In 2018, I attended a Black Student Union graduation at a prestigious university. Nearly every commencement speech included the topic of microaggressions. Students were angry. They yelled about doors not being held for them, professors not remembering their names or overlooking them in class. Alongside Black faculty and professors, they declared they were done discussing these grievances and would begin to actively demand action be taken against those who perpetuate microaggressions.
Fast forward two years and the term “microaggression” is being used even more in the Social Justice world. Last month, National Public Radio (NPR), released an article focused on microaggressions, “Microaggressions Are A Big Deal: How To Talk Them Out And When To Walk Away.” I found the article to be balanced and appreciated that it offered an attempt at solutions. However, without Christ and Scripture as the foundation, these solutions are only temporary fixes that offer no long term hope for unity.
Let’s start with a brief definition.
Microaggressions are commonly defined as: The everyday (usually brief and routine) verbal, nonverbal and environmental slights, snubs or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership (such as a racial minority).
There are 3 primary forms of microaggressions:
Microassault: an explicit racial derogation; verbal/nonverbal; e.g. name-calling, avoidant behavior, purposeful discriminatory actions.
Microinsult: communications that convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person's racial heritage or identity; subtle snubs; unknown to the perpetrator; hidden insulting message to the recipient.
Microinvalidation: communications that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings or experiential reality of a person belonging to a particular group.
Here are a few popular examples:
When a person of color is asked, “How did you get the job?” An implicit meaning in the statement is that people of color can’t get certain jobs on their own merit and must have received help to obtain their position.
When a White person commends a POC for speaking well, it is inferred that the White person doesn’t believe that POC speak well, on average, and are surprised by the POC’s communication ability.
When a White person asks a Black person, "Why do you have to be so loud? Just calm down," or asks an Asian person, "Why are you so quiet?" signals that they should assimilate to the dominant culture.
When a White person crosses to the other side of the street when a Black man is approaching can be seen as saying, "That person is unsafe. He may want to rob me."
When a White person asks a person of color, "Where are you from?" the underlying message is that, "You're not an American."
Microaggressions are often innocently spoken. But it is believed that these commonplace, seemingly innocent, words promote covert forms of racial injustice. Hopefully, this explanation brings a bit of clarity.
But, clarity doesn’t always mean error-free. Below I list out four ways microaggressions undermine the potential for Christian unity and why I think Christians should be cautious when using the term microaggression.
1. Microaggressions assign ill motives to the heart.
Let’s consider part of the definition of microaggression: “...verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional…” In the examples above, it’s unclear if the actions were committed with willful intent or by accident. Regardless, the accused is now charged with racism—the sin of partiality that stems from a particular heart attitude.
But can we know the motives of someone's heart? Jeremiah writes that “the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9). Paul reminds believers in Corinth that they should not judge but rather wait for the Lord’s judgement because only He can judge the motives of the heart (1Cor. 4:4-5). Without clear admission or witnesses, it is impossible to know the motives of someone’s heart. Judging the motives of the heart is a job for God, not man.
In my opinion, the biggest problem with microaggressions is that it gives the “victim” the role of God—to know the heart of man, to assign blame and the presumption of motive, guilt and victimhood to the color of someone’s skin. In Scripture, God judges our deeds by our heart’s motives. According to the concept of microaggressions motives are judged by the alleged victim and the deeds are always racist, directly or indirectly. As Christians, we are commanded to participate with each other from a place of love. Love believes the best about the other person (1 Cor. 13:7 AMPC).
2. It encourages attitudes of offense/rage while discouraging conversation.
From its foundation, the idea of microaggressions sets both sides up for offense and disconnect. Let’s be honest, believing someone is treating you poorly, because of the color of your skin would definitely be a cause for offense. And, on the other side, being told that you’re participating in a form of racism that you may or may not be aware of, can be equally offensive. What I mean is this: When we choose blame, over curiousity or when we immediately choose to live life assuming the worst about someone else, we close the possibility for connection. Neither one of these positions inspires conversation or relationships.
