How do we measure microaggression?

I have no sense of direction. All my friends know that I could get lost in my backyard, and that is exactly what I did a few months ago. I was walking from my home in Nizamuddin East to a friend's home at the other end of the colony and lost sense of direction. In case you don’t know Nizamuddin, it is one of the more religiously integrated communities in Delhi, standing in the shadows of Humayun’s tomb. It was getting late and the streets were deserted. I saw a young man dressed in Muslim clothing standing and talking to a street vendor. I asked him directions to my friend’s block. He told me to turn left and I thanked him and walked off. A few minutes later this young man pulled his car over next to me and said, “Sorry Aunty, the vendor tells me I made a mistake and directed you to the wrong place, but I now know where your friend lives. If you get into the car, I can give you a ride.”


So, there was a choice, I could get into the car with a stranger or thank him and continue walking. I almost did the latter, but then stopped. Having read a series of articles about microaggressions I couldn’t help but wonder whether regardless of my motivation, this stranger would not see it as rejection based on his religion in this increasingly polarizing world. So, I perched uneasily in his car for the few minutes it took him to drive me, and I was charmed. He cheerfully told me about the qawwali music festivals in the neighborhood that I might not have discovered otherwise, and dropped me off with a wave.


My family thinks it was a crazy thing to do to trust a stranger, but I suspect it would have taken me a long time to forget this incident if I had turned down his kind offer. I have still not forgotten the day when as a 14-year-old I was coming down the steps in my apartment building wearing my sparkling white school uniform. The boy who cleaned toilets and picked up garbage in my building was coming up and I stood aside to let him pass me, gathering in my uniform so that it would not touch him. I just can’t remember what caused me to do this. Was I trying to protect my clean white uniform from the grime he carried as a part of his work or was it because I knew without it ever being acknowledged that he was dalit, belonging to the scavenger caste? I had been raised in a family where caste discrimination was unheard of, and yet, I really can’t be sure what made me do it. Was it really a desire to protect my clothing or was I struck by a moment of caste consciousness? This memory still leaves me with a lingering sense of shame. 


Each of us struggles with these questions in our personal life in some form or the other. But for the academic discourse, they carry broader implications. Over the past decade, concerns about microaggressions has swept over American academia with microaggression defined as “comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority)”. However, while we all believe in the existence of microaggression, and may well recall being subjects or perpetrators of it at some point in our life, getting accurate statistics regarding its prevalence remains challenging. Research in this area is legitimately critiqued for relying on biased or leading questions (e.g. describe a situation in which you felt disrespected or insulted because of a comment with racial overtones), small and select samples, bias and opinion conformity when using focus groups, and problems of reliability and replicability.

Given the importance of understanding and measuring different contours of discrimination, we really do need to find good ways of identifying and measuring microaggression otherwise we run the risk of ignoring behaviors that hurt and humiliate our fellow human beings, or conversely exaggerate the prevlance of these behaviors and close ourselves off from connections that could enrich our lives.

© Sonalde Desai 2012