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The Rise of Boutique Victimology


11 min read
Wait, you’re telling me this ivy has an entire league?

Contemporary psychology is an ideological rat king that legitimizes the neoliberal identitarian paradigm. Each little rat is a part of the whole, and the whole is far more than the sum of its parts. One rat is named Internalized Racism/homophobia/etc., and he is deployed to paper over class contradictions. One little rat is named Self-care, and this rat is tied up with his brother Mindfulness. They frequently work together, pushing us to look inward for contentment, accept austerity, and leave superficial material concerns behind. Another rat is named Implicit Bias, and his job is to paralyze individuals with shame and guilt. Like Self-care, this rat also asserts that the subjective world is far more important in fostering change than anything to do with material reality. Implicit Bias has a friend named Microaggressions. This rat is one of the higher-ups in the rat king’s court. He has had a fundamental impact on the construction of new neoliberal identity categories and tracing his origins can illustrate how victimhood has become a hot commodity. 

In addition to signifiers of race, sexual alterity, and gender, this new categorization for the neoliberal DIY subject has emerged and engulfed all others. It is no longer sufficient for one to have a marginalized identity. One must be traumatized by said identity. If there is no trauma to be had, microtrauma must be manufactured and equipped for social capital. Although the phraseology was originally coined in the ‘70s by Harvard Professor Chester Pierce to describe the pain of verbal affronts white people inflict upon black people, it has risen to prominence in the past seven or so years in mainstream and social media. In a true flair of intersectionality—if not opportunism—Columbia professor Derald Sue (30 years later) began expanding the definition from Chester’s concern with primarily black individuals to “everyday slights, indignities, put-downs, and insults that people of color, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalized experience in their day-to-day interactions with people.”1Desmond-Harris, J. (2015). What exactly is a microaggression? Vox. In the nebulous phrase ‘marginalized,’ there may be some credit we could attribute to Derald for possibly thinking of socioeconomic status—but ultimately, there is no direct reference to class. 

The pioneers and researchers who birthed this demented epistemology work in elite institutions. They are embedded in a ‘privileged’ context from the start. This may explain the immediacy of the reductionism, even though individuals from lower classes tend to suffer alienation at university regardless of their identity signifier chart. However, this gap in inclusion is an objective of this new disciplinary architecture, rather than an unintended consequence. Ironically this erasure of the identity signifier ‘class’ could itself be considered the zenith of microaggression. 

Origins

Microaggressions broke onto the scene in the past decade through campaigns at college campuses wherein minority students addressed their peers’ racism. In 2014, multiple colleges began to contend with their microaggression pandemics, populating Tumblr sites such as ‘I, Too, Am Harvard’ with students holding clipboards that detailed their grievances (ranging from being called the n-word to being asked about rap music). Recently this cycle emerged again as BLM regained popularity, but this time with Instagram at the reins. Accounts such as ‘Black at Bard’ detail the struggle of current students to hold higher-ups in the lacrosse team accountable for campus racism. While the college campuses do struggle with covert and overt racism, there seems to be something pernicious in the conflation of perhaps systematically racist police departments killing minorities on the street and students at these institutions decrying performative allyship.  

The function of victimhood 2.0 is to erase the undeniable fact that going to an ivy league (or similar) school means you are likely descended from the upper echelons of society and/or are being inducted into them. Despite the function of elite liberal arts institutions to shield their denizens from precarity through alumni networks and manicured socialization, those at the top realized a new vehicle to offer new acolytes that would mystify and shield their emergent power and social status: victimhood. The entire artifice of microaggressions and microtrauma is based upon the identity-political assumption that people take their membership of contrived ascriptive groups as sacrosanct. Essentialism based on racial, sexual, or gender alterity is no longer solely the domain of racists and bigots. This psychological bulwark has steered media narratives to a place where we have become earnestly concerned with Harvard and Columbia students’ oppression. 

