JAZ MORRISON | dec 2017
The Office is a relatively self-explanatory comedy, filmed in mockumentary style. Adapted from the British series with the same name, it focuses on the everyday lives of staff at a fictional paper company, notably branch manager Michael Scott, a man only skilled in his salesmanship (Kocela, 2009:164). His inappropriateness, poor timing, and tendency to lean on humour with prejudiced and crude undertones highlight a central principle of Critical Race Theory: that racism does not necessarily operate in explicit forms. Due to it being so entrenched in Western society, racism can be so subtle and nuanced, that such behaviour can even be considered “normal” (Rollock & Gilborn, 2011). Michael Scott is somewhat caricatured in his racial insensitivity and lack of awareness, but in spite of this, his behaviour is something that can still be recognised in the workplace, particularly by people of colour (Wheeler, 2016:321).
Marable has defined racism as ‘a system of ignorance, exploitation and power used to oppress…on the basis of ethnicity, culture, mannerisms, and colour’ (1992:5). Using this definition, racism is presented as more than, for example, the Jim Crow Laws, or the Nazi Regime. Rather than a singular person or event, it works as a system, and because it is so deeply woven into American society, it permeates all aspects of American life. It even lurks beneath exchanges and interactions that seem relatively harmless. This is likely why the majority of white people would not view themselves as racist, but many people of colour believe the opposite (Sue et al, 2007:277). It is also likely why it has been said that almost all of interracial encounters are prone to microaggressions (271). Microaggressions are incredibly common and can have ‘insidious’ effects on its victims (Solorzano et al, 2000:61), yet is a grossly under researched social problem (60). Thus this topic is of scholarly interest.
Critical Race Theory (CRT) is the theoretical foundation of my essay. Emerging during the Civil Rights Movement, CRT is seen as a major part of social theory, which tends to focus on those who deviate from the norm. Zuberi defines the norm as white, heterosexual, male and bourgeois (2011:1576). CRT’s five central principles state that, 1) racism is normal in American society and looks ordinary to those within the culture. As a result, microaggressions are relatively ignored in comparison to more overt displays of racism. This is also why CRT has traditionally critiqued ‘Western rationality’ (Zuberi, 2011:1583). 2), Racism within society is upheld by white supremacy through conscious and unconscious ideas of superiority and entitlement. Usually white privilege is taken for granted until it is challenged (Sue et al, 2007:271), which is why white people often fail to address the racism in their community. 3), This highlights the importance of the voices of people of colour and their insights (Rollock & Gilborn, 2011). Highly Eurocentric recounts of history have excluded the voice of the racial minority to ‘justify and legitimise [white] power (Abrams & Moio, 2009: 251). Solorzano et al stress the importance of this, as understanding microaggressions in relation to CRT empower victims of racism to ‘find their voice’ (2000:64). 4), Derrick Bell stated that racial equality will only become a unified stance ‘when it converges with the interests of whites’ (1980: 523). This is called Interest Convergence. This implies active behaviour from the white community, as concepts of “neutrality” and racial “colour blindness” have often served to perpetuate white supremacy by reducing the liberal white community to spectators, rather than a demographic that can aid in change (Abrams & Moio, 2009:250). The final principle focuses on intersectionality, stating that while CRT focuses on racial inequality, other forms of injustices cannot be ignored as nobody has a unitary identity (Rollock & Gilborn, 2011). This is likely because CRT was borne out of studies concerning the politics of race, sexuality and gender, and is also why some of these studies are considered ‘splinterings of CRT’ (Zuberi, 2011:1585-6; Carbado, 2011:1621). Critical Race Theory continues to remain relevant, and has become an umbrella for studies into race inequality in the West (Rollock & Gilborn, 2011).
