Words that Wound: A Short Review of Solórzano’s and Huber’s Racial Microaggressions

In their book Racial Microaggressions: Using Critical Race Theory to Respond to Everyday Racism, Daniel Solórzano and Lindsay Huber define and explain terms like “racial microaggression,” “white supremacy,” and “internalized racism” in an effort to help People of Color “name their pain.” While the authors describe phenomena that are undoubtedly real, these are interpreted through the erroneous framework of critical race theory. Consequently I fear that the authors’ approach will not only fail to relieve trauma, but will instead generate and exacerbate it.

Positives

In the opening chapter, Solórzano explains that he gravitated towards Critical Race Theory because it resonated with his lived experience. He had first learned “the concept of marginality” from other sources including Ethnic and Women’s Studies, Critical Legal Studies, and Freirean Critical Theory before encountering its robust treatment in Critical Race Theory (p. 2-3). Similarly, Huber was “drawn to these frameworks because they allowed [her], as a Woman of Color, to recognize how racism, patriarchy, capitalism, and other systems of oppression are embedded in social institutions, and how these systems shape our everyday experiences” (p. 9).

I’ll say more about the role of “lived experience” later, but for now, I want to emphasize that it should not be simply ignored. For example, here’s an excerpt from the story of a Native American grad student:

sometimes, if I’m waiting for the bus at night, people will yell racist things, like “Go back to your country” [and] “Go back to where you’re from,” and I was just like ‘Phoenix?’… Once they’re finding out you are Indian, the jokes about blankets and canoes, and just about anything they can think. The nickname Chief…. It’s just ha ha ha. Don’t get me wrong, I have a very thick skin and I can take a joke as well as anyone else, but… sometimes I don’t want to be just a stereotype (p. 21)

I challenge readers to put themselves in the shoes of this young man. Almost all of us have experienced ridicule as children and know how demoralizing it can be. But what if it never stopped? How would it affect us?

As it turns out, there is empirical evidence that negative racial stereotypes do have a lasting impact on Black self-perception. Some of the most famous examples are the Clark Doll Experiments, which asked toddlers to compare a white-skinned doll and a black-skinned doll. When asked to choose “the good doll” or “the doll you want to play with,” the toddlers, regardless of race, chose the white doll. This finding has been replicated numerous times over the last several decades with similar results. Experiments like these show that negative racial stereotypes do exist and can have a negative effect on a POC’s self-perception. The authors likewise suggest there is empirical evidence that constant racial discrimination has consequences for POC’s mental and physical health.

An analogy to the experience of women is helpful here. It’s undeniable that expectations regarding weight and beauty take a toll on women, especially on teenage girls, driving many to depression, anorexia, bulimia, and even suicide. These negative effects can be even more dramatic when a particular woman experiences sexual abuse or violence. Consequently, we would not immediately write off a woman expressing emotional pain as “overly dramatic.”

In the same way, Christians should not immediately write off a POC’s distress as “hypersensitivity.” All of us should be slow to speak, quick to listen, and ready to empathize. All of us should be challenged to reflect on our behavior and should be willing to modify it when it causes unnecessary offense or pain.

Unfortunately, the book doesn’t stop with an admonition to sympathize. Instead, it builds up an extensive theory of racial microaggressions that is explicitly rooted in the assumptions of critical race theory, leading to many serious problems.

Basic CRT assumptions

Solórzano’s and Huber’s model for understanding microaggressions “from a CRT perspective” is presented on p. 52-55. Briefly, they argue that our culture is suffused with “white supremacy” which assigns “values to real or imagined differences in order to justify the perceived inherent superiority of whites over People of Color” (p. 53). This ideology is subtle and difficult to detect, but manifests as “institutional racism” in “education, economic, health care, mass media, criminal justice, and political institutions” as demonstrated by how these systems “function to produce racial inequalities in nearly every outcome of social life” (53-54). This last phrase is key. Put simply, racial disparities are taken to be undeniable evidence of pervasive “institutional racism” built on a foundation of “white supremacy.” This basic view of society yields one all-important principle: asymmetry. The way the authors conceptualize “microaggressions” or “racism” or “lived experience” or “impact vs. intent” is fundamentally asymmetric.

