Microaggressions and Socialization

By what mechanisms are we socialized and acculturated as children? Usual answers involve major social institutions such as churches, media outlets, schools, and family units. But, I’ve never heard anyone make a direct and needed connection between the process of learning to behave in conventional, accepted ways and microaggressions.

Microaggressions are subtle intended and unintended actions and words that make assumptions and judgments about others based on the mores and demographics of the majority. 

For example, I’m no stranger to practicing Austin Kleon’s advice about listening to random bits of conversation when out and about, so today at lunch I was particularly curious about a quick moment that unfolded: A father was playing with his very young son (probably about 2) as they were preparing to leave, he was cleaning his face and said, “Come on now. You’ve got to charm the ladies.”

Of course, such a statement is not intended to be harmful at all but nonetheless embodies assumptions and has important consequences. This statement and ones like it imply and over a lifetime train us to (if the system succeeds) fully believe that the importance of good looks and heterosexual partnership are automatic, natural, good, and necessary. Additionally, given more recent scientific studies about there being far more sexes than “male” and “female,” the dad’s statement assumes his child is in fact male. Reading his statement from a philosophical perspective, one thing that comes to mind is the embodied assumption that things everywhere have always been the same when it comes to boys wowing the girls. 

So, the next time you hear an adult asking an elementary-aged girl if she has a boyfriend yet please stop and consider all of the assumptions and pressure involved in a seemingly innocent, everyday question. This question, regardless, is a microaggression to her and people around. And this question socializes people to think, believe, and act in specific ways – when they don’t or can’t, they are often faced with mental anxiety. 

Microaggressions and processes of socialization are perfect opportunities for helping uncover the force and prevalence of social constructions and societal defaults. 

Moreover we need to remember that life constantly socializes us and re-socializes us as we change communities, schools, jobs, and friends. As we befriend people, raise children, start new schools or jobs, train others, or participate in the process of socializing others or being socialized ourselves, watch carefully for microaggressions. They’ll creep up in unexpected ways and have powerful consequences, especially when we’re not looking and especially for those who are different in some way.

Andrew Joseph Pegoda