In Matthew 18:15–18, we are given instructions for how to treat someone who offends us. Starting from a place of love, we should approach our brother or sister,have a conversation and make them aware of the offense. This is not a time to berate or demean them, but rather a time to listen (James 1:19). By listening we gain better understanding. Perhaps they are unaware of the impact their comments had. The ultimate goal is to continue in a relationship with our brother or sister.
The framework of microaggressions has no true path to unity. Embedded within the foundation is the belief that someone is always racist and someone is always a victim. As brothers and sisters, in Christ, we already have a roadmap for handling offenses that leads to unity—it begins at the cross. The cross reminds us that we are all equal, that we all sin, and that we all need a Savior. We, in turn, can live in the freedom to forgive and love well because of the love of our Savior. As Paul affirmed the Colossians: “Be gentle and forbearing with one another and, if one has a difference (a grievance or complaint) against another, readily pardon each other; even as the Lord has [freely] forgiven you, so must you also [forgive] (Col. 3:13 AMPC), may we also hold this heart posture with others.
3. Microaggressions support a subjective framework with no need for evidence.
The concept of microaggressions is vague. There is no completely defined understanding of what makes up a microaggression and what does not. The basis of microaggressions relies solely on the experiences of People of Color, usually without evidence. The concept of microaggressions asserts that experience conveys motive and guilt. We must be careful not to assign motive or guilt before a matter is established with witnesses.
In Scripture, the need for witnesses is necessary before conferring a judgement. Deut. 19:15 says, “One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” This standard is repeated in Matthew 18:16. Not requiring evidence can be a form of partiality that benefits the victim and brings damning judgement against those who may be innocent.
When considering issues of partiality, it is important to remember that it is not just the “marginalized” or POC who can be victims of partiality. James 2 is clear, we must not show any form of favoritism or partiality.Racism and partiality are sins that can be perpetuated by anyone and experienced by anyone. This isn’t an issue of skin color, it’s an issue of the condition of the human heart. As such, before bringing judgement against someone, we must be careful that we have witnesses and go through the proper processes, as established by God.
4. Microaggressions do not allow for mistakes.
Within Christianity, no one is beyond the possibility of making a mistake. However, with microaggressions there is no room for mistakes when it comes to issues of race. Say something erroneously, use the wrong hashtag, go against the popular tribal race narrative and you run the risk of being cancelled: losing friends, loved ones, or your job.
Microaggressions, intentional or unintentional, always warrant correction or cancellation. There’s no room for error. Victims of a microaggression do not have to consider the perpetrator’s clumsy phraseology, or reasons as to why a door wasn’t held. The experience defines the intent and the intent (by definition, even if it was unintentional) is racist.
I’m so thankful that the historic Christian worldview understands the human condition. James 3:2 says, “We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.” But which of us is perfect?
Unlike microaggressions, the Christian worldview offers hope because we serve a God who understands the human condition and chooses to love us unconditionally (Psalm 103). In James, we’re told that we all stumble. Not only does Christianity allow room for our mistakes, we are assured that we will make them. And there is forgiveness.
In John 17, Christ prays for unity among the believers. This unity is a oneness of mind and spirit. The idea of “microaggressions” undermines the goal of unity within the body of Christ and goes against God’s standard of justice. Microaggressions break the requirement for equal measures. When accusations are made, there must be evidence and this standard should be upheld, to all people, despite the color of someone’s skin. Unity becomes unattainable when we assign ill motives to one another, act out of offense instead of seeking conversation and information, judge without evidence, and never allow for mistakes.
As Christ followers, let’s be a family of believers who participate with each other from a foundation of heavenly wisdom (James 3:13-18) with a vision for love, humility, and forgiveness. May we flee from earthly wisdom that produces concepts like microaggressions, envy, confusion, and strife.