The Microaggressions Project: An Interview with Vivian Lu and David Zhou

What’s a microaggression, anyway? The term, which came into popularity from theorist Chester M. Pierce, is defined by American Psychologist as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative …  slights and insults.”

In other words, it’s a putdown.

An example:

You’re so much less man-hating than I expected a [women's college] lesbian to be.

Or:

My friend Kathy, she’s black, but she’s really smart.

Bloggers Vivian Lu, who lives in New York, and David Zhou, currently operating out of Seoul, South Korea, have collaborated to form The Microaggressions Project: Notes on Power, Privilege and Everyday Life. The website catalogs reader anecdotes of microaggression–true-life incidents of kyriarchy. They started the site by emailing 40 friends, and with the help of Tumblr, Facebook and word-of-mouth the site caught on.

Currently, the project has published more than 3,000 submissions and has pulled in more than 3,200 Tumblr followers. Both bloggers recently talked online with the Ms. Blog about their work:

Ms. Blog: How would you describe TMP to someone who has never read the blog?

Vivian Lu and David Zhou: The Microaggressions Project is an interactive, submission-based blog that documents the ways in which power and privilege of social identities is exerted and enforced–often unknowingly–in everyday comments. It [represents] the daily verbal disempowerment, belittlement and pain of peoples who identify with oppressed social identities. While we mostly document the individual and personal interactions in peoples’ lives, these anecdotes are clearly tied to systemic and institutional injustice. Primarily, our submissions concern race/ethnicity, gender/queer, class, sexuality, ability, religion and immigration status.

The project is not about showing how ignorant people can be, and simply dismissing their ignorance. Instead, it is about showing how these comments create and enforce uncomfortable, violent and unsafe realities.

How does The Microaggressions Project promote an intersectional understanding of oppression and privilege?

By publishing what comes our way. First, people’s individual experiences inevitably will speak to intersections of different identities. For example, it is impossible to discuss all microaggressions concerning gender without receiving submissions/comments about genderqueer people, women of color, women of different socio-economic statuses …

Another reason why intersectionality is crucial for our project is that we hope it inspires self-reflection. While we may be conscious of the ways in which microaggressions play out in our own lives …  [displaying a variety of] microaggressions concerning … makes us think more critically of other social identities. And sharing experiences of multiple identities in the same virtual community allows folks to check themselves when their reactions to microaggressions become microaggressive. When the YouTube video of the UCLA student’s rant came out, a lot of the reactions were patently misogynistic. Posting the video on our site, however, revealed the extent to which community members wanted to analyze the video in a larger context, with regard to the anti-racism in the video’s comments that unfortunately coincided with misogyny.

What work do you do outside of the blog, and how do you see The Microaggressions Project impacting this work?
We are not full-time organizers, but social justice work happens everywhere. Vivian works at a domestic violence family shelter and a coffee shop in NYC, and David is teaching in Seoul, South Korea. We are both on gap years before graduate school, where Vivian is studying cultural anthropology and David is studying computational biology.

What is your response to critics who minimize the impact of online-based activism?

There have been no critics about the fact that we use the internet to spread awareness about microaggressions. In fact, our community could only have thrived on a blogging community like Tumblr that encourages cross-blogging and feedback. The only risk is, perhaps, feeling like the blog is often misinterpreted, and we are constantly revising the “About the Project” to make clear our intent. Originally, we envisioned a visual art project to show how microaggressions accumulate over time, but the online format is much more accessible. If we receive enough donations, we may hire someone to program the website so it captures this accumulative effect of microaggressions.

Are you affiliated with The Microprogressions Project? What are your thoughts on that site being “inspired by The Microaggressions Project”?

We’re not affiliated with Microprogressions [which are essentially the flipside of microaggressions, sharing hopeful anecdotes]. To our knowledge, the inspiration for this blog came from a comment on one of our posts where a reader mentioned the need for a space that highlights progressive resistances. Because so many of our comments express dismay or discouragement about social justice, we recognize the legitimacy of the urge to “correct” an injustice or feel better in the face of oppression.

However, the point of our project is to allude to a much deeper systemic oppression that inculcates those with privilege with the motive and means to exert power over marginalized peoples. While the presence of anecdotes that emphasize progressive victories are by all means humanizing and positive, it is very uncertain if oppression has been rectified on a systemic level. This will always be a difficult thing to say.

 

Comments

  1. Thanks for posting this interview. It has clarified an uncomfortable feeling I had about the Microaggressions Project – the feeling that its creators didn’t really understand the difference between the interactionist theory of microaggressions and the structuralist underpinnings of their own understanding of power/privilege.

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