Thursday, March 20, 2014

Microaggressions and Brand Damage

From The MicroAggression Tumblr: Not Everyone Is On-board With The Concept
Microaggression: A microaggression is a brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignity, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicates a hostile, derogatory, or negative slight or insult toward people of non-dominant identities.
The concept of the Microaggression is pretty straightforward: when you (the automatically presumed male, well-off, able-bodied, educated, and white reader of this blog) interact with people who are not white, male, etc., any indication you give (generally unconsciously) that they are different or especially lesser than you is a slight--a small bit of damage.

These microaggressions are something they must live with in their daily lives--like a small storm of invisible woodpeckers slowly knocking away at them as they go about their day. For examples, you can see a ton of the at the Microaggression Project. Here are some:
“Well yay for not being a black female.”
One of my closest friends (who is a white male) after I tried to explain how difficult it can sometimes be to care for my hair.” Made me feel mocked that he would trivialize my frustration, even though I knew he was only joking. Also made me feel like being a black female was a bad thing.
“You won’t achieve equality by not knowing how to take a joke.”
“I wish GPS had an “avoid ghetto” setting!”
My friends facebook status, in denver trying to find her way around the city. She’s a fellow lesbian who is in many of my sociology courses. Makes me feel frustrated, angry and hopeless due to the amount of “likes” it had.
At my school, the Introduction to Native Americans class, which covers the history of Native Americans from pre-Contact to present day, does not count towards the United States History general education requirement.
As you can see, the  range of potential microagrressions, the intentionality, and (maybe) the degree of damage can vary a lot. On the other hand, it's not clear that "microaggressions" are even acknowledged to exist by many conservatives. For example from World News Daily:
Congratulations! As a white non-liberal, you are the target of a widespread public relations campaign to identify you as a racist no matter what you think or do. ...  It’s purpose is nothing more or less than to define who you are, without your participation and without regard to reality. It is a weapon wielded by liberals. ...  The newest tool in this campaign of hate is the “microaggression.”
Buzzfeed claims you hear multiple microaggressions on a daily basis. Just ask the throngs of hypersensitive liberals who go about their days looking for things to misinterpret and be offended by ...
On Cain TV they decide it's basically just slander:
For example, if you're white and you wear a sombrero to a Cinco De Mayo party, that's a "microaggression" displaying your inherent racism toward Mexicans. If you are eating American-ized Mexican food (think Taco Bell) at that party, you've committed another one. Frankly, if you're white and you're at a Cinco De Mayo party, that's probably one too.
Essentially, anything you do or say that can be twisted into a low-level display of your supposedly ingrained racism is a "microaggression."
Ann Althouse turns it around deciding that:
I'm starting to feel like pointing out a microaggression is a microaggression.
 And so on.

Does This Matter?
On one hand, it's common conservative behavior to tell people to "rub some dirt on it" or "walk it off" when offended (of course hypocrisy abounds--but this should surprise no one). It's also not surprising that conservatives, dogged by accusations of racism they find spurious and calculated would find the concept of microaggressions themselves questionable. Exactly what is the calculus in saying you don't want to drive through the rough part of town? What is inferred vs. implied by American History and how college courses arrange their classes?

Yes, Turns Out: It Matters
It turns out that (maybe) whether you think this is nonsense or not, it very well might seem to matter. Why? Because a new study probes one of the great electoral mysteries of 2012: How come Asians vote strongly Democrat?

They don't fit the Maker-Taker framework that some conservatives put minority voting behavior into. They are high income which strongly correlates with Republican voting. They have pretty "traditional" views on gender and discipline. They run small businesses at a comparatively high rate. In short, they are perfect small-government, traditional values, economic voters.

Why don't they go for the Republicans?

It turns out (maybe?): Microaggressions.

The study notes that 40% Asians often report experiencing some kind of significant negative racial discrimination--and that reporting was positively correlated with Democratic party identification. In the study Asians were given a set of questions to fill out--but for the tested group, they were first given a "microaggression" by the tester. There was a question such as "Where were you born"--or the tester said "You speak good English."
Among those who did not receive this message, 76 percent of respondents identified as Democrats while 24 percent identified as Republicans. However, when prompted with the racial microaggression, 87 percent identified as Democrats and 13 percent identified as Republicans.
Another part of the test showed Democratic movement when Asians were asked questions about immigration phrased so as to cast Hispanics and Asians together rather than against each other.

