Microaggressions

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Policy

Jonathan Church:

"In 2015, a group identifying itself as Black Students at Emory University called for undergraduate course evaluations to include two ‘open-ended questions’ asking students whether professors have ‘made any micro-aggressions towards you on account of your race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, language, and/or other identity,’ which they believed ‘would help to ensure that there are repercussions or sanctions for racist actions performed by professors.’ At Occidental College, faculty moved to vote on the implementation of a formal policy to allow students to report professors who commit micro-aggressions. Universities and workplaces have also incorporated micro-aggression awareness into diversity-training programs. The micro-aggression paradigm helped fuel the drive for ‘cultural competency’ training for new students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It has also given rise to university actions that would border on the silly if they were not so insidious a threat to free speech—-e.g. the Inclusive Excellence Center at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee recently added ‘politically correct’ as a micro-aggressive ‘dismissive term’. Over at the University of California, university president (and former Secretary of Homeland Security) Janet Napolitano has urged deans and department chairs to participate in a ‘Fostering Inclusive Excellence’ training seminar which, among other things, considers the phrases ‘America is the land of opportunity’ and ‘America is a melting pot’ to be micro-aggressions." (https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/are-micro-aggressions-really-a-thing-wcz/)


The Science

Jonathan Church:

"In January 2017, Dr. Scott Lilienfeld, Samuel Candler Dobbs professor of psychology at Emory University, entered the conversation with the publication of a devastating new paper in the Journal of Perspectives on Psychological Science. The paper is not just a blockbuster but a myth-buster, calling into question the prevailing assumption that the concept of micro-aggression is a ‘psychologically meaningful construct’.

In the paper, he analyzes the ‘conceptual and empirical foundations’ of what he calls the micro-aggression research program (MRP) and finds that the concept of micro-aggression, given the current state of research, is not conceptually coherent or methodologically robust. Though the term has spawned many mentions in the literature (according to Dr. Lilienfeld, a ‘Google Scholar search from 2007 to the present reveals 3,090 manuscripts containing the term “micro-aggression”, 2,030 of them since 2012 alone’), Dr. Lilienfeld finds that ‘the conceptual and methodological status of the MRP has received scant scientific attention.’ Of the few literature reviews that have been conducted, none has ‘challenged the central assumption that micro-aggressions, as currently conceptualized, comprise a psychologically meaningful construct.’ Instead, the literature on micro-aggressions is rife with ambiguity and, in the words of Andrew Ferguson at the Weekly Standard, susceptible to ‘all the methodological flaws that we have come to expect from politically motivated social science: small sample sizes, self-selected nonrandom samples, self-reporting of results, the embedded bias of researchers, the lack of an agreed-upon terminology and system of measurement, and an inadequate use of control groups.’

In short, the micro-aggression research program has a lot of work to do. Until research can progress beyond its ‘premature state of scientific development’, Dr. Lilienfeld calls for a ‘moratorium on micro-aggression training, the widespread distribution of micro-aggression lists on college campuses, and other practical implementations of the MRP (e.g., the insertion of micro-aggression questions on student course evaluations), at least until the MRP can take heed of many or most of the research recommendations listed here.’

Dr. Lilienfeld does not deny that ‘[r]acial and cultural insensitivities persist in contemporary America, including college campuses.’ He insists there should not ‘be any doubt that prejudice at times manifests itself in subtle and indirect ways that have until recently received short shrift in psychological research.’ But ‘there is insufficient justification for concluding that the potential benefits of micro-aggression training programs outweigh their potential risks, including a substantial increase in the number of false-positive identifications of statements as micro-aggressions.’ This does not mean we should scrap the research, as ‘[t]he MRP has generated a plethora of theoretically and socially significant questions that merit thoughtful examination in coming decades.’ But, he goes on, ‘it is not close to being ready for widespread real-world application.’

Dr. Lilienfeld has done a great service in navigating the literature and calling our attention to the need for a more careful evaluation of the micro-aggression heuristic. Indeed, I remain skeptical that the virtues of micro-aggression training programs are untainted by the danger of arbitrary and irresponsible application of an open-ended heuristic to complex, unique situations. Like Dr. Lilienfeld, I am not in denial about the persistence of racism in America, nor do I deny that racism can be perniciously subliminal, leading to racial insensitivities that escape the attention of those who perpetrate them. But I have grown increasingly concerned that many of the claims about micro-aggressions, about their prevalence and their effects on psychological health, are dubious, or at least tenuous.

...

