THE BLOG
10/08/2015 05:09 pm ET | Updated Oct 08, 2016

Microaggressions in the Workplace: Black Lives Matter and Politically Correct Speech

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Last week, I got a notice from a friend--a note about how she had been the object of an office place micro-aggression. You see, this friend, an incredibly accomplished woman--a black woman--works as an executive at a nonprofit. Yet here's always some young incompetent fool, often a new intern, who will mistake her for a secretary and ask her to tidy up the conference room. And this morning that is exactly what happened, again.

This woman is a good friend, so I pulled over (I wanted to text safely) to tell her to keep her chin up, to keep on trucking. But when I looked up, some guy with salt and pepper hair was taking a picture of my license plate. He told me he did it because I'm an ass-hole; I didn't move up from my parking space when he honked at me; he wanted extra space to pull in because he just bought the car. He felt that as a person of color I might be a menace and mess with his car. So, he took a picture of my license plate after he parked behind me. Then he really let me have it: "Go back to where you come from, because you clearly don't belong here." And he followed it up with that zinger. "My family has been here for five generations!"

For me, this incident put two kinds of language into stark relief: the language of the polite microaggression--the subtle mistakes in the office place that reveals the ugliness in our own presumptions--bumped up against something much more overt: the language of the streets and its unvarnished racism. And this got me to thinking about the debates now unfolding about politically correct language and the tension between civility and honesty.

One of the big debates in this internet age circulates around the matter of politically correct speech. What is racist? What is sexist? What is an innocent question? What is a microaggression? Especially in this time of racial upheaval--this hashtag TwitterWorld--our very words are dissected with the finest scalpels and laid out for inspection like frogs on lab trays.

Here is a case in point: #BlackLivesMatter. When the hashtag first burst onto the blogosphere, it verbalized a rage against an American policing system that treated African Americans as unimportant trash, as dispensable as toilet tissue. #BlackLivesMatter sought to redress that injustice by making it clear that black people were not second class citizens but equals.

Then a backlash arose. It arose among conservative circles and spread to the NPR set--upper-middle class liberals who felt that too much attention was being spent on a special interest group and that life--all life--is of paramount importance. The term was replaced with #AllLivesMatter. And the shift in language was trumpeted by supporters as an affirmation of a common humanity that all, not just blacks, share.

It hardly seems worth the trouble to describe how this ends. The subtle change in language has been attacked within more radical quarters as an affirmation of a status quo--a status quo in which we pay lip service to a vague idea of humanity while still going about the business of killing black people as a matter of course. To put it bluntly, saying #AllLivesMatter is simply a form of polite racism--a tone-deaf microaggression that has much in common with asking the one black executive in the room to help with the refreshments. It is an assertion of privilege in a world where you know your station, you know you will neither be gunned down nor ever be mistaken for a lackey.

Almost all speech in the work force shuttles between the bipolar extremes of traffic-jam-racism and polite-company-microaggression. But on the whole, my experience with racism has been much more subtle, more masked. For instance, I once worked at a highly regarded college as a professor of English and sat at a dinner table across from a nationally acclaimed poet who happened to be blind. The poet was renowned as a great conversationalist--a real comedian--and he proceeded to regale everybody at the table in very precise details about the exact way he would kill Yoko Ono. The description was vivid and chilling and fairly entertaining. All my colleague, all poets themselves, laughed their heads off.

For the life of me, I couldn't figure out if my colleagues were laughing to be polite to the distinguished poet or if they genuinely enjoyed a story of this kind of violence. I excused myself to go to the bathroom, because the joy that all the men around me felt in listening to the graphic violence done to a female--an Asian female--was, frankly, disturbing.

The insidious quality of a microaggression is that you often begin to doubt yourself in ways that are self-destructive--a self-doubt that is impossible when a street thug addresses you by a slur and tells you to "Go back to where you come from." Was it possible that I was being overly sensitive? Wasn't Yoko Ono fair game? What of my colleagues? Wasn't their laughter saying something more revealing about who they were?

There is a paranoia that sets in when confronted with a microaggression. You see: for people of color, the way one reacts to racism is tricky. We often do not have the privilege to call people out--not in the way that a self-righteous NPR listener can step up and say, "Step off. You have crossed a line." The only time a person of color can truly tell someone off is when she has nothing left to lose--like the protestors in the #BlackLivesMatter movement who can lie down on the streets or break windows.

But neither me nor my friend could be anything more than gracious. In my case, there were immediate concerns--professional ones--that pressed upon my mind. What would my senior colleagues make of my leaving immediately after the joke? Did I leave too abruptly? Didn't that mark me as a spoil sport? Could my request to relieve myself possibly affect my position within the Old Boy's Club that is an English department?

In situations where ambiguity is maddening, a case can be made for good old-fashioned uncensored racism: Its advantage comes from the fact that unvarnished "Go Back to Where You Came From" racism is as instantly recognizable as a guy hollering at you in the middle of rush hour traffic. And you can steel yourself for it, because you know exactly what he wants to do with his verbal battering ram.

So we are stuck between a rock and a hard place: Politeness--the political correctness that we have cultivated to mask our own racial biases--often does the opposite of intended: allowing the fungus of intolerance to creep and to grow and to bloom.

At the same time, the battle field of our language--especially the ways that we police ourselves in our hashtag wars--ultimately feels like it verges on censorship. And it is unproductive censorship, too, because it allows people to find new codes to substitute for the old ones, new Yoko's to choke--new Yoko's that will replace the old Yoko's that are now off limits.

When my executive friend told me about her microaggression, I felt honored that she entrusted me in her circle. And that is why I pulled over. When you are a victim of any race based aggression--micro or macro--you only tell your closest friends. And it is your closest friends who have a duty to pull over for a moment and comfort you, because in these moments when you are confronted with the fact that you are not an equal, you are most vulnerable--most alone.