‘Critical race theory names racist injuries and identifies their origins’ (Solorzano et al, 2000:64). Thus it is the foundation upon which racial microaggressions sit. We can use them to engage in an analysis that centres the experiences of people of colour in the acknowledgement and understanding of everyday racism (Huber & Solorzano, 2014:5). Microaggressions are a more covert, indirect, and ambiguous form of racism, which is why challenges are presented in even acknowledging its existence at times (Holder et al, 2015:165). Whether there was an intent to offend or not is irrelevant, especially with the context of CRT (Wheeler, 2016:321) mentioned above. The term was coined by Harvard University professor Chester Pierce in 1970, who saw them as ‘subtle, stunning, often automatic, and non-verbal exchanges’ (1978:66; Huber & Solorzano, 2014:2-3). Solorzano et al acknowledges four characteristics stemming from Marable’s definition of racism stated earlier: that one group believes itself to be superior; that this group has the power to carry out racially prejudiced behaviour; that racism affects multiple ethnic groups; and that racism is an institutional power – one that non-whites have seldom, if ever possessed in the United States (2000:61). This helps explain why many people of colour (POCs) have experienced racial microaggressions in the workplace. According to Sue et al (2003), averse racism is at the bottom, or weaker end of the spectrum of racism. The fact that these microaggressions create psychological dilemmas for POCs is a testament to this (272; Holder et al, 2015:165).
These microaggressions can be measured in three distinct forms: microassault, microinsult, and microinvalidation. Wheeler defines microassaults as the most overt form of microaggression, making it fairly easy to identify. He draws from his own experience, using instances of being called a ‘nigger’ at law school in a liberal neighbourhood, and how that gave him ‘overwhelming fear and helplessness’ (2016:323-4). Microinsults tend to be subtle in nature, and even unintentional, but are nonetheless demeaning. Holder et al bring the idea of negative stereotypes to the table. Focusing on black women, they cite the ‘mammy’ trope, and her self-sacrificing, strong and supportive traits; and the ‘crazy [sassy, angry black] woman’ with aggressive, hostile traits and an attitude among others (165). Stereotypes like these can often influence interracial communication through body language, tone of voice, and even the level attention being paid to an individual (Sue et al, 2007:274). And finally, microinvalidation, is characterised by behaviours that essentially nullify the experiences of POCs. This is often the result of the perpetrator failing to see that they have engaged in a microinsult in the first place (275). Wheeler describes it as the feeling of being singled out; where one must either swallow their pride, or be honest and truthful (2016:325). The belittling messages these microaggressions carry have dire effects, such as ‘Racial Battle Fatigue’ which is the result of subtle but incessant racial ‘blows’ (Huber, Solorzano, 2014:3,15). Symptoms include anxiety, paranoia, depression, worthlessness, and intrusive cognitions. This is just a sample of how racial microaggressions can affect mental health (Holder et al, 2015:165-6), despite it being perceived as causing ‘minimal harm’, in which victims are told to ‘let it go’ (Sue et al, 2007:278). The coping mechanisms put in place by the victims (religion and spirituality, armouring, shifting, self-care, support groups, and mentorship) are somewhat inadequate, particularly because the effects of microaggressions are so recognisable within communities of colour (Holder et al, 2015:164). Using CRT as a theoretical framework on which to justify my findings, I have incorporated ideas and studies of racism to articulate how racial microaggressions are presented in The Office.