None of this is not to say, as Dr. Lilienfeld nicely quips, that the absence of evidence is evidence of absence. In fact, Dr. Lilienfeld himself says in an interview that ‘the micro-aggression concept almost surely contains a kernel of truth’, and in his paper stresses that he does not ‘contend micro-aggressions do not exist, if by microaggressions one means subtle slights and insults directed toward minorities,’ nor does he dispute that ‘subtle forms of prejudice exist and may be becoming more prevalent in American society,’ nor does he attempt to criticize the ‘validity of implicit measures of prejudice.’ Explaining that ‘[t]he existence of such indignities is undeniable,’ he argues ‘that the microaggression concept is probably worth retaining in some form, although conjectures regarding its scientific future would be premature.’

But we need to think far more carefully, and conduct far more research, before we conclude that micro-aggressions are as endemic or pervasive as many believe, and before we begin to include the micro-aggression concept into diversity training programs. Indeed, in calling for a moratorium on micro-aggression training programs, Dr. Lilienfeld emphatically states that the micro-aggression research program itself ‘should continue without interruption, albeit in substantially modified form.’"" (https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/are-micro-aggressions-really-a-thing-wcz/)


History

Jonathan Church:

"First coined by Harvard psychiatrist Chester Pierce in 1970, ‘micro-aggression’ has become a staple item of discussion in the culture wars of the twenty-first century. Indeed, it is difficult to escape hearing about micro-aggressions if you have spent time on college campuses, scrolled through social media feeds, read about diversity-training programs that have become increasingly prevalent on college campuses or in the corporate workplace, or explored the rhetoric of the alt-right.

‘Micro-aggression’ was anointed the top word of 2015 by the Global Language Monitor, eight years after gaining prominence with the 2007 publication of a seminal paper entitled ‘Racial Micro-aggressions in Everyday Life’, a paper that drew a connection between micro-aggressions and the psychological impairment of people allegedly victimized by micro-aggressions. Defining micro-aggressions as ‘brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color,’ the paper spawned a cottage industry of academic research and elevated the term into the mainstream conversation about race and discrimination. The use of ‘trigger warnings’ and creation of ‘safe spaces’ on university campuses are conspicuous legacies of the micro-aggression research paradigm.


This paradigm was born when psychologist Derald Wing Sue and colleagues in the Teachers College at Columbia University published their pioneering 2007 paper on the topic of racial micro-aggressions in a clinical setting. Defining micro-aggressions as ‘brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to people of color because they belong to a racial minority group,’ the paper divides micro-aggressions into three categories: (1) micro-assaults, or ‘explicit racial derogation characterized primarily by a verbal or nonverbal attack meant to hurt the intended victim through name-calling, avoidant behavior, or purposeful discriminatory actions’ (e.g. referring to someone as ‘colored’); (2) micro-insults, or ‘communications that convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person’s racial heritage or identity,’ in the form of ‘subtle snubs, frequently unknown to the perpetrator, but [which] clearly convey a hidden insulting message to the recipient of color’ (e.g. asking an employee of color ‘how did you get your job?’); and (3) micro-invalidations, or ‘communications that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person of color’ (e.g. when a black person is told that ‘I don’t see color’). (https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/are-micro-aggressions-really-a-thing-wcz/)


Discussion

There is currently no scientific basis for microagression policies

* Article: Microaggressions: Strong Claims, Inadequate Evidence. By Scott O. Lilienfeld. Perspectives on Psychological Science. January 2017.

URL = https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1745691616659391

Abstract

"The microaggression concept has recently galvanized public discussion and spread to numerous college campuses and businesses.

I argue that the microaggression research program (MRP) rests on five core premises, namely, that microaggressions

(1) are operationalized with sufficient clarity and consensus to afford rigorous scientific investigation;

(2) are interpreted negatively by most or all minority group members;

(3) reflect implicitly prejudicial and implicitly aggressive motives;

(4) can be validly assessed using only respondents’ subjective reports; and

(5) exert an adverse impact on recipients’ mental health.

A review of the literature reveals negligible support for all five suppositions. More broadly, the MRP has been marked by an absence of connectivity to key domains of psychological science, including psychometrics, social cognition, cognitive-behavioral therapy, behavior genetics, and personality, health, and industrial-organizational psychology. Although the MRP has been fruitful in drawing the field’s attention to subtle forms of prejudice, it is far too underdeveloped on the conceptual and methodological fronts to warrant real-world application. I conclude with 18 suggestions for advancing the scientific status of the MRP, recommend abandonment of the term “microaggression,” and call for a moratorium on microaggression training programs and publicly distributed microaggression lists pending research to address the MRP’s scientific limitations."