The numbers were significant in both cases (and the microaggression was one of the more mild forms).

The Importance of Branding
Anyone who reads this blog will know what The Omnivore thinks: it doesn't matter whether or not microaggressions are real, actually racist, or whatever. What matters is this: Asians (and, uhm, a lot of other people) have decided that the Democrats own the multi-cultural battle-space. This is, at this point, a lock: it isn't going to be easy to win back.

When anything impacts a potential voter on these issues the response is clear: if you are on the 'receiving end' you go Democrat. In the Asian community, if the study is correct, this has been established. So how do you change it? How do you fix your brand?

The Slow Way
The slow way to fix a brand is to start making, well, micro-changes. You start promoting things that are helpful--but are small enough leaps that they don't strain credibility. In the case of the Republican branding this would be ads that show Asian American people benefiting from Republican policies (or being hurt by Republican polices)--but not in ways that were either (a) specifically targeted at Asians or (b) made it look like the Republicans were full of Asians.

No one would believe the Republican party is full of Asians right now--so don't even try it. Also, you can't just make it look like pandering / outreach--it has to look organic.

This is ... slow. And you can't easily fake it.

The Fast Way
If the slow way doesn't appeal you can try the Fast Way. In this case you "clean house." You make a big and hopefully-seen-as-meaningful gesture. You fire your CEO. You change your menu. You acknowledge your mistakes and move forward. Putting Michael Steele in charge of the RNC was a move like this (see how that turned out).

The Problem: Letting The Dust Settle
The one thing you can't do to repair your brand is keep damaging it. You have to clean your act up and keep it clean while you are rehabilitating your public image. The GOP has a problem with this. So do the Democrats--but the Democrats haven't suffered the Brand Damage. The problem with the GOP is two-fold:
  1. There is, actually, a real problem. Look, whether or not "microaggressions" are a thing, sneering at them looks insensitive--something that's a brand problem for the GOP (the Democrats own the 'sensitive' space). You cannot sneer at microaggressions and rebuild your brand around them at the same time (and, I'll note, the problem isn't microaggressions per se it's the perception that the GOP isn't concerned with off-hand offensive remarks).
  2. The media isn't gonna help you. There are media outlets like The Daily Show out there that are sophisticated, reach viewers you'd like to reach, and are out for blood. The mainstream media is also, well, let's just say that if you give them an inch they'll put that inch up there on the evening news. In order to be seen as half as inclusive, you'll have to work twice as hard (gee, that sounds kinda familiar).
This is summed up in the "GOP Lawmaker Principle"--the principle that as Democrats get hammered worse and worse the stories about obscure state Republican lawmakers will increase:
[As] a rule, if you see the phrase "GOP lawmaker" in a headline, your click will usher you into a world of back-benchers from Bismarck and Jackson and Dover and Sacramento, not the people currently threatening to take the Senate back from Democrats.
The article is about the Huffington Post which is no one's idea of a non-partisan newspaper--but it's just a matter of degree: in order for the GOP as an organization to stop saying things that can cause them brand damage they are going to have to be VERY vigilant and somewhat lucky. This will have to go on for ... a while.

Looking at this, it is easy to see why the idea of re-branding didn't appeal to anyone. It's not even clear if there are levers of control to cause such a change--but until this is done--or the Democrats suffer their own brand injuries, they'll own that space--and and own minority voters--and it isn't (necessarily) even unfair.


  1. Very articulate and insightful for a bald guy.

    1. Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!

      -The Omnivore

  2. And yet the branding books may come to a rough balance all the same: while the neocons have their Frank Luntz, the progressives have George Lakoff, who's a couple of decades older, if that matters.

    People are more easily bamboozled by language than they'd like to believe; one thing Drs. Luntz and Lakoff would agree on is the critical importance of framing (or reframing) the debate.

    -- Ω

    1. Luntz allegedly wants to be on The Newsroom. I'd LOVE to see him help write for it! While, yes, people are bamboozled by language, it's also true that sometimes we communicate more clearly than we "mean to."

      Microaggressions may not meet some people's threshold for "legitimate offense" but telling those for whom they do that the offender should get their vote anyway is a losing battle.

