Microaggression and Macroexploitation

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Today I’m going to veer dangerously close to pop sociology, first by invoking a sociological concept — microaggression — that if not pop, is certainly popular, and then by juxtaposing that concept with a binary opposite made up out of whole cloth especially for this post: macroexploitation. And I’ll conclude by speculating on the uses to which microaggression, as a concept, might be put — Spoiler: “finance, economics, politics and power” — while ignoring any historical context and not raising any question of agency. Should be fun!


The term microaggression — no hyphen — was coined in 1970 by Chester M. Pierce, Professor of Education and Psychiatry Emeritus at Harvard. It first occurs in the summary to his paper on “Offensive Mechanisms” — the comparison of everyday life in America to offensive tactics on the football field is sustained and brilliant — in The Black Seventies, Floyd Barbour, ed., 1970.  The term also occurs in Pierce’s 1974 paper, “Psychiatric Problems of the Black Minority,” in S. Arieti (Ed.), American handbook of psychiatry, in this passage[1]:

These assaults to black dignity and black hope are incessant and cumulative. Any single one may be gross. In fact, the major vehicle for racism in this country is offenses done to blacks by whites in this sort of gratuitous neverending way. These offenses are microaggressions. Almost all black-white racial interactions are characterized by white put-downs, done in automatic, preconscious, or unconscious fashion. These mini disasters accumulate. It is the sum total of multiple microaggressions by whites to blacks that has pervasive effect to the stability and peace of this world.

And in his 1970 article Pierce concludes:

It is my fondest hope that the day is not far remote when every black child will recognize and defend promptly and adequately against every offensive micro-aggression.

(Since 1970, the term has been expanded to include “the casual degradation of any socially marginalized group.” Here are some examples from BuzzFeed, and a parody from The New Yorker.)

The protests on college campuses today, inspired by #BlackLivesMatter, can be seen as a quest to fulfill Pierce’s dream. (Before proceeding, I should caveat that I’m aware the concept microaggression occurs in Critical Race Theory, so given my priors, I’ve put myself in the position of a one-armed juggler juggling power tools and surgical instruments and flaming torches, rather as if I were writing on intersectionality. However, I’m writing on the term microaggression as used by the journalists and pundits of today, and not as it is used in works of scholarship.)

Here’s how microaggression was recently characterized in one of a series of articles in The Atlantic by Conors Friedersdorf:

Consider an 18-year-old whose great grandparents immigrated from Japan to the United States. She enrolls at a large state university where she is constantly surrounded by strangers. A few times a week, someone asks her, “What country are you from?” Each interaction on its own is a tiny annoyance that she is inclined to ignore. But the cumulative effect of these interactions add up to a significant burden. No one likes having to answer the same question over and over and over again. And there seems to be something objectionable in the substance of this particular question––an implicit assertion that people with Asian features, or the descendants of Asian immigrants, are somehow less American than their white counterparts, even the ones whose ancestors immigrated here in the same generation. “I’m from here every bit as much as you are,” she might think to herself, “but people prejudge me as if that isn’t so because I don’t have white skin or features.”

Defenders of the “microaggressions” tend argue that people like this woman ought to have an intellectual framework and a public forum for airing her perspective.

And many critics of the “microaggression” framework agree!

They grant that a category of interactions are a) minor in each particular instance; b) cumulatively burdensome; c) substantively objectionable or plausibly objectionable; and they find it salutary to publicize, discuss, and ameliorate common examples.

But …

And here’s how the Los Angeles Times describes microaggression:

College students confront subtler forms of bias: slights and snubs

Some call it the new face of racism — not the blatant acts of bias that recently led to the University of Missouri’s campus unrest and resignation of the president and chancellor. Instead, a phenomenon known as “microaggression” — everyday slights and snubs, sometimes unintentional — is drawing widespread attention across college campuses and kicking up a debate about social justice and free speech rights.

Students are sharing their experiences with microaggression on websites and Facebook pages at Harvard, Oberlin, Brown, Dartmouth, Swarthmore, Columbia, Willamette and other universities.

In the last eight years, researchers have conducted more than 5,500 studies on the topic documenting how such seemingly minor slights harm student performance, mental health and work productivity, said Derald Wing Sue, a Columbia University psychology professor and leading expert on the topic.

(I’m not sure how “subtle” I would find these acts to be, if I were playing defense to the offense.) Now, a lot of these “minor slights” fall under the heading of Rule #1 (“Don’t be an a**hole”), and highlight entirely new ways of violating it, of which many may not have been conscious. And I could count the ways, things I’ve done or said that make me go “Ouch!” in retrospect. Of course, conservative chin-stroking and tut-tuttery follows protest as the night the day, and I don’t proposed to summarize that here[2]; that’s where all the whinging about “safe spaces”[3] and “free speech”[4] comes from.

So I’m basically with Atrios on this:

The Kids Today

It has come to my attention that the greatest threat to free speech in this glorious country of ours comes from a few black college kids. This threat is so looming and so large, so large and so looming, that 9 billion think pieces were written on this large and looming threat before the censorship began and the free speech was taken away.

Anyway, without getting too deep into all of the details, I’m a bit confused by the fact that no one remembers The Kids In Their Day. Nothing much has changed. Some college kids are socially active. They often focus on the things they know about and the things they might have some influence over. You know, their university. This is actually smart, not silly.

