Commentary Magazine

Microaggressing Against Science

AP Photo/Nick Ut

Widespread interest in microaggressions–mostly subtle, mostly inadvertent slights directed at racial minorities and other “marginalized” groups–is relatively new. According to Scott Lilienfeld, a professor of psychology at Emory University, who recently reviewed the state of research on the topic, it “began to filter into the academic mainstream” just ten years ago. Yet universities are already investing in training programs for students and faculty to combat microaggressions. Microaggressions are also the subject of some of the demands issued by student activists last year. At Providence College, students included microaggressions in the “Rigorous Sensitivity Training” they wanted all students to undergo. At Wesleyan University, students demanded “tracking of faculty [and] staff . . . microaggressions.”

At Brandeis University in 2015, Asian-American students who organized an exhibit to draw attention to microaggressions felt compelled to apologize to students who felt “triggered” by the exhibit. So it didn’t take the concept of microaggressions much longer than “Happy Days” to jump the shark. Yet Professor Lilienfeld’s review suggests that the leading claims of the proponents of microaggression training lack support. There is “no systematic research support” for the assertion that “microaggressions are interpreted negatively by most or all minority group members.” There is “no research support” for the assertion that “microaggressions reflect implicitly prejudicial and implicitly aggressive motives.” There is “minimal research evidence” for the assertion that microaggressions “exert an adverse impact on the mental health of recipients.”

Part of the trouble is that the very concept of “microaggression” is murky, ranging from “drawing a swastika on someone’s door” to saying “I believe the most qualified person should get the job, regardless of race.” “Microaggression” may be “so imprecisely defined and porous in its boundaries that it is not at all apparent where it begins and ends.” Although Lilienfeld suspects that some kinds of microaggressions inflict real psychological harm, it is going to be difficult to advance very far in our understanding as long as the concept of macroaggressions encompasses “an enormous array of behaviors… many of them innocuous.”

Lilienfeld also notes, among many other issues, a methodological flaw in most attempts to generate examples of microaggressions. Most “focus groups have been drawn from highly selected samples, many of whom are already predisposed to endorse the concept of microaggressions.” In one study, focus group participants were told that they were focusing on “subtle experiences of subtle racism.” The danger is that tests designed to uncover people’s experience of microaggressions “may be biased toward the interpretation of innocuous majority group behaviors as microaggressive.”

In light of our very limited understanding of the very concept that microaggression trainings are supposed to be about, Lilienfeld proposes a moratorium on such trainings, pending further research. For all we know now, microaggression programs may do more harm than good. A “heightened attention to microaggressions may sensitive minority individuals to subtle signs of potential prejudice, leading them to become hypervigilant.” Such “individuals may become more likely to experience negative psychological reactions following minor perceived provocations.” Apart from the direct harm to individuals, “microaggression training programs could run the risk of exacerbating racial tensions on campuses . . . although this conjecture awaits research scrutiny.”

As remarkable as Lilienfeld’s own findings are, the response his article drew from Derald Wing Sue, a professor of counseling psychology who, along with coauthors, “introduced the notion of microaggressions to the broader psychological community” is at least as remarkable. Sue leaves Lilienfeld’s argument untouched, granting that “from the perspective of psychological science, [Lilienfeld] presents a compelling case.” But science isn’t everything. Microaggressions “are about experiential reality and about listening to the voices of those most oppressed.” Lilienfeld, Sue worries, is “applying the principle of skepticism to the study of microaggressions, which may unintentionally dilute, dismiss, and negate the lived experience of marginalized groups.” Lilienfeld had noted in passing that according to “some expansive definitions of microaggressions, this article itself could presumably constitute a microaggression.” Sue makes precisely that accusation.

Those “in the majority group, those with power and privilege, and those who do not experience microaggressions are privileged to enjoy the luxury of proof.” Not Sue and those he represents. They cannot afford the luxury of understanding the character and extent of the problem, or of having sound reasons to believe their proposed interventions will do more good than harm, before they phone up the reeducation consultants. One does not have to believe that science is a complete approach to our problems to view Sue’s suggestion as a species of educational malpractice.

And yet it seems more likely than not that Lilienfeld’s call for a moratorium will be ignored while Sue’s complaints about “truth seeking in Western science” will be heeded. The ill health of American colleges and universities is sometimes exaggerated. If one wanted to make a case for it, though, the triumph of Sue’s argument over Lilienfeld’s would be a good Exhibit A.

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