A microaggression is the casual degradation of any marginalized group. The term was coined by psychiatrist and Harvard University professor Chester M. Pierce in 1970 to describe insults and dismissals he regularly witnessed non-black Americans inflict on African Americans. Eventually, the term came to encompass the casual degradation of any socially marginalized group, such as the poor or the disabled. Psychologist Derald Wing Sue defines microaggressions as "brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership".
The concept is frequently promoted by those seeking to challenge racism and social discrimination. However, a number of scholars and social commentators, including Heather Mac Donald, Amitai Etzioni, Jonathan Haidt, Greg Lukianoff, Jason Manning, Ralph Nader, and Christina Hoff Sommers, have critiqued the concept of microagressions on various grounds including that it is scientifically not well substantiated and may be harmful to both individuals and society. The concept of perceived microaggression has also been described as part of victimhood culture and "a larger class of conflict tactics in which the aggrieved seek to attract and mobilize the support of third parties."
- 1 Description
- 2 Perpetrators
- 3 Effects
- 4 Social consequences of the concept
- 5 Scientific status of the concept
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 External links
Psychologist Derald Wing Sue defines microaggressions as "brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership". He describes microaggressions as generally happening below the level of awareness of well-intentioned members of the dominant culture. According to Sue, microaggressions are different from overt, deliberate acts of bigotry, such as the use of racist epithets, because the people perpetrating microaggressions often intend no offense and are unaware they are causing harm. Microaggressions are known to be subtle insults that direct towards the person or a group of people as a way to "put down". He describes microaggressions as including statements that repeat or affirm stereotypes about the minority group or subtly demean them. They also position the dominant culture as normal and the minority one as aberrant or pathological, that express disapproval of or discomfort with the minority group, that assume all minority group members are the same, that minimize the existence of discrimination against the minority group, seek to deny the perpetrator's own bias, or minimize real conflict between the minority group and the dominant culture. In conducting two focus groups with Asian-Americans, Sue proposed eight distinct themes of racial microaggression:
- Alien in own land: When people assume Asian-Americans are foreigners or from a different country.
- E.g.: "So where are you really from?" or "Why don't you have an accent?"
- Ascription of intelligence: When Asian-Americans are stereotyped as being intelligent or assumed to be smart.
- E.g.: "You people always do well in school." or "If I see a lot of Asian students in my class, I know it's going to be a hard class."
- Denial of racial reality: This is when a person emphasizes that an Asian-American doesn't experience any discrimination, implying there are no inequalities towards them. It correlates to the idea of model minority.
- Exoticization of Asian-American women: It stereotypes non-white Americans in the exotic category. They are being stereotyped by their physical appearance and gender based on media and literature. One example is Asian-American women portrayed as the submissive or obedient type; they are also seen as Dragon Lady or Lotus Blossom. On the other hand, Asian-American men are portrayed as being emasculated or seen as nerdy, weak men.
- Invalidation of intra-ethnic differences: This emphasizes homogeneity of broad ethnic groups and ignores intra-ethnic differences. The claim "all Asian-Americans look alike" was identified as a main assumption for this theme. Similarly, thinking that all members of an ethnic minority group speak the same language or have the same values or culture falls under this theme.
- Pathologizing cultural values/communication styles: When Asian Americans' cultures and values are viewed as less desirable. For example, many people from the focus group felt disadvantaged by the expectation of verbal participation in class, when Asian cultural norms value silence. Because of this discrepancy, many Asian-Americans felt that they were being forced to conform to Western cultural norms.
- Second-class citizenship: This theme emphasizes the idea that Asian-Americans are being treated as lesser beings, and are not treated with equal rights or presented as a first priority.
- E.g.: A Korean man walks into a bar and asks for a drink but the bartender ignores the man and serves a white man first.
- Invisibility: This theme of microaggression focuses on the idea that Asian Americans are invisible in discussions of race and racism. According to some focus group members, dialogues on race often focus only on white and black, which excludes Asian-Americans.
In a 2017 peer-reviewed review of the literature, Scott Lilienfeld critiqued microaggression research for hardly having advanced beyond taxonomies like the above outlined proposal by Sue from nearly ten years ago.