It is true that sometimes kids do silly things, because they’re kids. Adults sometimes do silly things, too, because they’re people. Sometimes adults do silly things like invade other countries and kill lots of innocent people for no good reason. Sometimes they are real threats to free speech! Silly adults! Sometimes adults actually have power, unlike the kids…. I guess there was a bit of attention when a few silly kids got themselves shot to death in Ohio, too. Silly kids!

For some reason it’s always the kids who are punching up, however clumsily, who get all the media attention and who are a grave and large and looming threat to all of the freedoms we hold dear.

It’s perfectly OK with me if these kids are on my lawn. And it isn’t even my lawn.


But… If we look at the field of play as covered by journalists today, we see defense against microaggression:

  1. Playing out in an academic context[5]
  2. With appeals to administrative academic authority
  3. And replacement of non-performing academic authority

(As readers know, I’m all for gutting the parasitical and bloated administrative layer, and returning universities to the twin missions of teaching and research. So I’m pleased that college Presidents, Chancellors, and even football coaches are being given their walking papers or quietly retiring from the scene. But that’s not what’s going on here.) Now, none of these things are bad; the university is a powerful institution, and as Atrios says: “[Students] often focus on the things they know about and the things they might have some influence over… This is actually smart, not silly.”

But…  If we return to Pierce (1970), we’ll see that he in no way wanted to limit defense against microaggression to the academic context. Pierce writes (p. 279):

There must be developed a group of health workers who could be called “Street Therapists.” They might or might not be called “Street Therapists.” They might or might not be the holders of high academic degrees. The role of the street therapist would be to conduct supportive-relationship treatment, especially for key individuals in the ghetto as well as to help poor citizens change institutional processes which work now to damage their emotions.

Thus, the street therapist functionally might be seeing a leading community organizer [sigh]. … The patient would usually not see the street therapist at a given hour or a given place. They might elect to meeet at 2 a.m. in an all-night coffee shop.[6] Compared to traditional therapy there would be much more confrontation and direction, instead of introspection and indirection. … Paramount in the method of the street therapist will be a knowledge of offensive mechanisms, just as the psychiatrist of the middle class white never loses sight of the defensive mechanisms of his [sic] patient.

Sadly, the radical, even revolutionary idea of the “street therapist” has all but disappeared — been erased? — from contemporary discourse, with the “supportive-relationship treatment” function displaced to academics.

Second, and more centrally, we might ask if there is a larger context — a context outside the academy — in which microaggression plays out. Let’s remember Pierce’s that original trope, “offensive mechanism,” treats the game of football as a social laboratory where American social relations visibly play out. But that trope ignores invisible social relations beyond the field, and that structure and constrain, even “tilt,” the field: Who owns the stadium, for example; who purchases the tickets, who pays the referees, who owns the rights to the footage of the game, and so on.

I’m going to label this larger context “macroexploitation” — no hyphen — and since this is a work that aspires to rise merely to the level of pop sociology, I’ll caveat that I don’t know how to specify the relation between microaggression and macroexploitation. (I do think, however, that this would be a fruitful field of study.)

But I can think of two examples. The first is law enforcement for profit in Ferguson:

The ills of the Ferguson law enforcement system are well-known… (Quartz has a fine article “by the numbers.”) NPR summarizes:

A new report released the week after 18-year old Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson helps explain why. ArchCity Defenders, a St. Louis-area public defender group, says in its report that more than half the courts in St. Louis County engage in the “illegal and harmful practices” of charging high court fines and fees on nonviolent offenses like traffic violations — and then arresting people when they don’t pay. The report singles out courts in three communities, including Ferguson.

Last year, Ferguson collected $2.6 million in court fines and fees. It was the city’s second-biggest source of income of the $20 million it collected in revenues.

Jeff Smith, an assistant professor at the New School and a former Missouri state senator from St. Louis, says Ferguson “facilitates a debtors prison” because of the high number of arrest warrants that get issued when people don’t pay. When people go to jail, they sometimes lose their jobs.

They get caught in this downward spiral, and it happens to a lot of people. This stuff accumulates,” he says.

So, the problem — or “problem” — is revenue, right? Well, no, not exactly. Emerson Electric is a corporation with $24 billion in revenue, and its property tax valuation is “rock bottom.” And the solution — or “solution” is turning law enforcement into a business, just Reaon’s Robert Poole advocated, right?

Given that Ferguson was turned by its local elites into a giant debtors prison with “law enforcement” transformed into a collection agency — and with the debtors disproportionately black — I don’t see how policymakers could have imagined that anything other than what happened, would happen. An explosion is often the outcome of a feedback system in runaway mode.

Moreover, the 2008 financial collapse is also mysteriously absent. Bloomberg:

Violent unrest that captured global attention is revealing Ferguson, Missouri, as a city still struggling to mend its finances more than five years after the end of the longest U.S. recession since the 1930s. .. Ferguson acknowledged in its budget last year that “the recovery has been extraordinarily slow” and it has struggled to collect revenue. After 2007, the city lost almost $1.5 million annually in sales taxes and hasn’t fully recovered, according to the document.