For example, the authors define “racial microaggressions” as: “(1) verbal and nonverbal assaults directed toward People of Color, often carried out in subtle, automatic, or unconscious forms; (2) layered assaults, based on a Person of Color’s race, gender, class, sexuality, language, immigration status, phenotype, accent, or surname; and (3) cumulative assaults that take a psychological and physiological toll on People of Color” (p. 34). No matter how demeaning a person’s language or attitude is towards white people, a white person cannot experience a racial microaggression because racial microaggressions by definition are only applicable to People of Color.

Similarly, the authors adopt CRT’s skepticism towards “objectivity” and “neutrality” to argue that “majoritarian discourses” are merely bids for power and attempts to preserve the racial status quo. On the other hand, the “counterstories of Communities of Color open a discursive space to disrupt the normativity of whiteness” (p. 21). In other words, dominant stories should be dismissed as oppressive but subordinate counterstories should be embraced as liberatory.

Finally, the authors’ “theorizing of racial microaggressions does not focus on the intent of the perpetrator, but on its impact or effects on the Person of Color targeted by them” (p. 46). Once again, there is a clear asymmetry here. The authors’ goal is to center the feelings of the victimized POC; the intentions of the white victimizer are irrelevant. In contrast, “white discomfort” is often taken to be a sign of progress in antiracism discourse, as whites are forced to confront their complicity in racism.

These basic assumptions are crucial to understanding why Solórzano’s and Huber’s view of microaggressions is so difficult to challenge.

Catastrophic microaggressions

To illustrate the gravity of microaggressions and, presumably, to evoke sympathy from the reader, the authors provide a fictional account of an encounter between a Latina student and her professor, which I’ll reproduce at length:

“Melinda is a [1st year] Latina PhD student in sociology of education… During [class] discussion, Melinda makes a comment in which she cites political theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. The instructor comments to Melinda with surprise, “You’ve read Laclau and Mouffe?” Melinda’s face becomes flushed with embarrassment, and she suddenly feels hot. Her stomach drops. She holds her breath… With her heart pounding, she quickly responds, “Yes, I have read them.”… Melinda walks away feeling angry and frustrated. For the next week, she relives the moment over and over again, thinking about things she should have said. The next week, the assigned readings are on racial microaggressions.. Melinda arrives to class with her stomach in knotsangry with the instructor’s inability to recognize how she perpetrated a microaggression against her. With her heart racing and slightly out of breath, she shares with the group… The instructor looks at her and responds, ‘No, no, I told you that I didn’t mean anything by it…’ Melina continues to challenge the dismissal… [She] begins to cry and says, ‘This really hurts.’ The instructor… begins to get emotional, also near tears. The class becomes silent.” (p. 38)

What struck me most in this interaction was how emotionally unhealthy and out-of-proportion the student’s response was.

Before dismissing me as callous and privileged, think back on my previous analogy. I have two daughters, both of whom are mathematically gifted. Imagine that one of them was a 1st-year graduate student in physics and made a passing reference to Quantum Field Theory, leading her professor to express surprise. In contrast to the authors’ story, let’s additionally assume that my daughter knew for certain that the professor was motivated by negative stereotypes about women in science. How would I want my daughter to react? If she responded as Melinda did, couldn’t I both sympathize with her frustration and also encourage her to develop enough internal fortitude to withstand such incidents without collapsing emotionally? Would I want her to exist in such a precarious mental state that a raised eyebrow could ruin her for days?

Here, contemporary culture seems to press on us a false dichotomy: either we wholeheartedly embrace every emotion experienced by a professed victim or we side with the victimizers. Yet a moment’s reflection shows that this approach is deeply flawed. Victimhood does not grant anyone infallibility. The experience of marginalization may grant us certain kinds of insight. However, it may also lead to cognitive distortions, as when we demonize an entire demographic group or when we see discrimination where none exists.

In fact, numerous authors have worried that this kind of victimology is wreaking havoc on our children’s mental health, because they are increasingly unable to cope with even the smallest stresses (see Haidt and Lukianoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind or Campbell and Manning’s The Rise of Victimhood Culture). This phenomenon is due in part to what Haidt and Lukianoff call “catastrophizing” whereby every issue is described in apocalyptic terms, making it difficult for either victims or their counselors to develop a proper sense of proportion. Solórzano and Huber take exactly this route in their book. “Microaggressions” are referred to variously as “microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidation,” (p. 34) “racial battle fatigue,” (p. 42) “racial trauma,” (p. 43) and “racial harm” (p. 48) and its victims are called “survivors of discrimination” (p. 5). At one point, the term “linguistic terrorism” is even mentioned as a way to “name [how] the Spanish language is stigmatized” (p. 121).