Race or ethnicity
Social scientists Sue, Bucceri, Lin, Nadal, and Torino (2007) described microaggressions as "the new face of racism", saying that the nature of racism has shifted over time from overt expressions of racial hatred and hate crimes, towards expressions of aversive racism, such as microaggressions, that are more subtle, ambiguous, and often unintentional. Sue says this has led some Americans to wrongly believe that racism is no longer a problem for non-white Americans. An example of such subtle expressions of racism is Asian students being either pathologized or penalized as too passive or quiet; or correcting a student's use of "indigenous" in a paper by changing it from upper- to lowercase.
According to Sue et al., microaggressions seem to appear in three forms:
- microassault: an explicit racial derogation; verbal/nonverbal; e.g. name-calling, avoidant behavior, purposeful discriminatory actions.
- microinsult: communications that convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person's racial heritage or identity; subtle snubs; unknown to the perpetrator; hidden insulting message to the recipient of color.
- microinvalidation: communications that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person belonging to a particular group.
In a 2017 peer-reviewed review of the literature, Scott Lilienfeld critiqued microaggression research for hardly having advanced beyond taxonomies like the above proposed by Sue nearly ten years ago and pointed out that microassaults should probably be struck from the taxonomy because the examples provided in the literature tend not to be "micro", but outright assaults, intimidation, harassment and bigotry – even rising to the level of crimes in some instances.
Explicit sexism in society is on the decline, but still exists in subtle ways. Women encounter microaggressions where they are made to feel inferior, sexually objectified, and are bound restrictive gender roles, both in the workplace and in academia. Microaggressions based on gender extend to female athletes, as their abilities are compared to men, are judged on their "attractiveness", and are restricted or requested to wear "feminine" attire during competition.
Gendered microaggressions can also be found in violent rape pornography.
Some examples of sexist microaggressions are "[addressing someone by using] a sexist name, a man refusing to wash dishes because it is 'women's work,' displaying nude pin-ups of women at places of employment, someone making unwanted sexual advances toward another person".
Sexuality and sexual orientation
Lesbians, gay men, and bisexual people describe microaggressions based on sexual orientation. Lesbians report experiencing microaggressions including sexual exoticization, linking homosexuality with gender dysphoria or paraphilia, and prying questions about their sexual activity.
In focus groups, individuals identifying as bisexual report experiencing microaggressions including others denying or dismissing their self-narratives or bisexual identity claims, being unable to understand or accept bisexuality as a possibility, pressuring them to change their bisexual identity, expecting them to be sexually promiscuous, and questioning their ability to maintain monogamous relationships. Transgender people report experiencing being labelled as having a gender other than the one they identify with as a microagression.
Some LGBT individuals report experiencing such microaggressions from people within the LGBT community or described not being fully included, welcomed, and understood in the gay and lesbian community itself as a microaggression. Roffee and Waling suggest that this is because others make assumptions based on their own experience, and when they communicate these assumptions, this is experienced as microaggressions.
People who are marginalized in multiple ways (e.g., a gay Asian-American man or a trans woman) experience microaggressions rooted in multiple forms of marginalization.[not in citation given] For example, in one study Asian-American women reported feeling sexually exoticized by majority-culture men or viewed by them as potential trophy wives. African-American women report experiencing microaggressions involving their hair, which includes attempts to touch it and comments that it looks "unprofessional".
People with mental illnesses
People with mental illness report experiencing more overt forms of microaggression than subtle ones, coming from family and friends and authority figures. In a study involving college students and adults experiencing community care, five themes were identified: invalidation, assumption of inferiority, fear of mental illness, shaming of mental illness, and being treated as a second-class citizen.
Microaggressions against marginalized groups can also be found in various forms of media such as television, film, photography, music, and books. Some researchers believe that content is capable of reflecting on and molding society, allowing for unintentional bias to trickle from our media consumption into our everyday lives.
A study on racism in TV commercials describes microaggressions as a cumulative weight, leading to inevitable clashes between races due to the subtleties in the content. An example of a racial microaggression, or microassault, this research found that black people were more likely to be shown eating or participating in physical activity than their white counterparts, and more likely to be shown working for, or serving others. The research concludes by expressing that microaggressive representations can be omitted from a body of work, without sacrificing creativity or profit.
