Sometimes, racism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ablism, and other bad -isms show up in big, obvious, dangerous ways: hate crimes, sexual violence, racist rallies, and explicitly discriminatory laws. Sometimes they show up in material but less directly visible ways--inequities in employment, arrests, convictions, or elections--which can clearly be seen in large numbers, but leave room for plausible deniability in any one case.
And sometimes, they show up in small, less severe ways: little cringy jokes, lazy assumptions, or shallow media characterizations. This last category is usually referred to (or, in some circles, mocked) as "microagressions."
Given that blatant, dangerous hate and systemic discrimination are still around, its not obvious to everyone why people would focus on the less-devastating aspects. And honestly, I don't think the usual explanations quite capture the full picture.
The Usual Shpiel:
As the term "microagressions" implies, offensive comments or behaviors are framed as a source of harm in themselves--perhaps minor--that can build up over time. Explained by analogy, if someone were to poke you in the side once, it would be no big deal. But if people repeatedly poked you in the same place throughout your life (especially if it was on the site of a previous major injury) it would really start to hurt.
There is truth here: words do affect people, and being subtly belittled and dehumanized can affect one's mental health, self-image, and social confidence over a lifetime.
However, I find this image incomplete, as it doesn't fully capture the relationship between these microagressions and potential macroacressions. Casual offenses aren't only isolated pokes; they're also warning signs for bigotry that could later manifest in a bigger, scarier form.
The Iceberg Model:
In any society which (at least superficially) claims to value inclusivity and equality, most people don't openly display the full extent of their prejudices. We can think of all those judgements and associations and assumptions as an iceberg mostly hidden under the surface of socially acceptable behavior.
On the plus side, this makes for a more pleasant and less hostile social environment. However, if this concealed bigotry might pose a threat to you. Since violence can't always be predicted and discrimination can't always be verified, you take your cues from what you can see on a daily basis.
What you can observe is often just the tip of the iceberg. You see little bits prejudice come to the surface with casual comments--"you're one of the good ones" and the like--and you wonder how much more is below, how much fear or entitlement or disgust or twisted misunderstanding you have not seen yet.
And though you're sort of glad that you don't have to witness full extent of that ugliness all the time, you never know how much of it will come out when someone is drunk or scared or enraged or pandering or overambitious or protected behind closed doors. You can't know until it happens (if at all), but in the back of your mind, you still try to piece together the little warning signs and guess.
Is this unnecessary stress or self-preservation? You never know for sure. Sometimes the floating ice you see is just the harmless remnant of an iceberg that has mostly melted away. But you might put up your guard and steer away, just in case. (Titanic spoiler: icebergs can kill.)
So What Really Matters?
Though I can only speak for myself, I want to be clear: I am more concerned about the whole iceberg than I am about the visible tip. I am not as concerned about mean comments themselves as I am about the dangerous beliefs behind them.
For instance, catcalling creeps me out. But what really scares me is these men's unsolicited sense of entitlement to women's bodies and attention.
I'm disgusted by snide comments about bisexuality, suggesting that I must want sex with "anything that moves." But what disgusts me more is the frequency of sexual assault toward bisexual women, whose orientation is often equated to universal consent.
I wish people would stop asking me where I'm really from. But what I would really wish would disappear is is the underlying belief that people like me don't belong here, and the ways in which that belief is shaping American politics.
I am not advocating for mere "pollitical correctness," in the most superficial sense of the term (i.e. sanitizing language without inquiring too deeply into the beliefs behind it). That is not enough. I don't just wish to see the tips of the bigoted icebergs smoothed over and pushed down--I want to melt down the whole damn thing.*
*Figuratively, of course. We are already melting too many real icebergs.