Microaggressions and Overblown Rhetoric

Doug Wilson says, ‘A recent jag in the feminist jihad has to do with what they are pleased to call microaggressions – what Jonah Goldberg recently worried might become nanoaggressions. So let’s talk about all that for a microbit.’ First, I must say I agree with Mr Wilson’s main point, that the charge of microaggression has become a way for people to silence opposing views, and that the stupidity belongs not to those who cry foul but to those who let them. Long enough have people tried to force others to bend over backwards to comply with their need not to be offended, just to appear respectable. As Eva Brann wrote two decades ago on taking offence,

I love midnight movies, the Golden Oldies; they are the silver-lining of insomnia. Recently I caught part of an old black-and-white movie – Pressure Point – of the days when African-Americans were still called Negroes. Sidney Poitier plays a black prison psychiatrist. At one point his white patron says something about not expecting a Negro to be a successful psychiatrist and, suddenly realizing to whom he is talking, quickly adds: ‘No offense intended.’ To which Poitier replies, with lordly dignity: ‘No offense taken.’ This script is unthinkable in the nineties, more’s the pity. Offense is to be taken.

Nevertheless, I do not wish either to let conservatives floccinaucinihilipilificate microaggressions or to let the ofensistas use them to silence their opponents.

I cannot say that racism has denied me the ability to speak in the public sphere. What I can say is that, for a child, racism, even in the form of microaggressions, can be a big deal. Even now, I can say that microaggressions have shaped a large part of my experience as a Chinese American. Sometimes I have internalized them differently than other Asian Americans have done. Rather than feeling ashamed of my ethnic culture, I have turned my attentions to cultivating it and to the hope of transmitting it to my descendants in such a way as to strengthen the civilizations of both China and the West.

This is, in fact, part of my answer to the classic microaggressive question posed to Asians: Where are you (really) from? As a Christian, at least, I am used to being from more than one place. I am at the very least from both earth, by virtue of my birth, and heaven, by virtue of my adoption into the household of God. Being somewhat a stranger and alien in the country where I was born, then, is not so strange after all. So I was born in Alabama. So my parents were born in Asia. Where am I from, and to what society do I belong? I think I can claim both. The reality is more complex, but the claim is true. Yes, you are right that I do not belong here: partly because this life is transitory, and partly because you have made it so, I do not and cannot fully belong. That the latter can point to the former, I give thanks to God; that your question has added to the thorns and thistles of this life, and made the earth inhospitable, I cannot give thanks to you.

Your English is so good, they say. A second microaggression. On the whole, they mean well, I suppose. But no White person born in this country is ever told such a thing. That it seems to bear mention presupposes that it is in fact remarkable. Perhaps it is, but not because of my facial features or the colour of my skin. Nevertheless, presuming what they do, people remark that my English is good.

Well, I should certainly hope I spoke good English, seeing as I was three when I resolved to speak better English than the White people. Was my brain well disposed for this task? Aye, it was. Was the task easy? No, for I had set for myself a task that required greater effort than a monolingual English speaker my age could know. Any lapses in my English, forgiven in White speakers, would put me in the foreigner category. Not only did I have to speak English as flawlessly as possible – for I was well aware that I had to maintain a higher standard in my English just to be equal – but I had also, for the sake of my family’s honour, to maintain my Chinese. Without my parents, I would never have achieved my goals. It was they who taught me good Cantonese, and it was they who corrected both my Cantonese and my English. I would not expect many other parents to have been able to do the same as my parents, nor would I expect many other children to have succeeded in speaking English and Chinese fluently and almost flawlessly.

Such was the labour of merely dealing with the microaggressions I expected. Not once did any microaggression I expected then fail to materialize. Though my given name was biblical, I knew it was unintelligible to my White teachers, and even more so to my classmates. Small surprise that the L and the Y exchanged places. My surname was even worse. I had this song sung to my face, and to this day I am loath to hear it, no matter how catchy it sounds:

Did kids think I was a fool? Oo ee = Lue-Yee; ting tang = Tsang. Too convenient. It was all ching-chong to them, but that was no excuse. Of course, depraved creatures, but depraved creatures under rules of niceness, they denied any such connexion. Optimistic I may be, but I did not take kindly to these antics; nor, at the time, was I able to articulate my objections in a way that ‘natives’ might get. At five or six, then, I knew these annoyances were unlikely to end, and the only way to get through it all was indeed to demonstrate my superiority. God alone knows how proud I was to see my first-grade country report, on China, marked splendid.

