In the News

Casual Remarks That Hurt: Microaggression and Adoptive Families

Adoptive families, and children who were adopted into them, often talk among ourselves about the “dumb things people say” to and about us. “Where is her real family?” “Do you know her parents?” It bothers some people more than others, and it bothered Kim Kelley Wagner to the point that she created a photo series about it, of the kind that’s rapidly becoming ubiquitous: images of those spoken about (in this case, her daughters), holding hand-lettered signs with the offensive words that have been directed at them.

There’s a term for those obliquely (or sometimes overtly) offensive remarks that don’t cross the line into outrageous, but cross a line just the same: microaggressions. That’s the social justice “mot du jour,” writes Tanzina Vega in “The Big Topic on Campus: Racial ‘Microaggressions.’” The term is “used to describe the subtle ways that racial, ethnic, gender and other stereotypes can play out painfully in an increasingly diverse culture.”

There is disagreement, even among the targets of the remarks, about “how much is truly aggressive and how much is pretty micro — whether the issues raised are a useful way of bringing to light often elusive racial, ethnic and cultural slights in a world where overt prejudice is seldom tolerated or a new form of divisive hyper-sensitivity in which casual remarks are blown out of proportion,” Ms. Vega writes. The same disagreement exists among adoptive families, and those who were adopted into their families. Ms. Wagner’s work inevitably made its way across Facebook, where some saluted it, and others suggested that it might be better to teach children to let these remarks roll of their backs or use them as an opportunity to educate.

As a woman in male environments, I’ve done all of those things. As an adoptive parent, I’ve actually heard very few of these remarks, meaning that I haven’t had to take a position. I can afford to wait and see how my daughter wants to handle them — one reason the “Things Said To or About My Adopted Daughters” photo essay bothered me. One child in the pictures seemed a little young to have made the choice about where she falls on the spectrum of reactions.

For most people, even the college students creating microaggression blogs and memes, I suspect that it is just that: a spectrum. What better place to call attention to the assumptions, small slurs and hurtful comments than a university environment? Those movements have a chance at creating change by drawing attention to the words themselves, whether they’re intentionally racist or maddeningly insensitive.

In daily life, though, there are surely circumstances under which calling out a microaggressive comment is appropriate, and others when it isn’t. (That smiling elderly woman in the wheelchair? Even the most vigilant among us would probably give her a pass on all but the most grossly offensive remark.) As parents, whether we expect our children to be the targets of microaggression, bystanders, or merely foolish speakers, that’s a territory we’ll need to teach them to navigate. I have to admit, I haven’t even started yet. (After I created the illustration above, I removed the image from our family photo stream.) But I’m pretty squarely in the the dominant category on everything except gender (and my complete outsider status in my rural New England town), so I feel like I’m on loose ground and finding my way.

I’m happy to see these movements making their way across our conversation, reminding us of the many ways the words we use affect the people around us. I think I need to listen for a while — to the conversation, and to my daughter and her siblings — before I’ll know whether and how to jump in.