What Do Microaggressions Have to Do With Self-Defense?

Any advocate of self-defense training could tell you that the skills they learn in self-defense are useful in daily life for taking oneself seriously, being aware of one’s surroundings, and setting boundaries in situations that are more common than assaults.

With all the recent talk on “microaggressions” it might be tempting to think that self-defense training would make you into that person who turns every little microaggression into a federal case.  Not so.  For complaints about microaggressions are typically complaints to a third party.  On a college campus, for instance, that third party could be a dean, a Title IX coordinator, or an Equity Office director.

Prof. Bradley Campbell, a Cal State-Los Angeles sociologist interviewed on public radio’s “Here and Now” show discusses his study of microaggression complaints and the moral status afforded to victims in today’s society:

“These microaggression complaints – what characterizes them is that they are appeals to third parties. They’re not something like vengeance where people just take direct action against the offender. Secondly, they’re complaints about minor things, which is what the ‘micro’ in microaggression means. And then also that these – the complaints – are about specific kinds of things. It’s not just any minor offense, it’s things that are said to further oppression, and mainly the oppression of minority groups. So we thought about like when do these things occur? So some of the social conditions we mentioned were things like, you know, the presence of authority and also the demise of communal groups. But one of the main things is actually the increase in diversity and equality. So it’s in settings where there’s already a lot of equality and diversity that you get these kinds of complaints.”

Complaints about microaggressions are actually more common where equality and diversity thrive.  A college campus is a perfect example.

We are not suggesting that sexual assault is a microaggression; let’s make explicit that we’d put that in a MACRO aggression category. But we are suggesting that Campbell’s insights about not handling microaggressions oneself, but instead relying on third parties to handle, offers some insight into the continued resistance to advocating that women defend themselves.  If we must rely on third parties to handle even microaggressions, then why would anyone consider training women to be prepared to handle larger ones?  Given that the victims of microaggressions are reporting the incidences to third parties, it is hardly surprising that campus rape prevention strategies typically emphasize reporting the incident and asking third parties–bystanders–to intervene.

Self-defense training prepares one to manage major and minor aggressions, both verbal and physical, and in a way that does not require third-party intervention.  It allows for agency while simultaneously acknowledging the experience, and impact, of violence and oppression, without necessarily requiring a culture of victimhood that positions women’s vulnerability as a moral high ground, and denies women their right to self-defense.




4 responses

  1. It is an interesting framing of a common problem faced by many parents today. I have recently been contacted by a number of them complaining about their children’s inability to deal with student relationship issues in the middle school environment. They believe that the teachers and administrators are advocating reporting these “micro-aggression” incidents with no intent or means of addressing them. Third party involvement is clearly ineffective on many levels, and perhaps quite harmful. Out of frustration parents are reaching out for self defense training for their children as a way to mitigate the problem. Incidentally, of the three calls I have recently received two were for girls and one a boy.

    Self defense training presented in a limited fashion over a few hours would likely not accomplish much. There are many ways to develop the ability to deal with aggression, participating in team sports or long term martial arts training are examples. At least one study advocates that girls who have played sports and especially contact sports are more likely to avoid rape. It might be that you have touched on a much deeper issue that transcends gender, or at least will.

    1. Martha McCaughey | Reply

      Yes indeed- a much bigger issue. Some schools are now calling even self-defensive efforts “bullying” or “aggression” through their “zero tolerance” lens. That can be frustrating, too, because kids don’t learn to distinguish oppressive/unethical acts of (micro)aggression from legitimate self-defensive uses of (micro)aggression.

  2. Very thoughtful connection. My greatest hesitation to act on my own behalf in response to something like a micro aggression is the threat of escalation. And daaamn if I haven’t been taught a thousand times what that escalation can be like. However, my experience in self-defense gives me a voice in responding to microaggressions and the confidence that I could handle any escalation.


  3. Martha McCaughey | Reply

    Self-defense is so important for giving a person the confidence to set boundaries even in the “micro” situations.

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