Pérez Huber and Solorzano starts their analysis of microaggressions with an anecdote on Mexican "bandits" while reading a children's book at bedtime. Through the article, negative stereotypes of Mexicans and Latinos in books, print, and photos, is a reflection of racial discourse and dominance over minority groups in the US. The personification of these attitudes through media can also be applied to microaggressive behaviors towards other marginalized groups.
In a review of LGBT characters in film, there is a trend to present gay or lesbian characters that could be considered "offensive". In contrast, LGBT characters who are seen as more than their sexual orientation or identity are a step in the right direction, where "queer film audiences finally have a narrative pleasure that has been afforded to straight viewers since the dawn of film noir: a central character who is highly problematical, but fascinating."
Ageism and intolerance
Microaggression can target and marginalize any definable group, including those who share an age grouping or belief system. Indeed, microaggression is a manifestation of bullying that employs micro-linguistic power plays in order to marginalize any target with a subtle manifestation of intolerance by signifying the concept of "other".
Because perpetrators are generally well-meaning and microaggressions are subtle, their recipients often experience attributional ambiguity, which may lead them to dismiss the experience and blame themselves as overly sensitive. If challenged by the minority person or an observer, perpetrators will often defend their microaggression as a misunderstanding, a joke, or something small that should not be blown out of proportion. One study found that even some U.S. mental-health professionals are perceived by African-American clients as engaging in microaggressions.
A 2013 scholarly review of the literature on microaggressions concluded that "the negative impact of racial microaggressions on psychological and physical health is beginning to be documented; however, these studies have been largely correlational and based on recall and self-report, making it difficult to determine whether racial microaggressions actually cause negative health outcomes and, if so, through what mechanisms". A 2017 review of microaggression research pointed out that in trying to understand the possible harm caused by microaggressions, there has been little engagement with cognitive or behavioral research, virtually no experimental testing, and an over-reliance on small collections of anecdotal testimonies from samples not representative of any particular population.
Recipients of microaggressions may feel anger, frustration, or exhaustion. African-Americans have reported feeling under pressure to "represent" their group or to suppress their own cultural expression and "act white". Over time, the cumulative effect of microaggressions is thought by some to lead to diminished self-confidence and a poor self-image, and potentially also to mental-health problems such as depression, anxiety, and trauma. Many researchers have argued that microaggressions are actually more damaging than overt expressions of bigotry precisely because they are small and therefore often ignored or downplayed, leading the victim to feel self-doubt rather than justifiable anger, and isolation rather than support. There are studies suggesting that microaggressions can lead people of color to fear, distrust, and avoid relationships with white people. On the other hand, some people report that microaggressions have made them more resilient. Scholars have suggested that, although microaggressions "might seem minor", they are "so numerous that trying to function in such a setting is 'like lifting a ton of feathers.'"
Social consequences of the concept
Public discourse and harm to speakers
Kenneth R. Thomas claimed in American Psychologist that recommendations inspired by microaggression theory, if "implemented, could have a chilling effect on free speech and on the willingness of White people, including some psychologists, to interact with people of color." Sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning have written in the academic journal Comparative Sociology that the microaggression concept "fits into a larger class of conflict tactics in which the aggrieved seek to attract and mobilize the support of third parties" that sometimes involves "building a case for action by documenting, exaggerating, or even falsifying offenses". It has been argued that the concept of microaggressions is a symptom of the breakdown in civil discourse, that microaggressions are "yesterday's well-meaning faux pas", that it has become "unacceptable to question the reasonableness (let alone the sincerity) of someone's emotional state", making adjudication of alleged microaggressions like witch trials.
In The Atlantic, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt expressed concern that the focus on microaggressions can actually cause more emotional trauma than the microaggressions themselves. They believe that self-policing one's thoughts or actions to avoid using microaggressions may cause emotional harm to an individual seeking to avoid becoming a microaggressor, as it shares some characteristics of pathological thinking.
Allegations of microaggressions are particularly common among the relatively educated and affluent populations of American colleges and universities. Some scholars think that the environment of protectiveness, of which microaggression allegations are a part, prepares students "poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong".
