Marley,
Thank you for your response. I genuinely appreciate your willingness to engage. As someone who at least aspires to MLK’s dream (both personally and within our larger culture) to judge people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, I take racism very seriously.

That said, the quality and character of our arguments matters a great deal to the struggle to see MLK’s dream become a reality. There’s a lot to unpack in your response. I’ll try to be as brief as possible.

You cite the use of accents (and by association other visual or audible cues) as reference points in our conversations with others, at least initially, as evidence of perceived racism on the part of those on the receiving end. At least you think is potentially so. The problem is, things like accents are real physical clues regarding a person’s background. They are clues that all individuals and cultures use, whether they’ve been victims of racism or not. By itself, there simply is no good reason for anyone to perceive their use for this purpose as actual/possible evidence of racism. Now if a question like “where are you from?” occurs within a particular context (tone of voice, body language, or setting) that indicates there is more to the question than merely “where are you from?” that’s a different story. For example, the question “where are you from?” should be taken as far more ominous coming from an SS officer than it would be coming from a co-worker or new acquaintance. Likewise, it can be far more intimidating coming from a police officer or border agent, especially for members of certain minority groups. But these types of qualifiers are not included in the definitions of “micro-aggression” or “implicit bias” that I provided. Nor is that kind of nuance usually included in articles using these terms to make a point(s) about racism.

Regardless, things like accents, our use of language, and skin color are facts about us that are relevant both to us personally as part of our identity and to others we interact with. In conversations about human rights they are trivial facts, meaning none of them justify mistreatment or unequal treatment of either an individual or group. In other words, they don’t indicate either inherent superiority or inferiority to any other person on the planet. They merely serve to indicate differences of one sort or another.

However, in day-to-day interactions between people, especially strangers, they are extremely relevant as indicators of where there may be differences and which questions might be most relevant to overcoming them. These kinds of conversations can often be awkward and uncomfortable, but that alone doesn’t make them worth avoiding. For this reason (as well as personal experience) I’m simply not convinced most people perceive questions like “where are you from?” as racist unless tone of voice, body language, or some other aspect of the wider situational context causes them to do so. I have yet to have a conversation outside of social-media or academia where any minority individual has used the term “micro-aggression” or “implicit bias” when encountering these sorts of questions. These words generally don’t mean anything to average people of any background living their lives outside of social media/academic silos. Given there’s honest to God discrimination going on - minorities still being imprisoned at much higher rates than whites and barriers to voting making a comeback, to name a couple— why on earth should we choose this particular “micro-aggression”/ “implicit bias” hill to die on? If nothing else, it seems like a strategically questionable choice to make under the circumstances.

Finally, I have to say, I’m also troubled by your willingness to place a discussion of the perception some (perhaps) not insignificant portion of the population may have of questions like “where are you from?”, at least in certain contexts, in the same category as sexual and physical abuse. There is absolutely no comparison between the two. The difference here isn’t even apples and oranges. It’s more like spinach and ice cream. If someone takes offense at a question or isn’t sure about someone’s motives in asking it, the solution in most cases is pretty straight forward: follow up with some questions of your own or make clear why you feel the question itself is objectionable.

That’s not the case with sexual or other forms of physical abuse. While I think we both agree it’s not the case under any circumstances, it’s certainly not the case when the victims are children. In those instances we are talking about the complete absence of even arguable consent. We can typically raise objections to or walk away from questions/conversations that make us uncomfortable. Even when we don’t feel like we have that option, it’s a conversation, not a fist or sexual assault. We are also talking about (at least in most abuse cases) the infliction of very real and often visible physical harm, to say nothing of potentially extreme psychological trauma. To equate actual/potentially innocent questions with this kind of behavior undermines your argument almost entirely. Even to equate actual offensive conversations with it is, to my way of thinking, absurd. By flattening the moral landscape so that something like sexual/physical abuse exists even remotely near a question like “where are you from?” you make it nearly impossible for me to take you seriously.

This is a problem more generally with the usage of the word “aggression”, even if qualified somewhat by the prefix “micro”, to describe certain types of speech, but I’ve gone on long enough. I’ll just conclude by stating that as someone who was on the receiving end of a belt as a child, to say nothing of some very loud verbal abuse, I find your putting these two very different kinds of behavior even in the vicinity of one another, let alone the same category, offensive. Hate crimes definitely are on the same moral plane but “micro-aggressions” and “implicit bias”, as these are typically defined, are in another moral place altogether both in terms of the intent of those committing them and the harm they cause. And since how the receiver takes the statement is the only/primary yardstick you’re using to judge whether something is harmful or not, that necessarily (using your standards, not mine) makes you insensitive to the trauma of abuse survivors.

P.S. I don’t actually think you are insensitive to abuse survivors. That last sentence is there to demonstrate that when we rely solely on the perception of the receiver instead of the perception of ALL PARTIES in the conversation to judge what is or isn’t racist or otherwise appropriate, we are inevitably going to get hoisted on our own petard. Note I said I found your conflation “offensive”. However, as a matter of both fact and argument it does not logically follow that you meant to be offensive.

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US citizen residing in British Columbia, Canada. Degrees include anthropology and environmental studies. Activism, politics, science, nature.

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