So, we have lots and lots of micro-aggression in Ferguson, no question: Every stop, arrest, service, court appearance, and conviction is an opportunity for “offensive mechanics” by the official representatives of the local oligarchy. But we have macro-exploitation, too, ultimately in the form of refusing to tax Emerson, and in debt service. Microaggression and macroexploitation are firmly intertwined, and the latter creates the context for the former; it tilts an already tilted playing field even more against the offense than it’s already tilted, which is a lot. (Of course, this leads to public health problems too, as law enforcement, which seems more like an occupying army than anything else, keep whacking people with impunity.)

The second is unemployment. Pew Research:

Much has changed for African-Americans since the 1963 March on Washington (which, recall, was a march for “Jobs and Freedom”), but one thing hasn’t: The unemployment rate among blacks is about double that among whites, as it has been for most of the past six decades.

One common explanation, as William A. Darity Jr. of Duke University told Salon in 2011, is that blacks are “the last to be hired in a good economy, and when there’s a downturn, they’re the first to be released.” A 2010 article testing that “last hired, first fired” hypothesis against panel data from the Current Population Survey (from which the unemployment rate is derived) found considerable support for the “first fired” part but not for the “last hired” part: Blacks are in fact disproportionately likely to lose their jobs as the business cycle weakens, but the hiring side is more complex: “[E]arly in the business cycle, those blacks with a stronger attachment to the labor force (i.e., the unemployed) are the first hired. Blacks who are nonparticipants tend to be hired late in the business cycle when labor demand is particularly strong.”

Now, I don’t think there’s any question that there’s microaggression in the hiring process. (The Vienna Orchestra, IIRC, only started to hire women players when auditions began to be conducted behind a screen, so candidates were judged and selected only on musical skills). However, it’s also clear that unemployment itself is macroexploitation of the highest order: “The economy” is actually regulated by the barbaric process of throwing people out of work when it overheats.[7]

Now, it’s important to realize that Pierce (1970) righly conceives of microaggression as a public health problem, a matter of life and death, and not about the feels.[8] But both law enforcement for profit in Ferguson, and unemployment, are public health problems too. Both set the context for microaggression, but both are also forms of macroexploitation.

Whither Microaggression?

What, exactly, are the universities preparing society for with their lifelong learning project on microaggression theory? Being wannabe pop psychologists, we can only speculate, which is exactly what I’m going to do. A recent article in T Magazine by New York Times Chin-Stroker-In-Chief David Brooks included this cringe-worthy passage:

My $120,000 Vacation

What sort of people go on a trip like this? Rich but not fancy. It is a sign of how stratified things have become that even within the top 1 percent there are differences between the single-digit millionaires and the double- or triple-digit millionaires. The people on this trip were by and large on the lower end of the upper class.

In other words, they were socially and intellectually unpretentious. They treated the crew as friends and equals and not as staff.

(Personally, I think requiring staff to behave like fake friends, rather than treating them as professionals, is about as offensive as it gets, but perhaps that’s just me.) This faux levelling tendency Brooks inadvertently points to seems characteristic of elites today; that’s why tech bro squillionaire Mark Zuckerberg wears a T-shirt, for example. Here is an even more extreme example of the same faux power trip, also from the New York Times. The author, Miranda July, is going to interview Rihanna:

DRESSED VERY CAREFULLY for her, the way I would for a good friend, thinking hard about what she likes. What I think she likes. I ordered Uber Black [!]— the highest level of Uber I’ve ridden. The driver said it would be about an hour and a half to Malibu, a long time to resist telling him where I was going.

‘‘I’m going to meet Rihanna,’’ I finally yelled over the radio.

He turned the radio down.

‘‘Rihanna. I’m going to meet her, to interview her. That’s where we’re going.’’

‘‘You kidding? That’s my girl,’’ he said. ‘‘I love her. She’s so down-to-earth. She always keep it cool with her friend and her family. Her and Melissa, I think they are the best celebrity friends. I always say that.’’

‘‘Melissa Forde,’’ I said, to show that I knew who he meant.

‘‘I took a picture with her! Look!’’ He handed back his phone and I took it skeptically. But there he was, in a tux, with his arm around Rihanna. She was smiling. ‘‘She hear my accent and ask me where I’m from. She’s so nice. I knew she would be.’’

‘‘Where are you from?’’

‘‘West Africa, Niger. I come to play soccer for University of Idaho. Oh, that’s the other thing I love about Rihanna — she love soccer.’’

Over the next two hours I interviewed Oumarou Idrissa about how he survived during his first five years in Los Angeles after his student visa had fallen through. He slept in laundromats, sending tiny sums of money back to Niger where his 25 brothers and sisters were starving. This took us through the beach traffic; we grew quiet as the SUV zipped along beach cliffs above blue water. I think we both suddenly remembered Rihanna.

Touching. Idrissa is, of course, July’s servant; that’s one of the main purposes of the “gig economy”; to provide on-demand servants to the 10% on up. (The real selling point of Uber is not transport, but transport that substitutes “independent contractors” just like me for icky working class drivers or, to be fair, Russian physicists with thick accents down on their luck.) Idrissa will collect his tip (large, one hopes) and cue up the next ride; July — “quoted as saying she has not worked a day job since she was 23 years old” — will go on to to the interview, or the next piece of performance art, or the next launch party.

