of her tuition this semester? “Yeah, but that’s just this semester. I will be in debt at the end of college. My parents don’t just have tons of money sitting around. FAFSA will never understand what it’s like for families like mine.”
Me: “So you think that they should give you money so your family can keep your boat?” (didn’t even mention the cabin, or the house in Hawaii, or the trip they’re taking to Thailand soon).
Her: “You think I should have to sell my boat?”
I love this piece. I’m not sure what the first two responses would read like if they were kind and thoughtful. I’m not even sure what the point was. Thank you, Ms Fleenor.
Today I was at a meeting to plan a cooking class and went away feeling depressed over the inability of some of the women to see that everyone who takes a class (or even helps present it!) does not have the same resources and privilege. Not having an instant pot or not having the “skill set” to know how to cook certain things. Are we reaching out to connect with these classes or are we doing it to show off?
It’s good to have a name for these comments which are used in every form of ism I know as well how a pecking order is established in any group. I have heard them all though directed at me, not because Im poor (I’m not) but because Im quiet, young, female, not socially statused etc. I think I’ve also done them all unfortunately. What I’d love to know is an appropriate response (‘you cocksure sycophant ‘ is not my manner of speaking) that respects both the speaker and my own values
David Parks says
The biggest problem for this article in the UK, is that it is a US perspective that is solely based on economic class, rather than the English perspective. England is largely dominantly by social class where wealth is secondary.
An example is I know a local vagabond who is from aristocracy, he became a alcoholic and lost all his money, and another who has ten million from a DIY business he set up and speaks what we would call a common. The former is still respected more highly by the community and the later is disliked and slandered.