      -The Omnivore

    2. Got that right. Look what happened two years ago when Mitt Romney got caught on video telling his insufficiently-well-handpicked Boca Raton (natch!) audience of hedge-fund greedbags that 47% of Americans were basically non-taxpaying welfare parasites who would vote for Obama "no matter what".

      And the message a plurality of Americans received was something like this: "Okay, sure, I'm a heartless private-equity douchebag who's never done an honest day's work in his life and has no contact with or interest in anyone whose income isn't in the top 0.1% - but vote for me anyway because - wait for it! - the other guy is black! Booga booga booga!"

      The Republicans don't usually underestimate the electorate that badly, but that particular miscalculation was epic. Too bad the alternative turned out to be pretty much the same.

      -- Ω

  3. I dunno, Omnivore. I don't see the GOP as a party of "looking out for the little guy" (or even the middle guy for that matter). Everything about the mainstream GOP says "power to the powerful." Not that the same can't be said to a far too significant degree about the DNC. But the DEMs do seem to have a (last half-century) lead of politicians who have demonstrated willingness to balance against the natural hegemony of wealth and power. Don't see that too often from GOP leaders, in spite of the rhetoric.

    Of course there is the so called Tea Party, which is perhaps much more "middle-class America" minded. But it's a group that has long since lost firm grip on its original libertarian roots; driven too much by religious bigotry, social dictatorship, and us vs them demonization of different viewpoints(i.e. no-compromise).

    I don't see the surprise in minorities (of color, religion, ethnic group, sexual orientation, etc) falling into the Democrat camp. I guess this article says you don't either, really. Ironically, it isn't really ethnic, religious, gender, orientation bigotry at the heart of the GOP's problem. It's an economic battle - something "The Economist" magazine refers to as 'rent taking'. I've not heard the term before but trying to understand it. Rather than making the pie bigger, keeping wealthy by taking a bigger slice of the pie, even if that involves unfair economic practices. This economic drive results in unintended or even intended bigotries seen from outside the party.

  4. Very interesting analysis. I don't think it will work, though: Millions of people are formally associated with the GOP, you simply cannot control it. The media hunts GOP in a way they don't Biden (on 7/11's) or Reid (on Obama's accent). Pulling a "long march" thru the media to even things up will obviously take awhile.

    I do agree with Dave, though, that GOP needs to jettison big business in favor of icons like 1-room schoolhouse or volunteering in one's community. Swearing off the money will be hard, but then the internet's all about cheap distribution, and the gains in image may offset the lower ad-spend.

    1. The Long-March (through the media swamp) would be VERY hard and for an entity like a national party, message discipline is almost impossible. On the other hand, the *reason* message discipline is almost impossible is because there's a pretty big gap between "We -are- a party of minorities" and "Hey, look: Minorities don't vote for us because [ unsavory reasons ]."

      The media does its part--but there's a real structural issue that exists too: the GOP has, to a degree, written off lower-economic bracket minorities and it shows. The problem is that upper-economic bracket minorities don't like this either.

      I think blaming the media is the thing-you-do-so-you-don't-have-to-take-responsibility-for-your-situation: It isn't the reason why you just give up. On the other hand, as pointed out, there are other options. Winning minorities isn't *required* to win a national election--you just can't always lose them catastrophically.

      This position is much easier and, I'd argue, is what the GOP is trying to do--at least some of the time.

      The problem with big business is that (a) it plays both sides. If you jettison it, the Democratic party will still be happy to Third-Way them and (b) it's not clear what getting out of big business looks like from a policy perspective? Bring back Glass Steagall? Break up a big bank or two? Shut down the Keystone XL Pipeline?

      Dump major defense contractors?

      The GOP doesn't have to be ideologically big business, sure--but what policy positions can they take that aren't "friendly" to big business (maybe ... uh ... cap-and-trade?).

      -The Omnivore

    2. Looking at your blog (very interesting) you might be interested in this post: Why the Right Doesn't Have a Viral Media Engine:

      -The Omnivore

    3. Good points all, Omni, and really enjoyed the viral media article. By the way, I wish you had an email list to know when you've got new content up (supposedly how the cool kids build online brands and all that). I've got a post on viral marketing in the queue, pretty economicsy but should be fun.

  5. Like The Omnivore on Facebook or follow us on Twitter and you'll get updates when new material comes out!

    -The Omnivore