Research has shown that often times POCs avoid addressing microaggressions in the workplace for fear of fulfilling stereotypes used against them, or appearing overly sensitive (Sue et al, 2007:278-9,). As these behaviours can be communicated both verbally and non-verbally, it makes sense to study them through Interaction Analysis. This methodology stands on the assumption that observation is the foundation for analytic knowledge of the world (Jordan & Henderson, 1995:41). Here, we can focus on linguistic features such as slang and sentence structure, non-verbal features like eye contact, tone of voice, touch, and ideas of powerful and powerless speech. Being The Office is set in a workplace, with the perpetrator of racial microaggressions being primarily the regional manager, interpretive aspects of language is important to include. The subject matter that led to the microaggression, as well as intent is worth noting also. As most interaction analysts go beyond description and interpretation, and relate actions to other variables, alongside sociodemographic characteristics, it is also worth looking into the effects of the idea of one’s self-esteem and self-monitoring, especially in the case of Michael Scott. Jordan and Henderson (1995) stress that Interaction Analysis revolves around the achievement of the social order – and ordering – in everyday settings (46), and being racism is considered a “normal” part of society (Huber & Solorzano, 2014:7), prejudiced behaviours are likely to lurk beneath the surface of overtness. Additionally, racial hierarchies will be in place, with white people generally at the top (Zuberi, 2011:1576; Sue et al, 2007:277; Abrams & Moio, 2009: 251). Previous research using this methodology has incorporated the use of videos and transcriptions, and even artefacts and documents (Jordan & Henderson, 1995:47, 75), but because Interaction Analysis is such a recent addition to the textual analysis family, it does not have much consistency in terminology or accepted practices (79). However, its focus on social interaction in relation to race, self-esteem, and self-monitoring makes it an appropriate form of textual analysis for my study. I have explored a single episode of The Office that portrays enough racial microaggressions to be analysed. ‘Diversity Day’, the second episode of the first series, has been described as “ballsy”, “special” and “racist” by its producers, cast and fanbase (Burns & Schildhause, 2015). In terms of the spectrum of microaggressions, I will first focus on more overt displays, particularly from Michael Scott and suggest origins of his behaviour. Then I will move onto the more covert and displays of microaggressions hidden in the environment and complicity of Scott’s employees.
Sue et al (2007) note that microassaults tend to be displayed when the perpetrator feels like they are losing control (274). This is essentially the case for Dunder Mifflin Regional Manager Michael Scott, who has a guest sent from corporate to speak to the staff about diversity. Michael’s conduct instantly starts to border on questionable, as the episode practically begins with him timing the moment he emerges from his office to directly coincide with his guest, Mr Brown. Rather than greeting him, he approaches Oscar, one of the few POCs in the workplace and the only Latino employee, and begins to shower him with questions. Oscar’s timid answers aren’t even being regarded, and thus Michael’s behaviour appears to be very much an act (03:10). Strandell names this a “self-performance”, which is exacted in the immediate moment with the aim of producing a desired identity (:20). Michael’s loud and domineering bombardment on Oscar suggests that Michael desire was to present himself as someone in control of his employees, yet racially accommodating. But all this does is show the beginning of his unravelling due to the feeling of a loss of control. This is further demonstrated during the workshop, when Michael insists to stand beside Mr Brown, instead of sit with the rest of his staff. The use of levels and space is important here, as Michael wants to remain above his employees, and face them because of his position within Dunder Mifflin. His constant blurting has almost no substance, and undermines Mr Brown (‘Why don’t we go around and everybody – everybody – say a race that you are attracted to sexually. I will go last.’), emphasising that his desire is just to be heard (04:38). Strandell goes on to state that self-performances tend to be strongly influenced by social exclusion (2016:20). Michael displaying these symptoms is a testament to the idea that white people need to control everything, and are unwilling to share their position (Sue et al, 2007:277). Having control and not wanting to share power is a result of white privilege, something that White people often take for granted (271), until it is challenged. In the instance that is it challenged, even in the most minute of forms, there is a retaliation, as shown by Michael. Mr Brown seems to acknowledge this, stopping to ask for permission to run the session, and for Scott to sit down (04:58). When salesman Dwight Schrute raises his hand to interrupt Brown, Michael quells him. This is not a display of respect to Mr Brown, but rather an attempt to exercise his power as a Regional Manager, as well as to judge another person’s performance to nurse his own self-esteem (Strandell, 2016:20). Even upon finding out that the ‘Diversity Day’ workshop is largely a ruse created to address Scott on his own racial insensitivity, he refuses to back down, choosing to repeat his mimicry of Chris Rock (07:13). Regardless of being told to stop, he chooses to finish the sentence, still in accent: ‘what you want? Cookie?’ Michael’s behaviour is a microassualt in that it seems similar to the blackface performances popular during the 19th Century in the way he caricatures Rock’s voice, opts for a racially offensive subject matter, and sees no issue with it (Sue et al, 2007:274). This reaches a climax, when Scott ambushes his only Asian employee, Kelly, with a bad Indian accent and an onslaught of ‘try my gookie-gookie!’ (18:18) in which Kelly slaps him in the face, effectively ending the harassment. Here, we witness a fear that quickly ‘developed into anger’ (Wheeler, 2016:324).