I knew my cultural identity was under threat in a sea of monolingual English speakers. And yet, even if I became culturally White, I was still myself, and that self could not actually be White. The Opium Wars were fresh in my memory, and I was proud to speak a language the White men could not simply conquer with the sound of cannons roaring. As the mighty rivers flowed, I would give up my tongue if Greek were more difficult.

I would not conform to the majority simply for its being the majority. That I even spoke English was surely conformity enough. If people were narrow, if they were (to put it in Chinese terms) going to be frogs at the bottom of the well, unable to conceive of the ocean, I could not feign ignorance on my part. I was learning the language they asked for; surely they, if they would not learn my language, could at least respect my culture and the achievements of that great civilization, enough to let me be who I was. The Persians say, Esfahān nesf-e jahān ast (‘Isfahan is half of the world’), but no American city had the history to claim such a thing.

Of course, the adage is true: ‘Be pitiful, for every man is fighting a hard battle.’ I am not accusing people of malice. Though the odds are indeed stacked against Chinese Americans, this country is also home to some of the kindest people. And though I instinctively speak in terms of returning to Hong Kong despite never having lived there, America is the place I call home. Can people handle the complexity? I think it our duty to try to understand the distinctions, but I also think it naïve to expect the problem to go away soon, and nearly impossible to eliminate the commonest faults. The remaining disparity is the thing that, despite attempts to deny it, we designate by the name of White privilege, so long as White men are specially exempt from a certain liability or burden to which non-White persons are subject.

This reality, White privilege, we ought to use not to belittle the hardships and the achievements of Whites, nor to avoid gratitude for some of them who have fought to end chattel slavery and the Chinese Exclusion Act, nor to insist on creating a multiculturalist society not grounded in any traditional culture – for each of these is unjust and short-sighted – but to accept that one does not simply erase racism and racial inequality. Some Whites try to erase it by denial, and other folk by compensatory measures. In the Church, then, the ‘White’ thing to do is to presume that being all one in Christ, and celebrating the fact, means we are free of racial problems; reacting against this presumption is a kind of affirmative action that either brings on token coloured folk (as if White were not a colour) or shames White male voices into silence. But it is wrong to appeal to our common justification in heaven as if our sanctification on earth did not matter, and equally it is wrong to attempt a sanctified, purified church and refuse to see that we cannot force ultimate justice, perfect righteousness, into the present. As Richard Hooker says,

There is a glorifying righteousness of men in the world to come: and there is a justifying and a sanctifying righteousness here. The righteousness, wherewith we shall be clothed in the world to come, is both perfect and inherent. That whereby here we are justified is perfect, but not inherent. That whereby we are sanctified, inherent, but not perfect.

Let us, chastened but motivated, attempt to heal the divisions that remain by looking honestly at the situation. To do this, we need an open and civil discussion in which all parties begin by exercising the virtue of charity. White men, not seeing the advantages they enjoy, must use what they do know to resist forming judgements based on racial stereotypes; others, resentful of White privilege, must resist denying White men the right to form independent judgements and to express their opinions. And the latter involves dropping ‘check your privilege’ insofar as it forms an ad hominem contrary to rational and civil public discourse. As Julia Fisher says, writing in The New Republic,

The real problem with the phrase ‘check your privilege’ – aside from the fact that it reduces people to the sum of their characteristics – is that it has become a handicapping device. White male? Then what could you possibly know about racism or sexism? Calling out privilege often isn’t intended to make someone consider his advantages in life so much as to dismiss his perspective. But I want to be able to discuss sexism or feminism with men, and I think their opinions are no less worthy or relevant for the fact that they are male. Similarly, anyone should be able to participate in a conversation about racism without being discounted or silenced on account of race.

Some people, never satisfied with others’ empathy, will refuse to have a real discussion: they will be content to put others down for not being like themselves and, they presume, therefore unable to say anything of value. As Miss Fisher says, the problem is ‘rooted in a basic disagreement over the weight of identity in determining a person’s role in social discourse’. Our discourse crisis is one of authority. Until we can give proper weight to the things said by authorities but judge arguments on the basis of their logic, rather than judging almost entirely on the basis of who is speaking and how well he scratches our itching ears, we shall continue to flail: everyone will seek to be an authority, everyone a leader, everyone a tyrant in a ‘warre of every one against every one’. And the result of such chaos is the dread of every Chinese philosopher as well as Thomas Hobbes:

