Unintentional doesn’t mean harmless


This text examines the theorisation of microaggressions by Derald Wing Sue in relation to Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of micropolitics. Specifically how micropolitics clarifies a fundamental inconsistency in Sue’s theorisation and how this reflects a confusion between the different dimensions of intentionality and scale. How distinguishing the two can help us apply the concept of microaggressions to scales above the interpersonal such as at institutional, state, societal and international scales. And how doing so clarifies the concept of “institutional racism” introduced in the Macpherson report into the police investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Finally how the articulation of the concept of microaggressions with normative notions of culpability based on an incompatible traditionalist model of strong intentionality in behaviour, leads to contradictory and detrimental political practices.

Microaggression theory

The term microaggression is a fairly recent addition to the political lexicon, originating in the field of academic psychiatry, psychology and counselling. However the issues that it refers to have been part of the conversations amongst feminist and anti-racist groups going back to at least the 1960’s if not before. As such, by giving form and structure to problems people have been grappling with for decades, it’s adoption by the wider community outside it’s academic point of origin is unlikely to be a passing fad, so some investment in analysing the strengths and weaknesses of its current formulation is worthwhile.

The word microaggression was first coined in the 1970s by Chester M. Pierce, a since-retired African-American professor of psychiatry, as “racial microaggressions” meaning “subtle, stunning, often automatic, and non-verbal exchanges which are ‘put downs’” directed to black americans. Pierce was specifically talking about everyday interpersonal interactions between white and black Americans that fell short of overt and deliberately hostile racism.

The term was more recently revived by another american academic, like Pierce a long-time campaigner for the field of psychiatry and psychology to take the problems of racism in american society seriously, professor Derald Wing Sue. Sue is the author of many books and papers on psychological counselling in relation to multiculturalism and racism, going back to the early 1980s, but taking up microaggressions specifically for the first time in a psychology journal article in 2007, followed by a more general readership-oriented book in 2010. Various articles and blog posts have followed on Psychology Today and other websites.

For the purposes of this text we are going to focus on the 2007 paper[1] as it is more readily available online, and the aim here is not a review of Sue’s work (which appears to be a work in progress in any case) but how the activist and organiser community can best clarify and make use of the concept of microaggressions for our own advantage. Also the taxonomy of microaggressions, which is what we’re interested in, appears substantially unchanged from the 2007 paper to the book of 2010.

The 2007 RMiEL paper starts with the following definition:

“Racial microaggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color. Perpetrators of microaggressions are often unaware that they engage in such communications when they interact with racial/ethnic minorities”

The keyword here is “often”. Clearly you can’t be unaware of an intentional slight or insult. The ambiguity in the equivocation between “whether intentional or unintentional” runs throughout the paper. After the introduction a three-way taxonomic phylum for microaggressions is proposed — microassaults, microinsults and microinvalidations. Of microinsults we are told:

“Microinsults represent subtle snubs, frequently unknown to the perpetrator, but clearly convey a hidden insulting message to the recipient of color”.

Microinvalidations “are characterized by communications that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person of color.” While it is not explicitly stated in the text, the illustrative examples given are all of a nature that raise the problem of ‘attributional ambiguity’ — i.e. is the speaker being deliberately racist or just ignorant or unconsciously offensive?

By contrast, in relation to microassaults we are told:

“A microassault is an explicit racial derogation characterized primarily by a verbal or nonverbal attack meant to hurt the intended victim through name-calling, avoidant behavior, or purposeful discriminatory actions.”

and the examples given for microassaults are even more clear:

“Referring to someone as “colored” or “Oriental,” using racial epithets, discouraging interracial interactions, deliberately serving a White patron before someone of color, and displaying a swastika are examples”

When it comes to the relation between the three proposed taxonomic families of microaggressions, it doesn’t take a genius to see that, in the words of the old Sesame Street song “One of these things is not like the others”. In fact this is (nearly) admitted in the text that follows:

“[Microassaults] are most likely [sic] to be conscious and deliberate, although they are generally expressed in limited “private” situations (micro) that allow the perpetrator some degree of anonymity. In other words, people are likely to hold notions of minority inferiority privately and will only display them publicly when they (a) lose control or (b) feel relatively safe to engage in a microassault. Because we have chosen to analyze the unintentional and unconscious manifestations of microaggressions, microassaults are not the focus of our article.”

Clearly “most likely” here is pretty much in direct contradiction with the opening definition and the examples given. In fairness, it appears to be more in reference to the attributional ambiguity relating to the other two categories of microinsult and microinvalidation, but even so.