Alongside microassaults are the less obvious microinsults and microinvalidations. While Michael Scott does not fail to demonstrate these: ‘Buena vista, Oscar’ (20:29), this is also present elsewhere in the working environment. When the staff gather in the conference room for the workshop, it is evident that the branch is a predominantly white one – an environmental manifestation of racial microaggressions (Holder et al, 2015:168). Including Mr Brown, the designated ‘support function’, there are only four POCs present. This is clearly acknowledged by the staff when Kelly asks to leave and Michael says ‘we’ll only have two left’ (13:36). But microaggressions are also perpetrated by other staff members. The human resources delegate, Toby makes a joke about sitting in a circle ‘all Indian style’ to which much of the staff laugh (11:57). Shortly after, almost the entire workforce engage in Michael’s diversity exercise – the fact that not all of them do this implies that the activity was optional (15:25). Pam Beesly, the receptionist, makes a note of stressing that she does not believe in a particular stereotype about Asian people before using it to engage in the activity (16:52). Regardless of her claims, she is still a part of the problem. To reiterate Wheeler’s (2016) words, ‘creating and sustaining a culture that either tolerates or condemns these kinds of [microaggressions] is everyone’s responsibility’ (324). Alongside Pam, Dwight and Kevin Malone, an accountant, indulge in Jewish and Jamaican racial stereotypes for the sake of the activity (16:45; 17:58). Taking part is a form of tolerance in regards to subtle racism. Microinvalidations can be even more covert, often being portrayed as liberal and open-minded behaviour. Terms like ‘melting pot’ (17:00), ‘colour-free zone’, and ‘I don’t see you as another race’ (04:05) seem inclusive on the surface but effectively negate the racial and cultural experiences of POCs (Sue et al, 2007:274). In fact, the idea of ‘colour blindness’ is a prominent theme regarding microaggressions (275). Scott proceeds to invalidate the experiences of POCs by telling Mr Brown that ‘I knew this stuff already…I helped you teach something’, when the reason for the diversity workshop, and his behaviour throughout the day failed to support this (Griffin, 2008:159). And despite no lesson being learned at all (09:20), Michael suffered no consequences for his actions, echoing the sentiments Wheeler felt at being called a racial slur: ‘[they] had every reason to believe that they would not face consequences if they were caught or if I told someone’ (2016:324). This is incredibly tragic when put into context. Scott’s staff filed a complaint to corporate (06:05), and complained once again to Mr Brown (05:48), yet absolutely nothing changed. In terms of interaction analysis, Scott holds ‘powerful’ speech, as his words have negative psychological effects on his employees, yet he was not held accountable by corporate when his workforce used their [powerless] voices and reported him. This is a huge microinvalidation, as the staff, particularly those of colour had their concerns overlooked, under-respected, and devalued (Sue et al, 2007:273).
CRT defines racism as “normal” due to being deeply ingrained in Western society. As a result, it can take more subtle forms, such as that of microaggressions, which cause lasting damage despite seeming insignificant. As a result, it is imperative for more research to be done regarding employers and racial sensitivity training (Wheeler, 2016:328). It is also worth looking into the presence of microaggressions between people of colour, as it is not limited to white-POC interactions (Sue et al, 2007: 284). Microaggressions can be split into three categories: microassaults, overt racially prejudiced communication; microinsults, demeaning, subtle snubs with a hidden message; and microinvalidations, communications that nullify the experiences of POCs (Wheeler, 2016:324-5). However, these are not the most adequate forms of measurement. As Sue et al stress at the summation of their work, specific tools need to be developed for assessment of microaggressions (2007:284) in order for its effects to be accurately studied and to prevent its repercussions from being downplayed (273, 283). But using the terms already presented provide a basis on which to move forward. The Office indulges in satire, and is designed to reflect behaviours displayed in a real workplace (Kocela, 2009:164). Having microaggressions presented on the show creates awareness (329), which allows for further examination (Detweiler, 2012:742). This helps victims of racism find their voice, and realise that they are not alone, validating their experiences (Solorzano et al, 2000:64).
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