So here, on July’s trip on Uber Black, we have macroexploitation: The (invisible) creation of social relations: The precariat and the concomitant brutal destruction of working class lives and dreams. And here we have microaggression: The theory that teaches Brooks and July how to deal with the servant problem, by avoiding the sort of (visible) faux pas that would ripple the smooth surface of “friendliness.”  After all, when the whole field has been tilted so far against the defense, the offense can block and tackle with a very light touch.


Again, I’m fine with the students being on my lawn, and I’m not asking why the hell they aren’t doing something else more important. I am saying that microaggression as a theory, to have appeal and application outside the academy, can be usefully situated in a larger context, which I have labelled macroexploitation. And it would be nice if there were “5000 papers” relating microaggression to that context, as well.


[1] Vox, quoting Pierce (1974), cites to a secondary source, and copies and pastes a bad character (“±” for “-“) from the PDF. For Pierce (1970), I found a miserably poor scan in ScribD, from which I typed in the passage quoted. It would be nice if Vox, which has real resources, had been able to find Pierce’s original. It would also be nice if our shiny digital economy had made it easy to find all of Pierce’s work, instead of disappearing it into a maze of secondary sources. Can readers help?

[2] Sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning (“Microaggression and Moral Cultures”) argue that we witnessing a “large-scale moral change such as the emergence of a victimhood culture that is distinct from the honor cultures and dignity cultures of the past.” Of course, “victim culture” is catnip to a certain sort of commentator, along with a simple, universal, ahistorical schematic. Also too, epater theliberals.

[3] I’m a university kid, so the notion of the campus as a “safe space” raises my hackles. But that’s because intellectual inquiry had better not be safe (Galileo; Semmelweis; this guy), not because I’m all for people having to undergo a constant, lifelong series of Rule #1 violations because of whatever hand they were dealt at birth.

[4] The press has the right to cover the story. That doesn’t imply that those the press wishes to cover are required to become news. It’s a conflict of good things! And it would certainly be odd if we had the right to remain silent with respect to agents of the state, but not a right to privacy with respect to employees of the press.

[5] And in entertainment, as well.

[6] This reminds me of Ferguson. I’d be surprised if “street therapy” had not been practiced there, at 2 A.M.

[7] And how much better a Jobs Guarantee would be!

[8] I know that “n*gger” is “just a word.” However, history shows that the word has often been followed by a rope, gasoline, and a match. So for me to use it would be a serious Rule #1 violation. This stuff is really not hard.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. charley

    Thanks, I appreciate your contextualizing without over-academicizing what first seems like the latest fever-blister of identity-studies majors. The problem is that, if you aren’t majoring with them, their thoughts (akin to those of the gender-indeterminate) are half-Greek to you. Not a prob if the discussion stays on campus, but alienating when the ruckus spreads through town. So it helps to explain these controversies as the interface where systemic injustice meets cultivated awareness. The really good news is, these black college kids are acting like college kids. They think they’re full-fledged Americans. So they are, though they’re still fledging. Thanks again for helping me to understand.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      “So it helps to explain these controversies as the interface where systemic injustice meets cultivated awareness. ”

      That’s funny. I was thinking of identity politics* as a sort of API when I was walking home this evening.

      * If one conceives of identity as a bundle of named properties, with a call to a property name returning a property value.

  2. DJG

    I don’t know, Lambert. I think that you have mixed two distinct phenomena.

    Microaggressions tend to be tied to the identity of persons the Canadians call “visible minorities.” These are the groups that exercise the Ku Klux Klan, which was founded to defend the purity of American pureness. (Blacks, Roman Catholics, immigrants, Jews.) So I’d say that microaggressions now are used to reinforce certain forms of identity. The example of Asian-Americans is apt. The endless anecdotes of blacks, even now, of being seated at bad tables in restaurants, being followed around stores, and so on, are probably not just anecdotes. In the U.S. South, my surname is considered “exotic,” and I’m not always pleased with the reaction. To reinforce that microaggression is tied to the imaginary national identity, and specifically to the rotten legacy of race, I’d point to the writers who wonder why acceptance of marriage equality went fairly quickly: Many families discovered that they had a gay member. Many neighbors discovered gay people next door. There was no avoiding the familiarity. Contrariwise, few white Americans have discovered a black sibling, although the first Justice Harlan famously had a black brother who was also a slave.

  3. DJG

    And then:

    If microaggressions are tied to race, what of the “servant problem”?–which, I’d say, goes back to shortages of labor, particularly in the U.S. South, the South’s maintenance of feudal attitudes, and a rather general U.S. disdain for work and for those who labor. I wouldn’t tie the servant problem so closely to race. I’d tie it to the endless search in U.S. history for labor-saving devices of all kinds, for transport (Tocqueville noticed that Americans hate to walk), and, more recently, for disposability. The false egalitarianism allows the upper middle class to pretend that Uber drivers are businesspeople (just like them!). Their nannies are independent contractors (even if it is cool to cheat on Social Security). The gardeners with their attached leaf-blowers are services. The right-to-work laws allow them to be the equals of their bosses. This is disdain for work and class warfare.