As ‘soft power’ and ‘the strength of weakness’ started to become more prevalent in the domestic sphere of American politics—with the rise of politicians who cry at the border wall yet vote to expand budgets for ICE—the university was quick to offer epistemological devices and frames to legitimize it. Ph.D. students in social sciences, social work/psychology graduate students, and other servants of the mental health industrial complex are materially invested in producing any kind of work that codifies an oppression they can claim. They are encouraged to produce research that could ostensibly provide anyone with a technology of victimhood (first and foremost themselves). Once a subject has the badge of victimhood in our contemporary media /political hellscape, they become infallible. To stay relevant, leaders of the mental health field have instrumentalized it to establish as ‘scientific’ ever-more diffuse and discrete ways a subject can purport to be victimized. Incredibly, trauma—like any good commodity that must circulate—has been established as customizable: vicarious and/or secondary.

Microaggressions are the iron that smooths out the contradictions apparent in class/race dynamics. In a horrifying account, prominent psychiatrist Dr. Montenegro describes being handed keys while waiting for valet parking by a woman who mistook him for the parking attendant. Class dissonance experienced by elites is pre-emptively racialized in a maneuver to cope with the humiliation of being assumed to be poor. What leaked out of the ivory tower has subtly deranged our media to the point where identities can be completely based on conjecture and yet irrevocable and unfalsifiable. Academic psychology departments have become a quiet engine for the woke-poisoning of the world. 

The bespoke demisexuality of the Huffington Post writer, for instance, is legitimized as she suffered microtrauma for years based on the oppression of her opportunism. Although not mentioned by name in her article (because she doesn’t have to even bother with using psychological jargon at this point), she describes feeling ‘broken’ as a result of having to endure years of her friends talking about hot celebrities. The operation of microtraumatic language, in addition to rectifying class dissonance, also serves to obfuscate the line that demarcates oppressed vs. oppressor. ‘Journalists’ on Twitter complain of literal violence from reading Trump tweets. Not posting about BLM is violence. Posting about BLM is violence

Scientific Validity and Funding

Another troubling trend implicated in the paradigmatic shift from oppressor to victim is the level of group-think and media hype that has eclipsed whatever empirical basis here was ever purported to be for psychology. Parasitic media sinecures like the Huffington Post or Vox (even CNN, MSNBC) are not going to profit if they publish ‘news’ skeptical of anything challenging identitarian hegemony. Corporate and government relations often co-opt scientific research; however, in the case of diffuse racialized epistemology, the news sustaining itself is materially contingent on producing narratives of boutique victimology. 

The ‘scientific’ validity of research on microaggressions is (of course) highly partisan. The National Science Foundation has funded hundreds of thousands of dollars of research on microaggressions. Though not apparently liberal or affiliated with the Democratic party (though we may wonder who works there), this ‘independent’ government agency seems to be invested in manufacturing culture war issues and not just regarding microaggressions. Feminist glaciology is a topic of great concern to the NSF. One prominent funded study delves into whether online dating sites are inherently racist. Another interrogates the positive impacts of Facebook’s Farmville on adult real-world friendships. It seems state-funded scientific agencies could be focused more on pressing issues (climate change?), but by laundering their money through amorphous identitarian studies with some semblance of social justice, they can dodge the furor of well-meaning liberals.

On the other hand, more overtly partisan think-tanks such as The Center for Equal Opportunity wield their funding to publish research debunking the science behind microaggressions. One such study determines a large list of ‘problematic’ areas in the research: biased interview questioning, insignificant study sizes, constraints on speech, opinion conformity in small focus groups, and issues in replication.2Nagai, A. (2017). The Pseudo-Science of Microaggressions. Academic Questions, 30(1), 47-57. Rather than becoming trapped in a statistical analytic ouroboros, it is more revealing to look at the underlying effects of the discourse and how/why it has even been produced. 