What is most significant in this last passage is the definition of what is meant by “micro” in microaggression, i.e. the “limited ‘private’ situations” in question. That is that the “micro” relates to the scale of the social situation or context and its relative lack of being “in public” in the sense that statements in front of a crowd, camera, court or authority figure might be for example.

(Sue et al, RMiEL, 2007)

However the question of scale reappears in one of the 9 sub-categories of microaggression given in the further taxonomic breakdown. It is notable that each of the first 8 of these subcategories is attributed to the family of microinsult or microinvalidation, there is no category that corresponds to the class or phylum of microassaults. The last category, the ninth, is significant in relation to the scale question. Labelled “environmental microaggresions”, it is the category of “Macro-level microaggressions, which are more apparent on systemic and environmental levels”.

Clearly you can’t both define the micro in microaggressions as relating to the social scale of the aggression, as in the overt, intentional case of microassaults, and at the same time define it as subtle, hidden or unconscious at the “macro-level”. Simply writing the phrase “macro-level microaggression” should really have flagged that there was a problem with defining the micro in microaggression solely in relation to scale.

Interestingly the contradiction is represented graphically in Figure 1 of the paper by a short arrow that connects the category of microassault directly to the “odd-one-out” subcategory of the “macro-level” environmental microaggressions. (In fact Figure 1 as a whole, is a direct graphical representation of the dimensional confusion of the schema to anyone with a mathematical or entity-relationship diagram background — e.g. data science or database specialists. But that would take too long to explain, especially without the aid of animated graphics.)

The contradiction in the amalgamation is further deepened in the substantive section of the paper after the taxonomy which looks at the psychological effects of microaggressions from the perspective of those subjected to them. It proposes, persuasively, that microaggressions confront their targets with a number of dilemmas.

Four dilemmas are outlined:

1: Clash of racial realities,

2: The Invisibility of Unintentional Expressions of Bias,

3: Perceived Minimal Harm of Racial Microaggressions, and

4: The Catch-22 of Responding to Microaggressions.[2]

What can be said of all four dilemmas, however, is that they all rely, to a greater or lesser extent, on the problem of ‘attributional ambiguity’ already mentioned. Again the class or phylum of microassaults, with its overtly intentional hostility, has no tie-in to this part of the paper, which is its substantial contribution to “implications for clinical practice” and wider application.

Micropolitical perspective

So, although this is undoubtedly a seminal paper, it contains this innate flaw or contradiction. Before considering the mitigating circumstances, it is worth seeing what light Deleuze and Guattari’s conceptualisation of the micropolitical and macropolitical distinction can shed on the affair:

Four errors concerning this molecular and supple segmentarity are to be avoided. The first is axiological and consists in believing that a little suppleness is enough to make things “better.” But microfascisms are what make fascism so dangerous, and fine segmentations are as harmful as the most rigid of segments. The second is psychological, as if the molecular were in the realm of the imagination and applied only to the individual and interindividual. But there is just as much social-Real on one line as on the other. Third, the two forms are not simply distinguished by size, as a small form and a large form; although it is true that the molecular works in detail and operates in small groups, this does not mean that it is any less coextensive with the entire social field than molar organization. Finally, the qualitative difference between the two lines does not preclude their boosting or cutting into each other; there is always a proportional relation between the two, directly or inversely proportional.” [3]

Here we need to note that Deleuze and Guattari (henceforth D&G) use molecular and molar as synonyms for the micropolitical and macropolitical, respectively. The error that mainly concerns us here is the third one of the distinction simply being one of size. Now the obvious rejoinder is that the Greek origin prefixes micro- and macro- mean small and large respectively, so suggesting that you can have a micro/macro distinction other than size, whether of aggressions or politics (or fascisms, for that matter) is just a perverse use of language in the tradition of Humpty Dumpty who insisted that words meant just what he chose them to mean.

However consider that the 2007 paper we are looking at is a product of seven authors, all apparently entirely innocent of any familiarity with D&G or 1970s French post-structuralist thought, Lacan, Foucault and all that jazz. Yet we see the same unfolding progression that although the dynamics that first prompt the use of the prefix micro “works in detail and operates in small groups”, further investigation reveals that the same dynamics appear to operate also at larger scales — as in the negative cues of environmental microaggressions that Sue later identifies as being delivered not just at the level of the individual but also “institutional, or societal” (RMiEL p.284).

