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from politics to country music: a lesson in micro-aggressions

The reaction to President Barack Obama’s apology to Attorney General Kamala Harris has been interesting for exactly one reason: the eye-rolling on both sides. Whether one thought the apology was warranted or that it was mere pandering to reactionary feminists, the general impression surrounding the misstep was, ‘this again?’

At a fundraiser in California, Obama referred to Harris as ‘the best-looking attorney general’ in the country, after praising her brilliance, integrity and talent.

‘She is exactly what you’d want in anybody who is administering the law and making sure that everybody is getting a fair shake,’ he said.

He was sharply criticised by the media and privately apologised to Harris the next day, according to his press secretary. Liberals welcomed the gesture and believed the comment on Harris’s appearance was inappropriate, especially given her position in a traditionally male-dominated profession. Conservatives meanwhile jumped to Obama defense – not because they feel protective of him, but because the entire situation seemed like the usual hypersensitivity of the politically correct.

‘We are told his remarks to Harris revive talk about the “old boys club.” Really, among whom? Outside thin-skinned columnists and incessantly nasty twerps, who cares?’ writes Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post.

Those on the right brought up a good point, although likely not the one intended. The President probably shouldn’t be considered sexist based on this one comment. But, as many on the left pointed out, it was hardly an innocuous one.

Obama, though a vocal supporter of women’s rights, is still a man with all of the privilege that entails, including the privilege of not having one’s professional competency qualified by their level of attractiveness. He and Harris may be good friends and she may not have minded the compliment, but women in politics have the special burden of being publicly graded on their looks.

Hilary Clinton could never seem to get away from her critics who took issue with her pantsuits and light make-up, despite being a strong opponent for the presidential candidacy in 2008 and a respected Secretary of State thereafter. Now Canadian politician Kathleen Wynne, the first female premiere of Ontario, is fielding questions about her attire, as well.

Conversely, Sarah Palin was the target of lewd comments and jokes because she was a conventionally attractive woman in a skirt and red lipstick. Her appearance made it easier to discredit her as a politician, when her weak grasp of the issues (and geography) should’ve been enough.

So, really: this again?

It was interesting to watch as Twitter and comment boards exploded with people who thought the remark wasn’t a big deal, and that feminism, once again, was making it difficult for men to interact with women. Even though very few people seemed genuinely angry with Obama (disappointed, maybe), the left was made out to seem like a militant group of thought-police.

It was the same situation a few weeks earlier when Keith Ashfield, a conservative cabinet minister in Canada sampled a young girl’s homemade cookies.

‘You’re going to make a wonderful wife for somebody,’ he told her.

Ashfield did not apologise, but many couldn’t seem to understand why some women found this inappropriate or offensive.

The thing about micro-aggressions – off-hand comments like these that can’t stir your rage but sting nonetheless – is that they are near impossible to detect if you are immune to the implications. Once you start to unpack what is a well-meaning compliment, it’s very obviously gendered in its assumption that a) all little girls want to get married; b) baking is the wife’s job; and c) a wife who can bake is a good partner. I suspect – and I could be wrong – that there’s an assumption of heterosexuality as well.

Had a little boy baked these cookies, the compliment might’ve been much different. He might’ve been regarded with surprise (because men don’t bake) and told he should parlay this unusual skill into a culinary empire (because men work).

It’s encouraging seeing these gaffes in print and stirring discussion. Less so, witnessing the defensiveness on both sides. While no one should hurl the “sexist” label at anyone so casually – and certainly not based on one incident– dismissing the remarks as mere compliments does a disservice to people on the receiving end of veiled oppression.

Micro-aggressions are minefields in this way because they are tricky to explain and anyone can be guilty of them. Even allies are accidental sexists, homophobes and, as country singer Brad Paisley attempted to explain, racists.

The Grammy winner wrote the song ‘Accidental Racists’ in an attempt, he says, to create a dialogue. In the collaboration with LL Cool J, Paisley sings: ‘I’m just a white man comin’ to you from the southland, tryin’ to understand what it’s like not to be…’

Despite its intent, it really is an unremarkable piece of music and one giant micro-aggression, explains The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates. Paisley may not be racist, but his song will appeal to racists of the ‘calm-down-I’m-just-joking’ variety who feel muzzled by others’ offense.

Likewise, Obama and Ashfield meant well, but it’s important that loaded comments are reasonably addressed. Given enough context and slack, micro-aggressions help fuel the kind of bigotry that’s a lot harder to ignore.

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