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The trouble with ‘microaggressions’

Few psychological concepts have caught on as successfully as the idea of the “microaggression”. The term gained wide currency only ten years ago, but by 2015 it had been crowned the word of the year by the Global Language Monitor. It is now rife on college campuses in the United States and increasingly beyond their ivied walls.

Microaggressions are defined as everyday indignities, conveyed intentionally or unintentionally by words, acts or environments, that communicate hostile and derogatory messages to people from disadvantaged groups. Microaggressive acts may be fleeting, ambiguous and easily overlooked, but they have detrimental effects on their targets.

Several varieties have been described. “Microinsults” are subtle snubs or displays of insensitivity. “Microassaults” are verbal or nonverbal expressions of derogation or avoidance. “Microinvalidations” negate the experience of disadvantaged groups.

For example, according to one source, white people may commit microaggressions when they deny they are racist, claim not to see colour, express a belief in meritocratic hiring, or ask an Asian classmate where she was born.

Microaggressions are usually understood as forms of subtle prejudice. The concept gains traction from the fact that some forms of prejudice seem to have gone underground in recent decades. A taboo against displays of overt bigotry has led to it being suppressed and replaced by more covert forms of bias.

Expanding concepts of prejudice

In seeking to understand these historical trends, psychologists have progressively expanded the concept of prejudice. Elsewhere I have referred to this expansion as “concept creep”. Whereas “prejudice” originally referred only to overt expressions of group-based animosity, since the 1970s it has spread to cover new semantic territory.

The first enlargement of the concept came when social psychologists recognised “modern” and “symbolic” forms of sexism and racism. These are revealed by expressing opposition to affirmative action or denying the continuing existence of prejudice.

More recently psychologists have counted as prejudice aversions based on fear or unease rather than antipathy. They have also extended the concept to include unconscious negative attitudes, and attitudes that are superficially positive but patronising.

The idea of microaggression is arguably the farthest extension of the prejudice concept. It recognises as prejudice behaviour that may be unintentional. It takes the subjective perception of the supposed target as sufficient evidence that a prejudiced act has occurred, even if that is sincerely denied by the supposed perpetrator.

It even counts some acts of omission as microaggressive. For example, a white doctor whose waiting room fails to display decorations relevant to ethnic minority clients may have committed a microinvalidation. Failure to maintain eye contact with a minority client may constitute microassault.

Lilienfeld’s critique

A recent academic article offers the most serious and sustained critique of the microaggression concept to date. Its author, Emory University psychologist Scott Lilienfeld, casts a critical eye over the concept and the evidence on which it rests. His evaluation is constructive but bracing. He recommends abandoning the term “microaggression” and placing a moratorium on training programs that aim to eradicate it.

Lilienfeld’s criticisms question how microaggressions are defined and assessed. He observes that the concept’s meaning is nebulous, to the point that there is no agreed understanding of what it includes and excludes. Any manner of experiences could in principle find shelter under its broad umbrella.

Lilienfeld pointedly remarks that two American universities have decided that use of the term “politically correct” and describing the USA as a “land of opportunity” both qualify as microaggressions.

Aside from these definitional problems, the existing program of research on microaggressions lacks a reliable method of assessing when they have taken place. It also provides no evidence they typically reflect the perpetrator’s underlying prejudice or hostility. In addition, proponents of the idea of microaggressions place too much confidence in the subjective perception of the supposed target.

This subjectivity is to some degree inevitable when dealing with the slippery realities of social interaction. However it is also deeply problematic. Inferring that an ambiguous experience with another person conveys a prejudiced message and that it springs from a hostile intention is a complex and fallible judgement.

It is also the sort of judgement that is subject to known biases. People with particular identities, ideological commitments and personality traits are more likely than others to identify an ambiguous event as an instance of prejudice. Studies indicate probable targets of prejudice differ markedly in the extent to which they believe they have been exposed to microaggressions.

Knowing what we know about the limitations of self-report evidence in psychology, there is no reason to believe perceptions of microaggression are invariably accurate. Instead there is every reason to take seriously the possibility some supposed microaggressions warrant a more innocuous interpretation. When one person commends someone of another race on how articulate they are, this may reveal a belief in racial inferiority and express animosity, but it could also be an innocent compliment.

What to do?

The challenge in responding to criticisms of the microaggression concept is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Subtle prejudice and unconscious bias are real and consequential. It is also beyond question that the general decline in overt expressions of bigotry in recent decades does not signal the end of prejudice. People who claim to be free of it may harbour troubling attitudes and behave in discriminating ways.

However, “microaggression” is not the best way to think about subtle prejudice. Its definition is amorphous and elastic. It fails to appreciate the ambiguity of social interaction, relies too exclusively on subjective perceptions, and too readily ascribes hostile intent. By doing so, the idea of microaggression contributes to a punitive and accusatory environment that is more likely to create backlash than social progress.

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