Our first foray into studying victimhood culture focused on websites that listed examples of so-called “microaggressions.” The microaggression catalogues were a strange new behavior, one that suggested new ways of thinking about and handling moral conflict. We soon realized it was part of a larger pattern, one that included other new practices like campaigning for safe spaces, demanding trigger warnings, and telling people to “check their privilege.” We pointed to social conditions that we believe explained the rise of this new pattern of moral life — what we called victimhood culture. Having no reason to think these conditions would reverse themselves, we suggested victimhood culture would continue to grow.
This was in 2014. When our first paper on the topic began to attract attention in 2015, it met with some skepticism. Some noted that a few of the microaggression blogs that first attracted our attention had become inactive and took this to indicate that the entire concern with microaggression was a fad whose time had passed.
Yet, in the years since, it seems like the concept of microaggressions has continued to gain currency and influence. Consider some recent signs that concern with microaggressions is still going strong:
- On February 9-10, Illinois State University hosted a two-day workshop on “Race and Immigration Under the Trump Administration.” The theme for the second day of the conference was “Microaggressions in Everyday Life.” It featured presentations such as “Microaggressions in the Classroom: What We’ve Learned from Student, Faculty, and Staff Responses to the Microaggressions in the Classroom” and “Micro-aggressions, School Climate, and Educational Equity: A Critical Praxis Approach.” The event reportedly cost $14,000.
- On January 31, Indiana State University hosted a webinar on “Micro Aggression, Equity & Inclusion.” Describing the event, the school’s Associate Vice President of Inclusive Excellence said, “Martin Luther King Jr said it best ‘Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.’ This statement simplified how micro aggressions can hinder or hurt our society and campuses.”
- On January 22, Multnomah County, Oregon reached an agreement with a municipal workers union. The contract states that “the County and the union won’t tolerate any form of “micro-aggression,” which is defined as ‘commonplace and casual verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities and denigration, often unintentional or unconscious, that repeat or reaffirm stereotypes and convey negative or derogatory messages based on the recipient’s status in a racial minority or other non-dominant culture group.’”
- On February 13, Hip Hop Wired magazine published a piece on a Brooklyn woman, Andrea X, who founded a women-of-color-only retreat in Costa Rica because “her annoyance with white micro-aggression moved her to remove ‘white people from my personal life.’”
- On January 15, a Michigan high school teacher authored an editorial claiming that his school’s ban on wearing hats and hoodies in class (excepting religiously mandated headwear) was a racial microaggression because it expects students of color to follow a European tradition of politeness.
- The YMCA in Manchester, New Hampshire hosted workshops on Martin Luther King Day that addressed such topics as microaggressions and the gender spectrum. (A larger workshop, attended by 200 people, was initially entitled “Unpacking Whiteness” before complaints led to it being called “Unpacking Social Identies.”)
- Last November, the University of Arkansas publicized a talk given by one of its doctoral students, who “spoke to a group of about 60 parents and students between the ages of 14 and 18 at the ABC Adolescent Center in Little Rock” about microaggressions and their impact.
Some of these cases involve educating people on how to avoid accidentally giving offense, and so are not drastic departures from the norms of restraint and etiquette found in mainstream dignity culture. The same goes for something like a recent blog post at HuffPost Canada with the title “How to Shut Down Microaggressions While Keeping Your Cool,” which gives advice that includes keeping calm and considering the possibility that the offense was unintentional. Not all who invoke the term fully embrace every aspect of victimhood culture, and not every aspect of victimhood culture is completely different from mainstream morality.
Yet it’s still notable that these everyday slights and awkward statements are now being labelled as a species of aggression (a term we used to reserve for intentional hostility), that they are presented as evidence of large-scale conflict (the domination of entire social groups), and that they are treated as something worthy of so much attention. Also notable is that they are defined so that only people from historically disadvantaged groups can be subject to them. Speaking of the need to remove white people from one’s life is, apparently, not a microaggression, not matter how hurtful a white person might find it. The concept itself suggests a heightened moral sensitivity and a moral system that treats higher social stature as a kind of moral handicap.
We might also note that the term microaggression has, to some extent, been supplanted by new terms describing specific microaggressive offenses. One of these new offenses is cultural appropriation, and it too is quite visible in recent headlines. For instance, we recently blogged about the newly deviant nature of white people practicing yoga. Consider some other examples:
- Cosmopolitan tells us that fashion retailer Zara was “Called Out for Cultural Appropriation For its “Check Mini Skirt,” which sported a pattern similar to traditional clothing from parts of South and Southeast Asia: “Literally ANY Indian person could’ve pointed out in two minutes what the problem is with this.”
- Teen Vogue describes a similar complaint against clothing company H&M, accused of cultural appropriation for selling socks with a pattern that resembled the word “Allah” written in Arabic letters. The company insists the resemblance was a coincidence.
- Fashion designer Zuhair Murad was criticized for cultural appropriation after a runway show in which models wore clothing inspired by Native American styles, with some wearing feathers in their hair.
Cultural appropriation is, like other sorts of microaggression, an intercollective offense — something described as a way of oppressing entire social groups. Though not an act of physical force, it might be labelled as a kind of aggression or even violence. And like other microaggressions, it is by definition something that only some groups can commit.
What’s particularly interesting about cultural appropriation is that, in the recent past, some of these offenses might have been described as virtues — signs of tolerance, wordliness, and interest in other cultures — in the very same social circles where they are now condemned. One of the reasons we write about all this stuff is that, as sociologists who study morality, it is fascinating for us to see new categories of offense come into being. It is equally fascinating to see these moral concepts rapidly spread through the social world, such that people casually talk about them as if they had always known that offenses like cultural appropriation or deadnaming were great sins, even if they first heard of them last year.
It makes one wonder how often cultural change renders itself invisible, with those ahead of its advance dismissing it as an irrelevant fad, and those in its wake forgetting it was ever any other way.