The proposal made here is that in this paper Sue et al, from a different starting point and from an entirely different set of frames of reference, ended up along the same path leading from an initial assumption that the “micro” phenomena under investigation are distinguished by scale, to an unfolding recognition that similarly distinguished phenomena appear at higher scales. Although without reaching the final conclusion of recognising that the distinction must therefore be one of mode of operation, rather than scale of operation. In other words, microaggressions like micropolitical dynamics, despite initial appearances, are characterised by their relation to intentionality and consciousness, or agency, to pick a single word, rather than scale.

Scale or perspective?

This dimensional confusion can be illustrated by the somewhat flippant example of the scene from TV sitcom Father Ted when Ted and Dougal are on their annual holiday in a caravan in a farmer’s cow field and Ted is trying to explain the difference between scale and distance with the use of some small plastic cows. Dougal starts the sequence by looking out the caravan window and seeing some cows at a distance in the field, exclaims in surprise “Look at those tiny cows!”. Ted sighs and, picking up two of the plastic cows from the table, says “OK, one last time, these (*holds up plastic cows*) are small…but those ones out there (*turns to look at cows out the window*) are far away. Small…(*brandishes figurines*) far away… (*looks out window*). Dougal strains visibly for comprehension and then shakes his head in defeat. The comedic excess of Dougal’s stupidity is that as an embodied visual consciousness in a three-dimensional world, capable of kicking a football and fielding Mrs Doyle’s relentless cups of tea, Dougal’s fictive incomprehension of perspective is impossible. But when we leave the physical space of bodily experience and consider the field of conceptual abstractions, it’s much less obvious that the metaphor of space and dimensionality applies. Outside of certain disciplines like mathematics and data science, it is not habitual to ask of a conceptual field or framework, what its’ topology is or how many dimensions it operates in. Worse, in interpersonal relations at least, the dimensionality of another person’s inner consciousness is completely opaque, so we are all like Dougal, unable to see whether the apparently small slight presented to us is foregrounded in the other person’s consciousness, i.e. intentional, or further back in the distance of their subconscious. Small (but intentional) or far away (unconscious) is not a question of stupidity regarding microaggressions, or micropolitical acts in general.

In passing, it should also be noted that Sue makes the argument, in keeping with D&G’s fourth assertion above, that racial microaggressions are effectively in an inverse proportional relationship with what he terms “old-fashioned”, i.e. overt, racism (or macropolitical racism, in the D&G terminology). A claim that, amongst other things, supports the claim for microaggressions to be a concept whose usefulness is not limited merely to psychological clinical practice, but relevant to the wider social struggle against racism and other oppressions such as sexism and heterosexism, as Sue makes in the 2010 book. But we’ll return to that transition at a later stage.

Once we become aware of the need to distinguish between agency and scale we can clarify the relation between microaggressions and macroaggressions, not only at the interpersonal level, but also at the institutional, state and societal levels.

“I’ve met the Met”

(originally a football hooligan-style “calling card” left by police on the unconscious bodies of battered miners during the 1984–5 strike — now a “community policing” PR sticker)

To see that this is so, we turn to the 1999 Macpherson report into the police handling of the Stephen Lawrence murder[4]. The scandal around this particular police investigation of the racist murder of a young Afro-caribbean Londoner in 1993, at a bus stop near the recently opened headquarters of the neo-nazi British Nationalist Party, gathered momentum in England throughout the mid to late 90s until the new Labour government ordered a second enquiry into the whole affair. The details of why this particular case became a cause celebre (Stephen was unfortunately far from the first young man of colour to be murdered by racists in England at the time) are too involved to go into here (but are worth looking up for anyone unfamiliar with the Stephen Lawrence case). Suffice it to say that the Macpherson report was unprecedented at the time (and since). As part of its remit it sought to investigate the charge that the police investigation was a farce due to the force being blinkered by “institutional racism”. Consequently one chapter — chapter 6 — of the Macpherson report deals with the question what exactly institutional racism might be, and whether they Metropolitain Police Service (MPS) were institutionally racist.

Even though the Macpherson report, all things considered, remains still a whitewash of the police investigation overall, it is a much more sophisticated whitewash than the normal blanket denials of the Thatcher period and, controversially, found that the MPS actually were institutionally racist — a finding that served other political and institutional agendas than simply seeking justice for the Lawrence family, but that’s another story.

The fact remains that Chapter 6 is a unique text in the history of such inquiries and is arguably required reading by any activist with an interest in anti-racist politics, regardless of one’s political views on the police, official enquiries and the rest. In the context of our investigation, its grappling with different takes on formulating the roles of individual police officers, the MPS as an institution, conscious, unconscious, covert and overt acts and attitudes in defining and reproducing “institutional racism” speaks to some of the same and similar issues that we have already seen in discussing Sue et al’s take on racial microaggressions.