    If I see any microaggression from this general languor and lack of commitment to work, I’d say that it is the constant layer of upper-middle disposables on the sidewalks in my neighborhood: Starbucks cups. Water bottles. Empties from micro-brewies. The “doggy bag” clamshells from local restaurants. It is as if the disdain for work also has to be taken out on the face of the Earth itself.

    1. JTMcPhee

      I am Whiteshamed that I can’t recall which Black jester (as in the medieval court comics that could “speak truth to power” with semi- impunity) made the following observation (can’t even recall what the figure of speech is):

      “In the South they don’t care how close you get, as long as you don’t get too high. In the North, they don’t care how high you get, as long as you don’t get too close.”

      Fallen Bill Cosby, pernicious example of innate human centrality of sexanddeath any-opportunity fornicators? Oh yeah, it was Dick Gregory, not Dr. Huxtable… The neurons fire ever slower, row on row… I think he was being a little light on the bitter history of bitter fruit, but he was as I recall speaking to a White (actually, cream and pink and shadows of yellow, versus rich reds and ochres and gold and obsidian, but Black and White are so much more accessible to tribalism and Otherism and demagoguery) university audience…

      1. alex morfesis

        the truth is hardly ever what it appears to be…race is a difficult task to breach, when so many exclaim with devout fortitude, they know of things that are not known…was gonna pass on this topic but when you burp out cosby (free cheap shot) it was sad…since I never watched a full episode of the Cosby Show, I have no idea how he converted his image after 1984 from a filthy slimy typical hollywood creep to Daddy Feelgood…(have not seen friends nor seinfeld, nor cheers…aint done much tv the last few decades), but Gloria Alnoise has not announced she is taking on the “casting couch” just this fellow who liked to party…

        having had a somewhat gumpish life and been back stage 1 too many times in my younger days when the cameras are not around, it would take a complete mental blocked bafoon to not see what goes on and around in the entertainment world…

        no one seems to have a problem listening to that wondrous actor Jack Nicholson, and dont seem troubled that it was in his home, Mr Polanski was enjoying the not so sober company of a 13 year old girl…(THIRTEEN)…there that’s better…and if anyone wants to retort…perhaps we can ask Ms. Dickinson to share with us which side of the oder neisse line her “polish” mothers family came from…sorry…I did the baird jones bounce to different clubs thing in my youth in nyc and seen a bit too much going on in the dark crevices of the club scene in the early 80’s to have much of an ear for now way beyond their sell by date (men don’t pause) women who took their shot at the party scene to “make it” and having made (most of them) nothing of it…and before she described her “attacks” from Cosby, I had had a bit of a conversation with someone who grew up with Ms Dickinson…who was commenting on how she partied so hard in her youth, she could hardly remember the next day what she did or said…

        with all due respects to woman who find themselves destroyed by horrible situations and experiences…almost all these women then continued to have contact with Cosby…go find 50 woman who have had the experiences they claim to have had…then ask them how many of them “ever”, by choice, had communication with their victimizer…after the fact…

        just for clarity…in no which way shape or form am I suggesting what they claim to now recall can ever be rationalized…I have been cursed one too many times by not so sober women who were upset I would not sow their oats in their condition and just tucked them into bed and left…by my life experience tells me there are some weak pieces to this story…very weak…but it plays out because there is, it appears, some need to create this noise that…well you know…black men…blah blah blah…and the media jumps all over this incompatible with my life experiences set of stories…ok shoot me now…if you must…and for the record…I have never liked cosby…

        returning from that kathartic side bar…it is hard to discuss race because there are parties on both side who “think they know”…it is shocking to see how most loud “and all black” youngsters have no knowledge base of any real black history before hip hops made by the marshal fields family production…I used to drive down sugar hill in new york to avoid traffic…there was no sugerhill gang…edgecombe avenue was boarded up…break dancing was invented by malcolm mclaren…and no one was spray painting anything in america until taki 183…183 was for 183rd Street…and taki was a greek kid who actually went to school with the…well you keep believing what you want to believe…and imagine what you want about how our cities ended up the way they did(not by accident…last I checked the vichy/french connection did not grow their products in wisconsin)…

        I personally like it when someone is so annoyed by my presence they need to make a comment…I am white enough…but not lily white…will we ever have an honest conversation about race in america…when some writes a book called…the white boys guide to black history…then we can maybe have a basis for a conversation to begin…till then we will see one too many people on both sides talk past each other…maybe a thought from Bernard Baruch to close it out and give some hope…

        Those who matter don’t mind, and those who mind don’t matter

        gonna turn into a pumpkin…gotta go…

      2. different clue

        My memory tells me that is was Dick Gregory who said that. I am willing to stand correctible if the record shows it was someone else. The way i remember the quote going . . . the word was “big” instead of “high”. But I could be wrong.

    1. nigelk

      Anyone who has a vacation or a car that costs more than someone else’s *HOUSE* is a repellent human being. Brooks repulses me.

  4. Gaianne

    When I first heard of “microagressions” it bugged me, and now I know why: What a pretentious way to say “slights and snubs”!

    Do slights and snubs hurt? Of course!

    “Sticks and stones may break my bones
    But words will never hurt me!”

    The point of that jingle being that sometimes one has to shield when one cannot simply counter-attack, and this a means of doing it.

