A friend of mine on FB just linked to this terrific article by transgender activist Annika Penelope, 10 Things I Wish I'd Known When I Started My Transition. Go read it. I'll wait.
And one of the items is microagressions. And that linked to something about the book, Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation
Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation is about the damaging consequences of everyday prejudice, bias, and discrimination upon marginalized groups in our society. The experience of racial, gender, and sexual-orientation microaggressions is not new to people of color, women, and LGBTs. It is the constant and continuing everyday reality of slights, insults, invalidations, and indignities visited upon marginalized groups by well-intentioned, moral, and decent family members, friends, neighbors, cow- orkers, students, teachers, clerks, waiters and waitresses, employers, health care professionals, and educators. The power of microaggressions lies in their invisibility to the perpetrator, who is unaware that he or she has engaged in a behavior that threatens and demeans the recipient of such a communication.
While hate crimes and racial, gender, and sexual-orientation harassment continue to be committed by overt racists, sexists, and homophobes, the thesis of this book is that the greatest harm to persons of color, women, and LGBTs does not come from these conscious perpetrators. It is not the White suprema- cists, Ku Klux Klan members, or Skinheads, for example, who pose the greatest threat to people of color, but instead well-intentioned people, who are strongly motivated by egalitarian values, believe in their own morality, and experience themselves as fair-minded and decent people who would never consciously discriminate. Because no one is immune from inheriting the biases of the society, all citizens are exposed to a social conditioning process that imbues within them prejudices, stereotypes, and beliefs that lie outside their level of awareness. On a conscious level they may endorse egalitarian values, but on an unconscious level, they harbor antiminority feelings.
Even more illustrative, I think, is this piece by Asher Bauer, called "A Day In The Life Of An Angry Transsexual", which was linked to in the comments.
So... If you are a white cisgender male or female and someone mentions microagressions they have just observed in a discussion, please note they are NOT (necessarily) accusing other people in the conversation of having bad intentions, nor of doing anything consciously aggressive.
If you find yourself wanting to argue that people's intentions were good and therefore the person who feels stepped on should not react that way, or be so angry-- or whatever, please remember that a) you have no idea exactly how the other person experienced the interchange, or what the impact on them was, because they come from a very different perspective/background/social station, b) telling them that their perspective, and therefore their feelings, are inappropriate because they've misjudged the situation is a form of invalidation -- a microaggression in and of itself, and c) you should pay more attention to impact than intentions. (That link is a really good article everyone should go read. Go ahead. I'll wait again.)
When someone tells you they feel like their toes are being metaphorically stepped on, it may be appropriate to say, "oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to step on your toes" -- but even more appropriate? Back off and stop stepping on them! If you are stepping on someone out of ignorance or unconscious biases, this can be difficult, yes (to put it mildly). And it can be tempting to tell someone, "Unless you tell me exactly where your toes are and explain how I, of the good intentions, could be stepping on them, I don't believe you." But the first step you should really take is to just review what's already been said. Was that person given a full voice? Were they accused of being overly angry? Or of misrepresenting themselves or other people? Was their message or opinion or some other characteristic of them or people like them degraded or dismissed peremptorily?
And even if you don't see all of that in your review, the next best step? Ask them to tell you more. Not to explain about your behavior (or whomever else was bothering them), but to go back to whatever point they wanted to make in the conversation in the first place. Find out what sort of response they were hoping to get. Don't assume an implied or hidden agenda - listen to what they are actually saying, and try hard to take it at face value. If it's upsetting or doesn't fit with your mental model of what happened, take a break and go sit with that for a while.
In fandom a lot of us like to think of ourselves as an egalitarian, welcoming community. But we are none of us free from the social conditioning of everyday life. If we want to be welcoming to a more diverse fandom, and most of the people I talk to do, then we need to work hard to understand there is more than one valid way to perceive or interpret an exchange. And the impacts of things like microaggressions are very real.