Back to Dr. Sue 

Multicultural psychology czar and microaggressions magister Derald Sue (author of 30+ books on the topic) grew up in Portland where he reports experiencing marginalization for being Asian American at a young age. He went to Oregon State University for a bachelor’s, then did a master’s and Ph.D. at the University of Oregon.3Leong, F. T. (2008). Encyclopedia of counseling (4 vols). Sage. After, he got a job counseling at the University of Berkeley, where he was “known as the counselor who supported and helped Asian American students”. Dr. Sue spent his life embedded within the university, intending to help students within it. I suppose he can’t really be faulted for being a respite for the mentally ill bourgeois children floating through the University of Berkeley system. 

But Dr. Sue also has a psychological consulting firm (creatively named A Psychological Corp). Sue’s firm provides “extensive cultural diversity training” for many “Fortune 500 companies, institutions of higher education, business, industry, government, public schools, and mental health organizations.”4Psychology Today (2020). Derald Wing Sue Ph.D. Psychology Today. This could point towards deficiencies regarding the rigor and validity of Sue’s research. Perhaps it is so thorough and scientific that it can be easily accessed across such a wide audience without losing its erudition. Or perhaps it is simply an issue of translation: a metalanguage of (and for) those in power that can be taught and subsequently disseminated to establish and maintain a veneer of progressivism while responsibilizing the individual.

But Derald’s passion for helping others wasn’t contained to the university or the promulgation of corporate intersectionality. He served on President Clinton’s Advisory Board on Race. You might think that with such a megaphone pointed at the halls of power, Derald would expound on systematic issues of oppression that affected him and the people he worked with. But instead, he turned the spotlight back around at the ever-so-racist American public, opining: 

To accomplish the cultural mosaic of “One America” means several important things. First, overcoming our biased cultural conditioning means that each and everyone of us must confront ourselves. We must have a willingness to address internal issues related to personal belief systems, behaviors, and emotions when interacting with other racial groups. On an individual level, we must experience and learn about race and racism in order to check out the validity of our assumptions and understanding.

One America (1997). Summary of Presentation to the Race Advisory Board.

In other words: we all need to do the work, do the reading, do the learning. To be fair, he later states we also need better affirmative action. 

Conclusion

During my stint in psychoanalytic training, I remember being subjected to a Ph.D. candidate giving a presentation on her research regarding microaggressions. Her mentor at the Ph.D. was prominent in the field. She shared the example of a grandmother telling her grandchild that he looked like a handsome man dressed up for a formal event in front of her son – constituting a triangulated microaggression against her son for being less masculine than the child. These offenses appear banal and petty when divorced from identity-based implications. The clinical solution is for the therapist to give the patient a new language, equip him with a shield of blame. Those within a client’s own family are translated into vindictive aggressors. This is not limited to the professor and the students; the hegemonic frame trickles down and becomes inculcated into all who would enter into the consulting room of the since-graduated therapist.

Instead of allowing this hypothetical patient to explore whatever feelings this encounter may or may not have engendered, the therapist as a tool of atomization manufactures strife under the guise of knowledge and understanding. The mass spread of this scientistic identitarian language further divides and isolates the people it supposedly enables relatedness and understanding between. Instead of fostering a space for the enunciation of a patient’s authentic experience, this metapsychological glossolalia expands the gap between a patient and others. Language crushes up and glosses over feeling. New words and identity designations are hailed as symbols of progress and social justice, but often they are just opaque psychic decorations that preclude any real inquiry into learning about an individual’s life or experiences. 

1 Desmond-Harris, J. (2015). What exactly is a microaggression? Vox.
2 Nagai, A. (2017). The Pseudo-Science of Microaggressions. Academic Questions, 30(1), 47-57.
3 Leong, F. T. (2008). Encyclopedia of counseling (4 vols). Sage.
4 Psychology Today (2020). Derald Wing Sue Ph.D. Psychology Today.

Tags: identity, microaggressions, psychoanalysis, trauma

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Evan Dunn is a psychotherapist based in LA. Instagram

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