    But sociologists always have to coin new words to prove they have discovered something new and worthy of publishing.


    1. JTMcPhee

      Yep, Talcot Parsons, Master’s and Doctorates in WhatICallogy– could turn any commonplace into a compound complex polysyllabalism, a form of, I guess, “copyrighting” and claiming naming rights (which in other contexts than textbook sales and authorship credits have become highly “priced” in the crapified political economy…)

  5. craazyman

    Rhianna is hot. Holy smokes anybody see that video for Where Have You Been when she’s in the swamp with a bikini? FaaknAAAA. Then she’s dancing around in an Arab costume with a bunch of dudes in Sinbad the Sailor outfits. I bet most of them are gay. That’s the thing. When a hot babe like Rhinna wants a straight guy, she usually has to settle for a dufus, not some slick dude with 6 pack abs and a rhythm that can’t be faked.

    It would be tough to chose between Rhianna’s Where have you been and Adele’s Someone Like You. Thank God you don’t have to choose. you get them both on youtube. Nothing ever dies on Youtube. It’s the closest thing there is to eternity. Even Bob Dylan lives on Youtube. Even Led Zepplin! Think about that. That was a long time ago.

    if we can stamp out microaggression now, then when the Black Man takes over, Honkey Town won’t be as dangerous as it might have been. That would be pretty bad. Some big muscular black dude in a loin cloth and spear with his foot on the back of a Geeky White Kid who likes math and science, maybe arresting him for “lack of soul”. How can somebody make that accusation? Just cause he can’t dance.

    That brings us back to Rhianna. She can dance. Adele doesn’t dance, she just walks around and sings. I wonder if that has anything to do with anything. Probably not. It’s weird the shlt that flows through the mind.

    There’s times when a black dude may look at me and think I’m being a microagressor, but it may be I’m just having gas pains. I know a woman who looks at me like that. god it’s awful. I have to work with her. She hates me. I won’t bore everybody with all the details but she’s a black woman. If she wasn’t such a psycho she’d be kind of hot. I run when I see her but it’s not microaggression. at any rate, the faces change but the name remains the same. It you go to Guinea Bassau they’ll stone you. If you go to India they’ll burn you. If you go to the end of the world they’ll push you off the edge. That’s what they do and they don’t know why they do it. That’s really strange, actually. Why would things be that way? Don’t think too hard or you’ll need Xanax.

    Maybe kevo can opine on this one. It may have to do with agency and critters. haha

    It’s not like it used to be that’s for sure. Lambert if we got the cavalry together and rode south to Richmond and dug some trenches we might get arrested. Nobody would understand the justice of the cause. Even black folks would think we’re insane. You don’t get credit in this world for good intentions. Thats’ for sure. So you have to look good while it all goes down. That cavalry outfit is sharp. I think Joshua Chamberlain wore it himself, maybe when he saluted General Gordon and the Johnny Rebs there at Appomatox. Things were bad in those days, microaggression-wise. It’s amazing it was 2000 years after Jesus. I bet nobody in the Acts of the Apostles would have expected that.

  6. Gil

    Thoughtful piece, but does calling your analysis pop sociology mean that you are unaware of similar kinds of analyses of the relationship of micro to macro in academic sociology, such as Giddens’ theory of structuration or Aron’s idea of axial principles, i.e., the commodity in Marx, rationalization in Weber, democracy in Tocqueville? They are useful in trying to conceptualize how systems of domination and exploitation are produced and reproduced out of micro interactions and how resistance to them might be generated. You focus on exploitation here and don’t say much about how the political system creates and polices economic exploitation. Exploitation and lack of democracy go together. Of course you know very well that our political system can’t be called democratic as long as the monstrosity of the Senate continues to exist. The micro/macro aggression of political oligarchy goes on every day, too. Pointing out that we live under an oligarchy to anyone who refers to our political system as a democracy is a little piece of resistance we can perform almost every day.

    1. nigelk

      If Sanders2016 accomplishes on thing — indeed may have already to some extent– it is to make the word ‘Oligarchy’ part of the conversation. I work it into conversation as much as possible. When coupled with Carlin’s “there’s a big club and you ain’t in it” line, the light comes on for even the most burned-out survival-mode wage slave in our economy.

      Worked on this one, anyway. Though I must admit I came to the conclusion via Carlin+lived experience long before Bernie made being a Roosevelt Democrat in King Reaganomics court chic…

      1. Vatch

        Also, get rid of the political convention “super delegates”, who aren’t chosen by primary or caucus voters.

      2. Lambert Strether Post author

        Gilbert and Sullivan have you covered. Nobody does class like the Brits.

        Loudly let the trumpet bray!
        Proudly bang the sounding brasses!
        Tzing! Boom!
        As upon its lordly way
        This unique procession passes,
        Tantantara! Tzing! Boom!
        Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes!
        Bow, bow, ye tradesmen, bow, ye masses!
        Blow the trumpets, bang the brasses!
        Tantantara! Tzing! Boom!
        We are peers of highest station,
        Paragons of legislation,
        Pillars of the British nation!
        Tantantara! Tzing! Boom!

