Edited by: Claudia Kwok
Trigger warning: A new literature review conducted by Scott O. Lilienfeld of Emory University recommends everyone abandon the term, ‘microagressions’, which has been used to describe subtle and unintentional acts of discrimination towards marginalized individuals. The concept is deemed too undeveloped to suggest any application in reality as shown by Lilienfield’s review.
The term was conceived in 1970 by Chester Pierce, a former psychiatrist and professor at Harvard University. Though the term is aged, it has recently seen a rebirth in media and modern pop culture after complementary research was released in 2007 by Derald Wing Sue and others.
“Racial microaggressions are the brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities and denigrating messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned White people who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated.” – Derald Wing Sue
Essentially, what some perceive to be normal questions or thoughts are actually a sign of implicit prejudice towards marginalized groups. Microaggressions have also spawned spin-off definitions including microinsults, which are contemptible, covert communications towards one’s identity; microinvalidations, subtle communications which invalidate the experiences of marginalized groups; and microassaults, intentional discriminatory acts.
Thus, even if you were accused of committing a microagression, denying such would also be a microagression (it would be considered a microinvalidation). In turn, this forces some into the uncomfortable position of accepting the accusation of racism. Another weakness is the notion that a microassault is ‘micro’. Preventing a child to date someone outside of their own race, or walking around with a swastika stitched on your sweater is pure racism; there is nothing subtle about it.
As Lilienfield delved into the theory, he spotted a plethora of issues, including the criticism above. He accentuates the ambiguity within the theory, explaining microagressions are subjective and what one individual finds hostile, another may find helpful.
One key component Lilienfield mentioned was the interplay between personality, specifically negative emotionality, and the perception of microagressions. Negative emotionality states, traits such as hostility, neuroticism, irritability, and perceived victimization are more prevalent in some, allowing specific people to be more sensitive towards microagressions. Existing studies surrounding stereotype threat can be found to support the notion that certain individuals are more inclined to perceive threats and victimization if they strongly identify with specific groups or domains. That is, the fear of confirming stereotypes about one’s group can complement the idea that some individuals are more likely to perceive microagressions.
In the case of group identification, Steele and Aronson found some are more susceptible to stereotype threat and what they recognize to be racial insults because the group they strongly identify with is tied to omnipresent negative stereotypes. Similarly, domain identification replicated this when African American college students anticipating an intelligence test had a significant tendency to finish word fragments like ‘R_C_’ with the word ‘RACE’ instead of other common words. Even a cue as slight as the description of an intelligence test triggered this stereotype threat, because of pre-existing stereotypes surrounding African Americans and levels of intelligence. This means there may be other cues (excluding those related to groups) prevalent in society which trigger some to be more aware of these perceived prejudicial put-downs.
Moreover, stigma consciousness, a theory developed by Elizabeth Pinel from the University of Texas, maintains some are more aware of their stigmatized status, leading to an increased sensitivity to possibly being judged based on their marginalized identity. This can result in an expectation to be stereotyped, adding to the perception of microagressions.
The research behind microagressions also failed to withstand Lilenfield’s scrutiny. He accentuated some samples within the focus groups included specific individuals who already endorsed the theory. Additionally, there is a lack of depth as to whether those who commit microagressions exhibit other prejudicial tendencies. Other methods used to evaluate this, including the famous implicit association test (IAT), have failed to conclude the notion with certainty. Another frailty within the research included a lack of analysis regarding the base rate, meaning the list of microaggressions could be limitless and may account for any daily experience because they cannot be compared to an average rate of microagression. Though these were some of the main observations, there were countless other criticisms as well.
It is important to note Lilenfield does not simply critique the theory of microagressions, he also provides suggestions. He underscores using more established and recognized areas of psychological investigation and offers a multitude of recommendations to improve the research behind the theory.
Lilienfield proposes to replace microagression with ‘perceived racial slight’ until more evidence can deem otherwise. In an age where many claim everything is offensive to someone, Lilenfield’s literature review of this topic is a vital reminder to be aware of how you perceive things and to think critically about whether something actually is malicious or not. Though the theory initiated many discussions about language awareness, hopefully, these new findings will create further conversation about language and how it is interpreted.
Nonetheless, until the theory and research behind microagressions receives much-needed improvement, the term should be retired.