The chapter starts by an attempt at defining racism in general and what the institutional form of it might be:

6.4 Racism in general terms consists of conduct or words or practices which disadvantage or advantage people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. In its more subtle form it is as damaging as in its overt form.
6.5 We have been concerned with the more subtle and much discussed concept of racism referred to as institutional racism which (in the words of Dr Robin Oakley) can influence police service delivery “not solely through the deliberate actions of a small number of bigoted individuals, but through a more systematic tendency that could unconsciously influence police performance generally”

From this consideration of a systematic tendency whose influence operates unconsciously, at the abstract level of police service delivery, we move to a reconsideration and partial challenge of Scarman’s definition from an earlier report.

6.15 When Lord Scarman asserted in his final conclusion that “institutional racism does not exist in Britain: but racial disadvantage and its nasty associate racial discrimination have not yet been eliminated”, (Para 9.1, p 135), many took this statement as the classic defence against all allegations that “institutional racism” exists in British society. His earlier words “knowingly, as a matter of policy, discriminates” and “practices may be adopted …. which are unwittingly discriminatory,” were not separated and given equal weight. Whilst we must never lose sight of the importance of explicit racism and direct discrimination, in policing terms if the phrase “institutional racism” had been used to describe not only explicit manifestations of racism at direction and policy level, but also unwitting discrimination at the organisational level, then the reality of indirect racism in its more subtle, hidden and potentially more pervasive nature would have been addressed.

The purpose of revisiting Scarman’s definition is in preparation for overturning his verdict that the MPS could not be “institutionally racist” by putting undue emphasis on direct and intentional racism, at the expense of any real consideration of “unwitting discrimination at organisational level”.

But then, and not for the last time, from being “at the organisational level” we bounce back to the consideration of racism at the level of individual police officers again.

6.16 The officers questioned by the Kent investigators expressed their indignation at any suggestion of overt racism. The Kent Report in our view however, never dealt satisfactorily with the other evil of unwitting racism, in both talk and action, played out in a variety of ways. The evidence we heard in this Inquiry revealed how unwitting racist discriminatory language and behaviour may arise.
6.17 Unwitting racism can arise because of lack of understanding, ignorance or mistaken beliefs. It can arise from well intentioned but patronising words or actions. It can arise from unfamiliarity with the behaviour or cultural traditions of people or families from minority ethnic communities. It can arise from racist stereotyping of black people as potential criminals or troublemakers. Often this arises out of uncritical self-understanding born out of an inflexible police ethos of the “traditional” way of doing things. Furthermore such attitudes can thrive in a tightly knit community, so that there can be a collective failure to detect and to outlaw this breed of racism. The police canteen can too easily be its breeding ground.

…and then back to the organisational level again

6.22 What may be termed collective organisational failure of this kind has come to be labelled by academics and others as institutional racism. This is by no means a new term or concept. In 1967 two black activists, Stokely Carmichael and Charles V Hamilton stated that institutional racism “originates in the operation of established and respected forces in the society. It relies on the active and pervasive operation of anti-black attitudes and practices. A sense of superior group position prevails: whites are ‘better’ than blacks and therefore blacks should be subordinated to whites. This is a racist attitude and it permeates society on both the individual and institutional level, covertly or overtly”. (Black Power: the Politics of Liberation in America, Penguin Books, 1967, pp 20–21).

(Kudos to the report compilers for getting the Black Panthers in!). In this jarring and unresolved schizoid bouncing between scales, the Black Police Association reps depositions further muddy the waters between the organisational and the individual levels:

6.27 The MPS Black Police Association’s spokesmen, in their written submission to the Inquiry, para 3.2, said this:-
“…. institutional racism …. permeates the Metropolitan Police Service. This issue above all others is central to the attitudes, values and beliefs, which lead officers to act, albeit unconsciously and for the most part unintentionally, and treat others differently solely because of their ethnicity or culture”

Paul Condon, the then Met Commissioner, in his evidence talked about the “institutionalisation” of racism in the MPS: “Racism, as you have pointed out, can occur through a lack of care and lack of understanding. The debate about defining this evil, promoted by the Inquiry, is cathartic in leading us to recognise that it can occur almost unknowingly, as a matter of neglect, in an institution. I acknowledge the danger of institutionalisation of racism”

At the risk of sounding like splitting hairs, in relation to the above quote from the BPA, it may be clearer if we replaced institutional racism with institutionalised racism, and clearly understood the difference between the two. When we talk of long-term prisoners or inmates of closed mental hospitals of having become “institutionalised”, we mean they have internalised certain habits, attitudes, dependencies and prejudices, many of them unconscious, that handicap their transition to life outside the institution. That is we are talking about the effect of living within the institution has on their psychologies and culture. So by “institutionalised” racism, we mean those forms of racism, conscious and unconscious, that become “ingrained” within the long-serving members of the institution by groupthink and habit. But this is distinct from the systemic or structural racism of the institution as a whole, exercised by its operational and bureaucratic procedures, rather than the individual psychology or culture of its operatives.