In such condition there is no place for Industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continual Fear, and danger of violent death; And the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

And all this war men suffer ‘for want of a common power to keep them all in awe’. Perhaps, in today’s secularist society, there is no such power except for the idol of Mammon and his deep state. Perhaps in many quarters people are unaware that such a common power cannot – or, more likely, will not – keep people from destroying the vestiges of the republic of letters as they each seek their own petty piece. Life moves on. We attack one another, and the deep state goes on, content for us to chatter at no depth. But the Church, of all people, ought to see the game for what it is and call herself and all mankind to the one common power of the One who holds all authority in heaven and on earth. Some may not know this One to be Jesus Christ, but surely it is known even to many pagans that such a higher power exists; and surely, then, when we can all acknowledge a common power, there is space to talk soberly. At the very least the testimony of the Church to this God may remind people of what they know: discussion is possible.

And then, in this possibility, this space that exists by the authority of our God, perhaps we can be safe enough to acknowledge that White privilege exists and, from thence, to reflect more deeply on what the word of God teaches us to do today. This will take much more patience than people are used to, but the Holy Ghost can give us the patience of Christ to work through these difficult questions to which we do not have the answers. If it took centuries to learn that chattel slavery is wrong, we must be zealous enough to talk but deliberate enough to think carefully about racial inequity.

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3 responses to “Microaggressions and Overblown Rhetoric

  1. Your English is so good, they say. A second microaggression. On the whole, they mean well, I suppose. But no White person born in this country is ever told such a thing. That it seems to bear mention presupposes that it is in fact remarkable. Perhaps it is, but not because of my facial features or the colour of my skin. Nevertheless, presuming what they do, people remark that my English is good.

    Just a small note, I think the parallel would not be telling a white person that he speaks good English but that he speaks good Chinese, and we Chinese do do that a lot of the time when some white person speaks Chinese well. I don’t really see what’s so unusual about expecting Chinese to speak good Chinese and a white American to speak good English while consider it a surprising fact that a Chinese can speak good English and a white person can speak good Chinese.

    Some of your “microaggressions” does seem to be a matter of oversensitiveness methinks, and I say this as a Singaporean Chinese.

  2. Interesting and balanced post on a difficult topic. I found the comment about “good English” to be interesting, though. On quite a few occasions over the past few years, I’ve had people compliment me on my good English. In a direct way, too: things like “You speak very well,” or “Your English is very good,” or “Are you from England?” Here’s the thing: I do speak well – that is, I have an excellent vocabulary, I enunciate my words clearly, and I rarely use verbal filler. That’s the result of being an English professor, and also of teaching ESL students for a number of years: I paid particular attention to speaking clearly so that my less fluent students would be better able to understand me. I admit to always being a bit nonplussed when someone comes out and compliments me on it, but the comment may say more about the general low level of people’s expectations about conversational English, than about anything else…

    Interestingly, another ‘microagression’ that I’ve seen described in other accounts is that of (white) people asking to touch a non-white person’s hair. But this happens to me ALL THE TIME. I have to be on my guard against total strangers or acquaintances wanting to touch my hair. (I get lots of comments about it, too, most notably “Is that your natural color?”) Yes, people will just come right up and (try to) caress my hair! It’s horrifying and yes, I do experience it as an aggression, but it doesn’t seem to be connected with race, specifically.

    I’ve also been asked on more than a few occasions where I’m from, or what my ethnicity is.

    I do agree that at least some ‘microaggressions’ have to do with race and/or privilege, but given that I’m a very light-skinned, blonde American and I’ve repeatedly experienced a number of these, I suspect that many of these are not so much expressions of racism or privilege, but rather of people responding to something novel or distinctive, with a lamentable lack of good manners and self-restraint.

    • Thanks, Dr Ordway. It does seem important to note the context of a general lack of self-restraint. On the other hand, it seems to be the experience of many Asian Americans that people are surprised at their good English, even in areas that have large Asian populations with young children. In China it may be a surprise to meet a non-Chinese-looking person who speaks elegant and fluent Mandarin, but such should hardly be the case in many of the major metropolitan areas in which Chinese families have often chosen to settle. Perhaps microaggression is a misnomer, but I do think the frequency of these comments reflects a presumption that Asian Americans are foreign by default. Part of this expectation is based in fact: Asians are the fastest-growing racial group. Nevertheless, in some parts of this country, Asians have been part of daily life for four generations, and so I think racial microaggression is at play at least some of the time.

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