Such terminology makes it nearly impossible to offer a victim even the most gentle pushback or to commend equanimity, resilience, and strength of mind as a long-term goals. Anyone who publicly raises concerns that we’re crippling people with this ideology can easily be cast as “unloving,” “uncaring,” and “uncompassionate.”

Yet even apart an appeal to our sense of compassion, critical race theory provides a more subtle way to dismiss criticism.

Bids for Power

A second concern raised by UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh and sociologist Todd Gitlin is that “microaggression” is an ill-defined category which will quickly expand to swallow any disfavored speech. In a move that will be familiar to students of critical race theory, Solórzano and Huber dismiss these claims as “majoritarian discourses”: “Dominant groups have their own stories [which] function to maintain dominant group status over People of Color. Majoritarian stories (re)construct and justify systems of subordination that lead to inequitable social arrangements and, consequently, disparate outcomes” (p. 22) They continue:

“What these arguments [of Lukianoff and Haidt] also say, without saying it, is that the ‘problem’ of racism is one that is not theirs (‘whites’)… [They] seems to arrive at the same conclusion as Volokh in their majoritarian story, that racial microaggressions should be dismissed, and that they are going to keep on ‘microaggressing.’ In effect, they claim that we should avoid teaching about racial microaggressions in higher education because it would ‘create an environment of perpetual anger and intergroup conflict’. To which, we believe, James Baldwin would have responded, ‘to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time’.”

Moreover, in parsing these “majoritarian discourses,” they insist that the reader has to dig beneath superficial claims about “free speech” to unearth more subterranean meanings: “Majoritarian stories can be difficult to interpret because race is often discussed through linguistic proxies and codes that attempt to veil racist claims.” (p. 23)

Rhetorical moves like these make dialogue with critical race theorists difficult. Because they insist that objectivity itself is a mechanism to conceal dominance, there is no “neutral ground” on which discussion can take place. Legitimate concerns that we may be harming people’s mental health are reinterpreted as illegitimate desires to retain power. Legitimate concerns over infringement on free speech are recast as illegitimate desires to preserve white ignorance.

Worse still, a critic’s ethnicity will not shield him from these accusations. In fact, the existence of POC who do not report deep emotional trauma from living in a “white supremacist society” is a serious threat to Solórzano’s and Huber’s theories. How can such people exist if racism is as pervasive and endemic as CRT insists? If Baldwin was right that being “relatively conscious [as a Black person]” entails being “in a rage almost all of the time,” then why do some POC seem so untroubled?

The short answer, according to Solórzano and Huber, is “internalized racism.” “People of Color cannot be racist but can internalize racism… we are capable of ‘unwittingly passing on to our children and our friends the oppressor’s ideologies’.” (p. 66). At best, POCs who deny that they are oppressed have internalized racist stereotypes and are merely parroting the ideologies of white supremacy. At worst, they are “race traitors,” defined as “People of Color who have betrayed the interests of their communities by perpetuating stereotypic and deficit perspectives of People of Color and supporting policies that ensure racial harm, thereby working toward maintaining the status quo” (p. 82).

The net result is that CRT shuts down the dialogue we desperately need. Whereas traditional white supremacy assumed People of Color had nothing relevant to contribute to discussions of race, CRT assumes whites (and “white-adjacent” POC) have nothing to contribute. In reality, all of us have blindspots and need others to challenge our perspective.

Summary

Unlike some conservatives, I don’t dismiss the idea of microaggressions wholesale. We should be open to thinking about how subtle slights, stereotypes, and insults as well as overt acts of hostility can take an emotional toll. Our love for others should go beyond good intentions and should also lead us to reflect on how our unintentional words and actions can harm others. Yet, this very love should motivate us, in gentleness and humility, to correct faulty and ultimately self-destructive ideologies that trap people in a perpetual state of grievance and misery. Racial Microagressions provides important insight to the ideology driving our culture’s embrace of victimhood and unqualified affirmation. But as a framework for healing wounds and producing healthy, flourishing humans, it falls short.


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