In fact an individual BPA witness successfully distinguishes two “sources” while still assuming them to be two aspects of the same thing:

6.28 The oral evidence of the three representatives of the MPS Black Police Association was illuminating. It should be read in full, but we highlight two passages from Inspector Paul Wilson’s evidence:-
(Part 2, Day 2, p 209):
“The term institutional racism should be understood to refer to the way the institution or the organisation may systematically or repeatedly treat, or tend to treat, people differentially because of their race. So, in effect, we are not talking about the individuals within the service who may be unconscious as to the nature of what they are doing, but it is the net effect of what they do”.
(Part 2, Day 2, p 211):
“A second source of institutional racism is our culture, our culture within the police service. Much has been said about our culture, the canteen culture, the occupational culture. How and why does that impact on individuals, black individuals on the street? Well, we would say the occupational culture within the police service, given the fact that the majority of police officers are white, tends to be the white experience, the white beliefs, the white values. Given the fact that these predominantly white officers only meet members of the black community in confrontational situations, they tend to stereotype black people in general. This can lead to all sorts of negative views and assumptions about black people, so we should not underestimate the occupational culture within the police service as being a primary source of institutional racism in the way that we differentially treat black people.”

The proposition I am putting here is to take the first “source” as institutional racism and the second as institutionalised. In the first case the bearer or operative agent of the pathology is the institution itself, systemically. In the second case the bearers/agents are the individual police officers, albeit that their collective culture is shaped by their social role in relation to the public determined by their occupational function. The origins or genesis of that racist canteen culture may be occupational or “structural”, but the end result is a racism at individual level, albeit shared with their colleagues. The difference is in measures to address the problem. Attempts at race-awareness training or similar, may possibly address racism, conscious and unconscious, at the individual level, i.e. of the “second source” here. But such measures will never impact on racism of the institution itself, which can only be addressed by institutional change, whether of structures, decision-making processes or policies.

Several of the bodies giving evidence on this question to the enquiry do try to bring attention back to the level of the institution itself:

6.30 The Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) in their submission stated:- “Institutional racism has been defined as those established laws, customs, and practices which systematically reflect and produce racial inequalities in society. If racist consequences accrue to institutional laws, customs or practices, the institution is racist whether or not the individuals maintaining those practices have racial intentions”. (Para 2).
“…. organisational structures, policies, processes and practices which result in ethnic minorities being treated unfairly and less equally, often without intention or knowledge”. (Para 3).

And there are many others, but whatever tendency or aspect they start by highlighting, they all then go on to include all the other elements as well, for fear of being seen to miss out the whole picture.

In the end, after all the different submissions (and some of them are more sophisticated than the ones quoted so far) the enquiry finally makes an attempt to synthesise a position:

6.34 Taking all that we have heard and read into account we grapple with the problem. For the purposes of our Inquiry the concept of institutional racism which we apply consists of: The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.
It persists because of the failure of the organisation openly and adequately to recognise and address its existence and causes by policy, example and leadership. Without recognition and action to eliminate such racism it can prevail as part of the ethos or culture of the organisation. It is a corrosive disease.

Ultimately the question of scale is fudged as is the distinction between conscious and unconscious racism. The problem posed by unconscious prejudices is subtly turned around into a conscious failure to exercise leadership. This not only averts the more problematic questions raised by how does an institution deal with its unconscious faults without recourse to external aid, by the same token it reinforces the power of the internal authority by charging the existing leadership, or a new dynamic replacement leadership (which was part of the Blairite agenda behind the MacPherson report), with the task of solving the problem by “recognition and action” (lipservice and tokenism) and “policy, example and [new] leadership”.

For those still sceptical that it makes sense to talk of unconscious discrimination at an institutional level perhaps a useful, if slightly extreme, example would be to compare the Metropolitan Police with a different, historical organisation, the Third Reich’s Rasse- und Siedlungshauptamt der SS (SS Race and Settlement Main Office) or RuSHA for short.