Professor Sue has misgivings of how the concept is applied on campuses. "I was concerned that people who use these examples would take them out of context and use them as a punitive rather than an exemplary way," he said. Christina M. Capodilupo, an adjunct professor at Columbia Teachers College and a co-author cited on the "Racial Microaggressions in Every Day Life" sheet, said that "some people use the word to shut down conversations instead of reflecting on the situation."
Distraction from more serious offenses
Writing for The Federalist, Paul Rowan Brian argued that microaggression theory pools trivial and ignorable instances of racism with real, genuine prejudice and exclusion. Amitai Etzioni, writing in The Atlantic, suggested that attention to microaggressions distracts from dealing with much more serious acts.
Culture of victimhood
In Microaggression and Moral Cultures, two sociologists, Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning,—argue that the discourse of microaggression leads to a culture of victimhood. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt states that this culture of victimhood lessens the "ability to handle small interpersonal matters on one's own" and "creates a society of constant and intense moral conflict as people compete for status as victims or as defenders of victims". Ralph Nader has similarly criticized the trigger warnings and political correctness on campuses as creating too much sensitivity. Viv Regan, writing for Spiked Online, wondered whether the comfort provided by having a convenient label for alleged rudeness outweighs the damage caused by overreaction.
Microaggression theory has also been criticized by several conservative think tanks. Christina Hoff Sommers, in a video for the American Enterprise Institute, called microaggression theory oversensitive and paranoid. Heather Mac Donald, writing for the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research's City Journal, believes the theory is simply self-victimization, and refers to it critically as both a "farce" and a "fad".
American conservative media have suggested that the victim complex caused by the microaggression theory can have fatal results. In 2015, an African-American TV news reporter in Virginia killed two white colleagues because he thought they were racially abusing him by eating watermelon, telling him to do "field work" or to "swing by a location".
According to Lilienfeld, a possible harmful effect of microaggression programs is to increase an individual's tendency to over-interpret the words of others in a negative way. He says:
Moreover, many of the implicit messages posited by Sue and colleagues appear to reflect quintessential examples of what cognitive-behavioral therapists...term...mind-reading, in which individuals assume—without attempts at verification—that others are reacting negatively to them. Cognitive-behavioral therapists typically regard mind reading as a subtype of the broader tendency of individuals to jump to premature conclusions. For example, Sue et al...regarded the question "Where were you born?" directed at Asian Americans as a microaggression.... Yet most cognitive-behavioral therapists would maintain that leaping to this inference without attempting to check it out constitutes mind reading, as the intent of this question is compatible with a host of interpretations. Although it may indeed reflect the aforementioned assumption in certain cases, in many others it may reflect genuine and sincere curiosity regarding an individual’s culture of origin.:147
Scientific status of the concept
Some psychologists have criticized microaggression theory for assuming that verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities are necessarily due to bias. It has also been pointed out that it is uncertain whether a behavior is due to racial bias or is a larger phenomenon that occurs regardless of identity conflict. In a 2017 peer-reviewed review of microaggression literature, Scott Lilienfeld, while acknowledging the reality of "subtle slights and insults directed toward minorities", concluded that the concept and programs for its scientific assessment are "far too underdeveloped on the conceptual and methodological fronts to warrant real-world application". He recommended abandonment of the term microaggression since "the use of the root word 'aggression' in 'microaggression' is conceptually confusing and misleading" and called for a moratorium on microaggression training programs until further research can develop the field.
Althea Nagai, who works as a research fellow at the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity, accuses microaggression research of being pseudoscience. Nagai asserts that the prominent critical race researchers behind microaggression theory "reject the methodology and standards of modern science." She lists various technical shortcomings of microaggression research, including "biased interview questions, reliance on narrative and small numbers of respondents, problems of reliability, issues of replicability, and ignoring alternative explanations."
- Anti-LGBT rhetoric
- Covert racism
- Hostile attribution bias
- Intercultural communication
- Ideas of reference and delusions of reference
- LGBT stereotypes
- Occupational sexism
- Political correctness
- Stereotype threat
- Trigger warning
- Victim mentality
- White privilege
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The key idea is that the new moral culture of victimhood fosters 'moral dependence' and an atrophying of the ability to handle small interpersonal matters on one's own. At the same time that it weakens individuals, it creates a society of constant and intense moral conflict as people compete for status as victims or as defenders of victims.
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