Sociologist: Open Discussion Of Microaggressions Reflects Cultural Shift

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We've been hearing the term "microaggression" more often. It was coined decades ago by a Harvard University professor and researchers at Columbia University say microaggressions are small "daily verbal, behavioral and environmental indignities." These are like little paper cuts, felt as slights, often by minorities.

Maybe a white person asks to touch the hair of an African-American, or an Asian-American gets complimented on his or her English even though he or she was born in the U.S. Microaggressions can be intentional, or they can be accidental.

Now, Bradley Campbell, associate professor of sociology at California State University, Los Angeles, says that the use of the term is a sign of a new cultural moral code. He, along with Jason Manning of West Virginia University, wrote "Microaggressions and Moral Cultures," a paper exploring this change in thinking.

Here & Now's Robin Young spoke with Campbell about his findings.

Interview Highlights: Bradley Campbell

On moral codes

"In talking about moral cultures or moral codes, we're thinking about a pattern of how people handle conflict. And a lot of sociologists, and historians, and others have talked about the transition from cultures of honor to cultures of dignity. So honor cultures would be like in cultures where they have duels, but also other forms of violence – blood feuds and so on – where people are very concerned about a reputation for bravery, and when they are insulted, when people do them harm, then they respond with some kind of vengeance. And so they end up being often very touchy and very sensitive to slight."

From a culture of honor to one of dignity

"There was this transition from societies like the antebellum South, where men were fighting duels and so on, to what people have called a culture of dignity. Where instead of honor, the idea that you need to maintain a reputation for bravery, the idea is that all people have dignity and it doesn't actually matter if people insult you or put you down. One of the main moral injunctions is 'sticks and stones may break my bones, but words would never hurt me.' You know, the idea is just ignore an insult and if somebody harms you physically, then you go to the law. There's no shame in calling the police, in going to courts. The idea is that people won't look down upon you and treat you badly because somebody has insulted you the way they would in an honor culture where you would actually lose esteem in the eyes of other people."

Examples of microaggressions

"What we saw originally were these microaggression websites where students at Oberlin College, at Columbia, and other places, other universities, created these websites for people to document the microaggressions against them and some of the things that were talked about as microaggressions were, you know, things like asking a white mother of a black child if the child was really hers, telling an African-American that she's a credit to her race. There was a document by the University of California and a guide to faculty, and it listed about 52 things that could be possible microaggressions, and it included things like some of the things I've said, but also, you know, statements like 'I believe the most qualified person should get the job or 'America is the land of opportunity.' And these were also considered microaggressions, so it can be kind of a wide range of things from sort of political disagreements almost, to slights, and sometimes very deliberate slights and sometimes unintentional ones."

It's not just any minor offense. It's things that are said to further oppression, and mainly the oppression of minority groups.

On calling it 'victimhood' culture

"We called it victimhood culture because victimhood we see as a kind of status like honor or dignity, where, you know, in an honor culture you get status by maintaining a reputation for physical bravery. And here, there’s a kind of a moral status accorded to victims of oppression and we saw it's not just the microaggression complaints. There are things like the idea of safe spaces. There was an incident at Brown University recently where a woman came to give a talk and she was going to criticize the term 'rape culture' and a group of students created what they called a safe space for those who were too upset by the talk, and this was a room with cookies and coloring books and play dough they could retreat to."

A sociological perspective on 'victimhood'

"These microaggression complaints – what characterizes them is that they are appeals to third parties. They're not something like vengeance where people just take direct action against the offender. Secondly, they're complaints about minor things, which is what the 'micro' in microaggression means. And then also that these - the complaints - are about specific kinds of things. It's not just any minor offense, it's things that are said to further oppression, and mainly the oppression of minority groups. So we thought about like when do these things occur? So some of the social conditions we mentioned were things like, you know, the presence of authority and also the demise of communal groups. But one of the main things is actually the increase in diversity and equality. So it's in settings where there's already a lot of equality and diversity that you get these kinds of complaints."

On the future of victimhood culture

"Because the environments that we see these microaggression complaints in are environments that are highly diverse and equal, and there are some other factors too. We think those are likely to proliferate. We don't see that this will end necessarily. There's also the sense in which victimhood culture - what we're calling victimhood culture - spreads even to those who oppose it."


  • Bradley Campbell, associate professor of sociology at California State University, Los Angeles, and co-writer of "Microaggressions and Moral Cultures."

This segment aired on September 28, 2015.

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