RuSHA was originally set up to police the racial purity of SS recruits and to vet their prospective wives before marriage. Like much else in the metastasizing SS empire, their role expanded far beyond their original remit and came to include the racial “Germanization” of occupied territories like Poland, the Ukraine, Czech, etc. Their publications included the “Aryanisation” handbooks, with their ghoulish glass eye colour examples and hair colour charts. Clearly if any organisation, ever, deserved the characterisation of “institutionally racist”, RuSHA was a leading contender for topping the poll.

The question then becomes, if we accept the MacPherson finding that the Met was institutionally racist, was it institutionally racist in the same way as RuSHA? And if not, is this simply a difference of degree (quantity) or one of character (quality)? In our view there is a clear difference in quality between institutions that are racist in their intention, such as those of the Third Reich, Apartheid South Africa and many others, and those that are not officially racist in their explicit policy goals, but reproduce oppressive racist effects in their practice.

The critics

Micropolitics has been the target of the outrage of the contemporary “PC Gone Mad!” brigade in the last years. Although this particular topic of fulmination is not as fashionable as it was a year or two ago, it is still part of the toolbox of right wing and “alt left” moral panics about trendy lefty “thought police” eradicating free speech on campus and stifling academic intellectual freedom. Most of these denunciations are tabloid-level fulminations not worthy of consideration, but the more academic or politically serious criticisms are worth looking at for the purposes of exploring another aspect of cultural resistance to the very idea of micropolitical aggressions.

Ex RCP-boss and Spiked! head Frank Furedi, is as so often, the most articulate advocate of right-wing-posing-as-left-wing reaction. His piece “Microaggression Theory: An Assault on Everyday Life”[5] is worth reading in full as an archetype of the genre.

However we’re going to focus on one aspect of it here. Following Furedi’s introduction of Derald Wing Sue’s definition of microaggressions as including “intentional and unintentional” behaviours, he reacts:

“What’s important about Sue’s definition is that these indignities need not be the outcome of intentional behaviour. He argues that ‘perpetrators of microaggressions are often unaware’ of the indignities that they inflict on others.
The focus on the unconscious or unwitting dimension of microaggressions is crucial. People accused of committing microaggressions are not indicted for what they have done or or said, or even for what they consciously think; they are indicted for their unconscious thoughts.
In all these cases, the presumption of guilt precedes the words or gestures of the unconscious aggressor. This is a secular theory of original sin from which no white, heterosexual man can possibly escape. According to Sue, even ‘well-intentioned whites’ suffer from ‘unconscious racial biases’.”

Immediately we see the connection between unconscious bias and notions of culpability and guilt. (In passing we note with some amusement the ever-recurring trope that this in some way uniquely disadvantages the much put-upon “straight white male”). The necessary connection between harm and guilt is apparently so obvious to Furedi that he makes no attempt to justify it, even though, on closer inspection, there is no necessary connection. Further, Furedi then implicitly relies on this connection to declare himself not guilty of a crime he could not have committed under the laws of natural justice that require proof of intent. The neat circularity of this demonstration that he, and by extension all the other poor, put-upon “straight white men”, are not only innocent, but the real victims of this discourse, relies on this slippage between actions and guilt. In the concluding section, Furedi states his verdict:

Now, a whole new dimension — unconscious behaviour and its unintended consequences — has been brought to the attention of rulemakers and lawyers. Human communication has always been a complicated business. The reading of body language and the interpretation of words and gestures have always involved misunderstandings. In an enlightened environment, it has been recognised that it is difficult, if not impossible, to hold people responsible for the unintended consequences of their actions and words. If people are held to account not for what they do or say, but for what they unconsciously think, then the idea of moral responsibility becomes incoherent. What is truly tragic about the myth of microaggressions is that it makes genuine dialogue impossible. The micro-policing of human relations is the inexorable consequence of the project of criminalising unconscious thought and behaviour.

Here we see a clear slippage between responsibility and culpability. It is certainly a principle of natural justice that we cannot hold people culpable of the unintended results of their actions, as intentionality is part of our secularised concept of guilt, inherited from the Christianity that Furedi previously referenced in his invocation of a “secular theory of original sin”.

The resistance to the role of the unconscious in human actions is not a new thing. When Sigmund Freud announced his theory of the unconscious to a titillated Belle Epoque Vienna, the Catholic church were outraged. They immediately saw the threat to their elaborated constructed guilt-apparatus, the core of the churches mechanism of individual and social control for centuries. If the roots of people’s actions, specifically those that caused harm, were not entirely, or even mostly, conscious then their guilt was in question. The church attempted to lead a veritable crusade against Freud’s new ideas, ostensibly because of their “filthy” sexual content, but as much for the protection of their apparatus for policing people’s consciences, not to mention their fear that the psychoanalyst’s couch might replace confession (at least for the monied classes). The magnitude of the church’s alarm at Freud’s subversive concept of the unconscious can be gaged by their later support for the “individual psychology” (individual here referring to the indivisibility of the personality, i.e. a rejection of Freud’s seemingly autonomous unconscious) of Alfred Adler, despite the latter’s support for socialism, feminism and other causes unpalatable to Catholicism.