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      Well, no, I didn’t write that post; I wrote this post. That said, I’m not sure macro/micro conceptualizations have gotten a lot of traction. Any of ’em. Not sure why.

      1. Gil

        Gee, I thought “finance, economics, politics and power” might include the fact that the U. S. political system is not now and never has been a representative democracy based on one person, one vote. As for traction, the idea of one person, one vote has had more traction over the past two centuries than any other political concept. The legitimacy of the U. S. political system is based on its claim to be a democracy. Maybe the puncturing of this claim can help clarify the structure of power that shapes all other social interactions.

    1. craazyman

      that is incredible. It makes you wonder if this whole topic isn’t an elaborate hoax.

      what if all the umbrage and indignation is for nothing? what if all your fulminating was just a waste of time and finger movement on a keyboard?

      you could have just surfed youtube watching Rhianna videos and it wouldn’t have mattered at all!.

  7. Ulysses

    I don’t think craazyman actually has a lawn these days, but if he did I’m sure he would also be fine with students (at least of the “hot” nubile variety) being on it!

    On a more serious note, I think one of the most interesting points, in this very intriguing post is how the wealthy have learned to avoid “the sort of (visible) faux pas that would ripple the smooth surface of “friendliness.”

    I see this all the time here in the big bad city. People who have clothes on their backs that are worth more than the annual incomes of the people handing them an Italian ice. Friendly jokes about the weather, the Jets, whatever, all intended to prevent anyone feeling slighted. Nothing “wrong” with it, nothing that wasn’t already done by 13th century lords and ladies interacting with peasants– but it is phony. Not only is it phony, but just as in the 13th century, “courteous” behavior on the part of the gentry, makes “villainous” behavior out of anything the villeins might do to express their righteous discontent– over how they’re being exploited. Yet avoiding anything uncouth merely makes the days of rage all the more terrible, when they do come. We need something intermediate as a social posture for the bottom 80%. Something between smiling humbly at the bosses’ bad jokes, and carting them off to the guillotines!

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      I think the issue is master-servant relations “at scale,” as the Silicon Valley types are wont to say. That’s a real change.

      I’ve always liked this little exchange from Hamlet, where the hiearchies are judged to a nicety:


      Thanks, Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern.

      These guys at least have names.


      Thanks, Guildenstern and gentle Rosencrantz:

      Except Claudius mixes their names up — because why, after all, should he remember them? — and Gertrude retrieves his faux pas.

      And I beseech you instantly to visit
      My too much changed son. Go, some of you,
      And bring these gentlemen where Hamlet is.

      “Some of you.” They don’t have names.

  8. Portia

    One other thing I have noticed is the tendency in one place where I worked (a small company) for a few employees to be offended that they although had a higher social standing (in their minds) due to family and ivy league education, they found themselves working with “lower class” people. I could hear them thinking, “Wow, I must be a loser if I have to work with these people.” They went out of their way to denigrate those they considered below them and drive them out, to make a place for someone more “acceptable”. After I became conscious in that job, I realized it had been happening everywhere all along to some extent.
    My surname, gender, speech, clothing, appearance, all bring a reaction of some sort. It’s exhausting.
    Occasionally I will use an ambiguous name when commenting at sites if I notice a lot of retaliation against female name commenters.

  9. JTFaraday

    “So, we have lots and lots of micro-aggression in Ferguson, no question: Every stop, arrest, service, court appearance, and conviction is an opportunity for “offensive mechanics” by the official representatives of the local oligarchy.”

    I don’t think being processed by the legal system is a micro-aggression. If we put this in a work context, micro-aggressions are all the little ways people put you in your place on an ongoing basis. Being processed by the legal system is more like when HR tops up the micro-aggressions and processes you all the way to the state unemployment office.

    In Fergusen, micro-aggressions might be any number of little things** that compel especially young people into demonstrating that “bad attitude” that the cops then turn into a criminal offense.

    **Say, the shopkeeper that hounds them every time they go in. (If I recall, a few of these got torched during the troubles).

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      “I don’t think being processed by the legal system is a micro-aggression.”

      That’s not what I said. I wrote: “….is an opportunity for “offensive mechanics” by the official representatives…”

      The offensive mechanices are icing on the cake, as it were. On the shopkeepers, very much. And that goes for Genius bars, too.

      1. JTFaraday

        Okay, I kind of get it. I’m just saying that the stop is the first step in being processed by the legal system. It’s an official bureaucratic measure. What they’re calling “micro-aggressions” are purely social.

        They record stops now, in His Holiness, Lord Bloomberg’s NYC. All these people are in a database somewhere just because they walked down the street one day.

        Say someone walks down the street and gets cat called 20 times. Those are “micro-aggressions” courtesy of ones’ fellow citizens (that some will defend as “free speech”). At the end of the block an agent of the state stops and frisks that same person, takes their name and it goes in Mayor Bloomberg’s database.

        Those two incidents/experiences of harassment are qualitatively different, where the second is setting that person up to be criminalized.

        I think the reason this whole issue never dies is that some people want to deny that said micro-aggression even exists (“it’s free speech”) as part of a larger project of trivializing everything that target populations experience, some of which is not so trivial. The targets keep insisting micro-aggression is important because it means they’re a target.

