A CHAIRPERSON in a meeting invites a female colleague to the podium and comments that she is such a “beautiful and lovely person”.
He also invites a male colleague to join the panel but commends him for his contributions to the field. At an English arts festival, a black poet performs a piece in English, not in isiXhosa, his mother tongue, and the host of the session compliments him on his “good English”.
The host, however, compliments the next performance by an English poet for its social relevance. The human resources manager of the South African office of a European company calls a disciplinary meeting with a Muslim employee to deal with complaints regarding his absence at meetings every Friday when midday prayers take place at the mosque – absenteeism does not fit the culture of the institution, the manager argues.
An old white couple walk down the road and see a group of black soccer players approaching on the same side of the road; the man protectively puts an arm around his wife, and she clutches her handbag more firmly.
A black student at a former white university campus walks into the residence dining hall for lunch and looks for a table; he sees most tables are already taken by groups of white guys, some familiar to him as friends or colleagues.
At the far end of the hall, he sees a table with black students, none of whom is familiar to him; he walks over and takes a seat. These everyday incidents reveal a major social dynamic that continues to derail the societal project to build a new nation – the dynamic of “micro-aggressions”.
These are subtle and unintentional offences in everyday life committed against people who represent a particular group.
Micro-aggressions take the form of routine responses that both perpetrator and victim are used to, and which have become habits in how people respond to one another.
This means that even when a society sees an overall decline in overt discrimination, these types of unawares slights based on gender, language, faith and race show that targeted dismissal of diverse groups of people persists.
However, micro-aggressions underlie not only hidden slights, but also how people and the groups with which they are associated are perceived and painted in the public discourse. Tokenism casts people and groups not for who they are, but only as symbols of processes.
Micro-aggressions cast people and groups as exotic and even erotic. They provoke reverse hostility that casts certain groups always as aggressors and others always as victims. Micro-aggression comes from the underlying biases that people hold of others and which they learn in subtle ways from a young age at home and other spaces in everyday life.
As biases are taken up and reflected in how people organise their communities and institutions, micro-aggressions permeate institutional cultures, which determine what everyday life and environments look like.
The hidden, habitual and unintentional character of micro-aggressions, however, produces its most troublesome aspect, namely “complicity” – the dynamic that everyone present at an incident are equally responsible for underlying discrimination to continue when they remain silent. Micro-aggressions have no bystanders.
What transpires in such incidents are as visible to those present as instances of overt discrimination would be, but for their everydayness are not addressed there and then.
“Ag, let it be,” is our response, and therein lies the power of micro-aggression, and of our complicities.
* Rev Dr Rudi Buys is the executive dean at the non-profit higher education institution Cornerstone Institute, and editor of the African Journal of Non-Profit Higher Education.