Leaving aside the culture wars of the early 20th century over Freudian psychoanalysis, the question of the connection of culpability and responsibility was raised most fundamentally and publically by the predominant cataclysm of the last century, the Nazi holocaust. Questions of institutional versus individual culpability were raised in the immediate aftermath of the war at the Nuremberg trials by the defence of “I was only following orders” presented by mid-ranking Nazis. But despite foreshadowing questions of scale of responsibility examined decades later by MacPherson, the commonplace legal equation of culpability and responsibility remained undisturbed.

It was in the later aftermath of the holocaust, for example in Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem” or Primo Levi’s preface to “The Drowned and the Saved” that the question of responsibility as distinct from culpability was raised. In both cases the authors were responding to the questions raised with them by younger Germans, too young to have participated in the crimes of the Third Reich, as to what their relation to those crimes should be. Both Arendt and Levi come up with essentially the same reply — that is that you can’t be guilty of a crime you did not yourself participate in, the idea that you should is a notion of “collective guilt”, that you share culpability of the crime of another merely by being a member of the same social group, is itself an important component of the kind of racism that led to the holocaust in the first place. However both Arendt and Levi agree that being cleared of personal culpability does not discharge you of responsibility. That is that young Germans had a political responsibility to educate themselves about the Third Reich and the holocaust, to make sure that history was not erased and to remain vigilant against any resurgence of the same political dynamics.

Of course these questions of the true relation between culpability and responsibility were framed in this case by the most macropolitical of questions about the greatest abomination of the 20th century. That the same distinctions can be made in the matter of smaller, more everyday incidents, such as those commonly referred to as microaggressions, may not be immediately obvious. Nonetheless, if it is commonly accepted that there was a need to separate questions of responsibility from those of guilt and culpability in at least this case, then it is fair to say that the same challenge can potentially be made in all cases. In other words that Furedi’s assumption that the only responsibility one can incur, is a “moral responsibility”, inseparable from an assumption of personal guilt, can no longer be taken as self-evident.

Before we cast Furedi aside, it’s worth examining a secondary theme in his piece, that runs in parallel to his primary theme based on the conflation of guilt and responsibility.

“Underpinning the microaggression-hunters’ crusade is the conviction that the victim is always right. The American comedian Louis CK has clearly internalised this ‘watch your language’ etiquette. ‘When a person tells you that you hurt them’, he said recently, ‘you don’t get to decide that you didn’t’. The arrogant intolerance of Louis CK’s position is striking. He is saying that individuals do not get to decide the meaning of their words or actions.
The policing of statements and words is deeply intolerant. The statement ‘watch your words’, which is so casually used in the crusade against microaggression, is a call to close down discussion. So ignore the likes of Louis CK — we all should be free to decide the meanings of our words.”

It should be signalled that these two paragraphs are much further apart than the normal use of the ellipsis ([…]) would allow. The first is about ⅔ of the way through the article, the last is the final sign-off of the piece (which in itself betrays its importance to the author, despite the brevity of this secondary thread). Furedi’s point here is the same as Humpty Dumpty’s lecture to Alice:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

Humpty may have missed the point of Alice’s challenge, but Carroll/Dodgson’s satirical bite makes a clear point on what is at issue here — power. Furedi’s pious defence of professional intellectuals’ sovereign right to say what they want without any challenge from others, particularly those in a less socially-empowered situation than themselves, is ultimately a defence of the privilege of speech given to them by the constituted power of academia, state office or position in the bourgeois media. “The question is, which is to be master — that’s all”. In this instance, Louis CK’s reading of the interpersonal dynamics is the one that leads to tolerance and Furedi’s is the affronted blind arrogance of institutionalised power.

Confusing culpability and responsibility

However it would be wrong to say that only the critics of microaggression theory make the error of confusing culpability and responsibility. Far too many people have used the term in the context of raising a charge of personal culpability or guilt against the target of their accusations. This is not only injust and futile, it actually destroys the very concepts we need to raise awareness of the role of unintentional and unconscious actions or signals in reproducing and effecting oppressive relations.

Culpability is a macropolitical concept, it is simply a category error to apply it to micropolitical aggressions. A category error first, but not foremost, because the paramount error is political, that is to say a self-sabotaging one, in terms of intended effect.

