Blog Post

The Differential Use of Digital Platforms to Make Space for Microaggressions

The Differential Use of Digital Platforms to Make Space for Microaggressions

In a prescriptively colorblind society that produces a discourse dictating that a Black president signifies an end to racism and reduces introductions of race into a conversation as “pulling the race card,” a new language has developed in order to point to the more subtle, but no less harmful, manifestations of racism and other forms of structural oppression in the present day. This is the language of microaggressions, a term used to describe everyday and often verbal interactions in which harmful assumptions or tropes based on race, sexuality, gender, nationality or other lines of identity are revealed. That is, microaggressions are often casual remarks that are not necessarily 'intended' to cause offense by the speaker, but nevertheless perpetuate a certain ‘-ism.’ 

As is often the case with awareness campaigns in the digital sphere, it’s difficult to tell what or who sparked the microaggressions movement. What is more clear is that the #ITooAmHarvard campaign was inspiration for similar projects at schools elsewhere, leading to the creation of #ITooAmUVA (Universiteit van Amsterdam) and #ITooAmOxford, among others. Though necessarily differing in sociopolitical contexts, the campaigns were consistent in their use of a Tumblr account to share photos of students holding up boards or posters on which they had written a microagression that they had experienced.

"You with your modern thoughts, you're more Dutch than Turkish."

Interestingly, although most of the photos in these campaigns had a hashtag like #itooamharvard or #itooamuva written over them or on the board/poster itself, the hashtags have not been used towards creationg a 'trending topic’ on Twitter, or even as a space for discussing microaggressions. The hashtag serves as the name of the campaign, but not as a tool for outreach. The @ITooAmHarvard Twitter account seems to be used primarily as a space for announcements about events and sharing links rather than a space for sharing or discussing microaggressions themselves (this also seems to be the case for @ITooAmOxford). Considering the success that hashtags like #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen have had in gaining recognition for, in that case, experiencies of racism within ‘feminist’ spaces, it is noteworthy that that ‘I, Too’ campaigns have not used hashtags, or, more broadly, Twitter in order to make their message heard.

I would propose that this is not a coincidence, but a strategic choice, or at least a logical impulse. While the mainstream media keeps tabs on Twitter, this is not the case with Tumblr, a sub-culture within the realm of digital platforms (and, in my experience, a more radical one). Another factor is that Tumblr’s platform facilitates the sharing of images and video in addition to text and links, making it more suitable for image-based campaigns like #ITooAmHarvard. Whereas on Twitter, I will often have to click on a link to see an image embedded within a Tweet, if I’m scrolling down my Dashboard on Tumblr the images are already visible and available for liking or reblogging to my own Tumblr.

Given that conversations about what had perhaps yet to always be labeled ‘microaggressions’ were already taking place on Tumblr, the platform served as a safer and perhaps more productive space to start the campaign than more widely used sites like Twitter and Facebook.

But this was not the case for Brown University, which had a ‘Brown University Micro/Aggressions’ Facebook page before the ‘I, Too’ campaigns began. The page allows for anonymous contributions, which presumably encourages submissions. Interestingly, the lack of anonymity for comments does not prevent people from expressing dissenting viewpoints or criticizing the original post. On this post about mentalism, for example, the original poster was told to “ignore” people who dismissed their mental illness:

And here, a criticism of resistance to acknowledging one’s white privilege is called ‘counterproductive,’ and the original poster is told it is the duty of the oppressed to educate their oppressor:

When experiences of microaggressions are delegitimized or negated by comments on the posts, the Brown Univesrity Micro/Aggressions page actually becomes a space for the formation or reproduction of manifestations of structural oppression rather than a space of guaranteed safety, affirmation or support.

The creation of spaces dedicated to sharing and thus making visible microaggressions also raises the question of what a microaggression is, despite the collective working definitions of the term laid out at the beginning of this post. The following submission, for example, describes verbal harassment that to me constitutes a form of violence—there is little I would call ‘micro’ about this incident.

What must be considered (and perhaps has been in the separation of 'Micro/Aggression' in the page's name) in the creation and maintenance of spaces for microaggressions is what it means to accept submissions that describe violence or structural oppression, and what the effects of calling many different forms of oppression—some verbal, some material/physical, some produced in individual interactions, some resulting from systemic exclusion—by the same name.


1 comment

Something that I find very revealing about your post is that the Brown microaggression page doesn't seem to document microaggressions at all, as you explained beautifully toward the end of your post. The fact that even the people experiencing the aggression are willing to call it a microaggression seems to reflect an enduring habit of underplaying repeated aggressive expressions. I also find it interesting that both the 'I, Too' campaigns and the Brown facebook page connect microaggressions to a face yet have very different consequences. Do you think it had anything to do with the method of telling a story, both through length (seeming shorter in the I, Too campaign) and in the specific positioning of the microaggression in a picture of the person who experienced it?

It was a pleasure to read your post!