        I don’t know if you’ve ever read Faulkner’s novel “Sanctuary,” but the feeling of being targeted pervades the novel. I think it feels like that to people.

        Contrarian conservative Conor Friedersdorf’s example of the Japanese college kid is a “good” example for the purposes of trivialization because it is relatively trivial. Your local prep school is filled with diplomat’s kids, and etc.

        1. Lambert Strether Post author

          Yes, but when the cop taps his baton suggestively, or follows you, or does any of the countless small things an official with power and ill intent can do, those are micro-aggressions too. Just thinking back to Ferguson, that’s one reason the policing there was so hellish.

  10. Steven D.

    I was often tagged “the Chinese kid” because my mother is Japanese. Being asked things like what country I was from or if I was friends with some Chinese family across town definitely took a toll. I avoided the few other Asian kids for fear of being asked “are you two brothers? You look just like each other.”

  11. direction

    Great piece Lambert! Thanks for turning me on to Pierce and that note/link on possible erasure was salient as well.

  12. PQS

    I like this approach – take the larger context of macroexploitation and point out what a&&holes it has turned us into…..perhaps then people will take seriously the very idea of microaggression. Or perhaps not. Nobody wants to be accused of being an a&&hole, except the very promulgators of the macroexploitation! They revel in their cruelty.

    I have experienced literally dozens and dozens of incidents like this. The worst part is that it makes you question your sanity – “Did that just happen, or am I being too sensitive? Did he JUST say that, or did I mishear something”, etc. etc. It can be truly maddening, especially if the veneer of collegiality is fairly thick, as it is in Bidness. I have never thought of tying it to the overall macroexploitation we all live with, but henceforth I will test that theory.

  13. Gsf

    By your definition everyone who performs a compensated service is a servant. To demean a passenger of an Uber drive by noting that the object of her sincere questions is her “servant” is bullshit.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      So, you don’t consider a person who performs on-demand personal services is (a) not a servant and (b) the same as a wage-worker? Seems odd. Generally, I deprecate the “must have struck a nerve” trope, but I must have struck a nerve.

      Of course, I do think that human rental is just as problematic as human sale. Perhaps you don’t.

      1. Gsf

        I would rather rely upon a series of transactions for a living than a single job which can be eliminated “at will”. Way more empowered way to live. Is this not how you earn your living?

        1. tegnost

          I think uber can probably eliminate you at will is this not correct? They can turn you off. As to the servant issue the assumption here is that there is no social rule of politeness, you’re paying and you can be rude enforcing a caste system. I do not consider an uber driver an empowered person. Do you, and in what way.

    2. Ulysses

      A politician is supposed to be a “public servant.” The Pope is the “servant of the servants of God.” There is nothing inherently demeaning about noting that someone is performing a service for money. If an orthodontist hires an architect to design a new house in the suburbs, you may well have an instance of the servant being wealthier than the patron.

      All hierarchical societies, and even ones that pretend not to be, confer a higher status on the act of calling for something to be done (and usually paying for it) than on the act of performing the assigned task. In any society, only those at the very top can do nothing but say “make it so,” and watch others always scurry about to do their bidding.

  14. Paul Hirschman

    A simple way to bring the point home: whenever you’re in a discussion about microaggressions, and someone wants to belittle the very idea, invoke the ghost of Don Rickles: bring home the point about incessant insults to blacks and other “marginal” people by insulting Irish Catholics (drunken Catholic bigots), Jews (money, etc), Poles (human beasts of burden), Italians (wop greasers) and so on for all the ethnic groups covered by “whiteness.” Start down this line with Bill O’Reilly (or any of his followers) and see how quickly he (they) becomes interested in microaggressions!

    Oh, don’t forget all those microaggressions towards Goldman Sachs–that those paragons of virtue and servants of the public good were slandered in the daily press!

    Everybody has a weak spot–exploit these spots (religion, language, dress, appearance…) when in discussions with people who pooh-pooh the idea of microaggression. They’ll get the point very quickly.

  15. Left in Wisconsin

    This piece is awesome. AWESOME.

    I just have two small quibbles.

    1. I have no problem with July’s behavior. (Maybe the issue is her self-congratulatory reporting of the interaction.) I think it is preferable for people in positions of power to act decently toward people in subordinate positions, even if it risks implying a false equality. My sense is that the subordinate typically understands exactly the situation. Yes, the person w/ power may be an ass. But micro aggression should still be reserved for actual aggression, not disingenuous (or not) politeness.

    2. While the cumulative impact of micro aggressions is doubtless powerful, it is certainly preferable for those in structurally weaker positions to demonstrate as much resistance (agency) as possible. The only way short of revolution/guillotine to short-circuit such aggression is to push back as much and as often as possible.

    It’s not like those with power ever relinquish such willingly. It has to be taken.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Thanks for the kind words. I’m not saying that July is committing micro-aggression. Rather, I’m saying that the social utility of the micro-aggression framework is to empower elites to avoid micro-aggression while preserving macro-exploitation; that is, to “manage the servants.”

      1. Left in Wisconsin

        Ahh, missed that nuance. It’s too late for me to be up.

        It’s a hard one. The money nexus allows those w/ power to delude themselves about monetary transactions – as if they are between equals. But they are! It’s just that some equals have f-ing money and others don’t.

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