Two American bloggers have been awarded a Nobel Prize in social science for their work leading to the discovery of nanoaggressions — tiny acts of discrimination 1000 times smaller than microaggressions and invisible to the naked eye.
The recipients, Wisconsin-based bloggers Tess T. Lehdi and Mandy Hader, first proposed the theory of nanoaggressions in 2012 after Lehdi read an article on Salon.com about the horrific microaggressions leveled at a Ukrainian supermodel-turned-scholar who spent a month on an all-male Russian fishing boat as part of a research project on sexism.
“I got super obsessed with the idea that gender-based discrimination was something tangible, physically measurable,” Lehdi said. “I realized that every time I went somewhere where men outnumbered women, I got bombarded by these waves of barely perceptible assumptions, and they were literally oppressing me. I started wearing dark glasses and a lead-lined knit cap, just to stop those awful waves from scrambling my psyche.”
“My then-boyfriend said I was just being paranoid,” she added. “A good example of a microaggression in itself.”
Lehdi recruited her longtime friend Hader to conduct an informal study on the matter. They spent a year meticulously chronicling daily microaggressions — from the man in Hader’s apartment building who always held open the door (implying she is weak, stupid or both), to the guy at the bar who offered to buy Lehdi a drink (implying that she’s poor, an alcoholic or both), to the boy down the street who referred to Hader as “sir” — a mistake that is not wholly baseless, Hader admits.
Still, there had to be something underlying the microaggressions. Lehdi says that at times, she would walk into a gender-neutral place like a college football locker room, and she could just feel the men noticing her, evaluating her, even if they appeared to be engaged in conversation about jock straps or busy peeing in a urinal. One evening, after returning from a Milwaukee strip club called Exquisite Palace near a truck stop on I-94 (“they make great sushi,” Lehdi insists) where she does most of her blogging, she had a eureka moment.
“These waves must be composed of something more elementary, I thought,” Lehdi said. “Then it hit me: men were emitting subatomic quanta of pure judgement.”
In a November 2013 blog post, Lehdi and Hader named this phenomenon nanoaggressivity and theorized that bursts of bias zipping through men’s neural networks at lightening speeds might be causing them to emit ghostlike, sexist particles that actual demean women, even as men themselves are unaware of them.
The post got the attention of Cambridge researcher Patricia May-Smythe who, in the late 1970s, was among the first to document the existence of microaggression after her male dissertation advisor remarked that her lab coat looked nice on her. Working in secret — as her male colleagues would have certainly stolen her data and passed off the concept as their own — May-Smythe flew Lehdi and Hader across the Atlantic Ocean to help her construct the world’s first handheld mass spectrometer capable of detecting even the minutest quantities of male chauvinism. With the device in hand and dressed in a variety of guises, they ventured into primarily male spaces.
“What we learned is that it didn’t matter where we were or what the hell we were doing, if I we were drinking in a bar dressed like Femen activists on a slutwalk, or working at a soup kitchen dressed like Catholic grannies on a cakewalk, men were judging us all the same, as evidenced by the consistent flow of nanoaggressions they gave off,” Hader said.
“At long last, the mystery has been solved,” May-Smythe wrote in a 2014 article about the discovery. “We now understand why most women feel uncomfortable in places like navy submarines and in remote logging camps, why they feel like men are shooting millions of tiny, phallus-shaped daggers through their skin: because they are.”
The two laureates say that they are going to use the million-dollar prize money to continue working on new projects, such as developing a theoretical model for a fifth-wave of feminism, which most gender studies experts say could lead to a total role reversal of the sexes. Also, Lehdi and Hader say that they hope to find a cure for recent epidemics of mansplaining, even if most social justice experts fear such a cure only exists in the realm of science-fiction.