So if combatting microaggressions and micropolitical vectors of oppression with false accusations of being merely instances of intentional but covert hostility, is a dead end, what are the alternatives?

The first, most obvious alternative strategy is consciousness raising. A creation of the feminist movement of the late 60s, consciousness raising is in some ways foreshadowed by the practice of psychoanalyisis or psychology of attempting the make the unconscious conscious, where it can be dealt with more easily. Whereas the practice of psychoanalysis meant the submission of the analysand to the authority of the expert analyst, feminist consciousness raising was a more peer to peer collective process with more horizontal power dynamics, at least in intent.

If the name itself is not widely used, the general practice of people collectively sharing experiences, on an equal basis, to discover and articulate common positions and critical perspectives is nowadays widespread. However it still represents an indirect or “stageist” approach in that the unconscious or unintentional issues cannot be confronted as such, but have to be converted into conscious problems first, which reinforces the presumption that only conscious problems are properly “real” or tractable.

A second limitation of consciousness raising, as a strategy, is that it works best when all the participants of the collective process are roughly on the same side of the power imbalance in question, generally the subaltern side. The results in a collective setting composed of people on different sides of the divide, are at best more fractious, at worst lead to total impasse.

At the personal level, there is a natural resistance to moving things from the unconscious to the conscious mind. For starters, in line of the old joke about being careful not to have too open a mind in case your brains fall out, if there was no barrier defending consciousness from the seething unconscious multitude, the mind would simply be swamped and unable to cohere. On top of that innate friction, pile all the usual fears of being accused of culpability, insecurity of status, “free will”, etc, that have been oft-times documented.

The practical point is that denial and resistance are inevitable initial reflexes of the part of the actor whose unintended or unconscious agency is being put under the spotlight. Unfortunately those people who believe implicitly in the inseparability of harm and malice then take that resistance as evidence that the behaviour was in fact covert but intentional from the start — i.e. macropolitical, really — and once again the threatening spectre of the unconscious as a force in human agency is averted, and microaggressions are once more eviscerated of real content.

The challenge that microaggressions and micropolitical harm set us, particularly on levels above the interpersonal, i.e. at organisational, institutional levels, is to incorporate into the design of our collective structures, the possibility that they may have incorporated in in their very assemblage and processes, oppressive effects or outcomes, and mechanisms to empower those who register these effects and outcomes, to feed that back into the collective, rather than just being shucked off by the defensive “circling the waggons” reflexes that all collectivities engender.

That is, we must find, at all levels of scale, interpersonal, organisational, institutional, societal and international, practices, mechanisms and strategies that deal with unintended oppressive effects, as such, without making their transformation into conscious and explicit issues a precondition, and in a way that dispenses with the outdated apparatuses of guilt and culpability the great monotheistic religions have left as a legacy in our secularised liberal bourgeois legal and moral frameworks.

And contra to the (self-serving) conclusions of the MacPherson report, those mechanisms cannot be simply a redoubling of internal powers of “policy, example and leadership” but building genuine channels of accountability, including external accountability. Nearly every large commercial capitalist venture has a department dealing specifically with external complaints. Virtually no leftist organisation does and yet somehow this goes unquestioned. Not that customer complaints departments (Ryanair anyone?) are a great model of accountability, but the principle still stands.

Of course, the problem is easier posed than solved. A comprehensive catalogue of the techniques and strategies to limit, combat and ultimately to some degree reverse the circulation of oppressive relations through the micropolitical channels that bypass the macropolitical gatekeepers of individual consciousnesses or institutional policies, has yet to be drawn up. But it would probably be a good idea to start one, sooner rather than later.


  1. Derald Wing Sue, Christina M. Capodilupo, Gina C. Torino, Jennifer M. Bucceri, Aisha M. B. Holder, Kevin L. Nadal, and Marta Esquilin, “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life — Implications for Clinical Practice”, American Psychologist, May–June 2007, (henceforth RMiEL) https://world-trust.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/7-Racial-Microagressions-in-Everyday-Life.pdf

2. In passing, it is worth remarking that this last dilemma is very strongly reminiscent of Geoffrey Bateson’s “double bind” and its putative role as a generator of schizophrenia or mental illness. A connection unfortunately not explored in the 2007 paper.

3. Deleuze, G, Guattari, F, “A Thousand Plateaus”, “Micropolitics and Segmentarity” chapter

4. Macpherson Report https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/277111/4262.pdf

5. Frank Furedi, “Microaggression Theory: An Assault on Everyday Life”, Spiked, Nov 2015. http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/microaggression-theory-an-assault-on-everyday-life/17658