Sleight of Speech
Updated: Aug 2, 2021
Is the study of micro-aggressions a double-edged sword?
By Ufon Umanah
A student assuming two men know each other because they’re both gay. A student describing Harlem as a sketchy neighborhood where they might get shot. A professor trying to comfort a sexual assault survivor by telling her to focus on the beauty of Ovid’s language in the Metamorphoses.
Perhaps only a decade ago, these incidents may have been waved aside as innocent mistakes or slips of the tongue. But an academic article writ- ten in 2007 by Teachers’ College professor Derald Wing Sue vitalized the idea that these phrases were more than unfortunate wording; they were rather something much more sinister that could have negative ramifications on the health and well-being of marginalized communities. Sue wrote that these statements could be more accurately described as “microaggressions.”
Now, a decade out from the original study, the language surrounding the identification and elimination of microaggressions has dominated the public discourse, with various op-eds, blogs, and research adding to and improving on the original findings. Colleges and universities across the country have already developed the infrastructure to address the new face of bigotry.
But if one asks professor of psychology at Emory University Scott Lilienfeld, the research behind microaggressions may be incomplete.
The Fault in Our Research
If you ask Lilienfeld, the issue is not the general concept of microaggressions and “it’s crucial not to toss out the baby with the bathwater.” As he wrote in his paper, “Racial and cultural insensitivities persist in contemporary America, including college campuses… There [shouldn’t] be any doubt that prejudice at times manifests itself in subtle and indirect ways.”
Instead, Lilienfeld argues that the concept “has received little critical scrutiny.” This lack of scrutiny has left “a daunting number of critical scientific questions, both conceptual and methodological, unaddressed and unanswered.”
Sue raises similar concerns. “Research should be more precise in operationalizing what microaggressions are,” he says. When I asked him about Lilienfeld’s research, Sue remarked that “people are confusing microaggressions with any snub or insult that they encounter,” and that they don’t “view microaggressions in context.” The stereotypical experience of bullying that many K-12 students go through exists in a different context than the racial harassment people of color go through, for example.
Lilienfeld raises a lot of concerns, from the methodology of the research to how the term micro- aggression is oxymoronic.
But given the conversations about the state of mental health at Columbia spurred by a cluster of suicides this academic year, one “speculative” claim sticks out in context. Lilienfeld writes in his review that “a heightened attention to microaggressions may sensitize minority individuals to subtle signs of potential prejudice… predisposing minority individuals to… become more likely to experience negative psychological reactions following minor perceived provocations;… [and] become more likely to perceive themselves as emotionally fragile.”
The speculation can be rooted in two claims.
First, psychology in popular science has a his- tory of being misconstrued. For example, Lilienfeld writes, “once the concept of dissociative identity disorder [multiple personality disorder] took root in popular culture, it began to alter how certain people viewed themselves.” In a quest to nd people who may have not been correctly diagnosed, psychologists found themselves using ‘truth serum’ to possibly induce false memories. In a more recent trial, Lilienfeld writes, “investigators provided participants who had experienced trauma in the context of a serious physical injury or assault with a self- help pamphlet that described modal psychological reactions to the trauma.” Compared to a control that received no information, the data showed participants exhibited “nonsignificant trends for worse PTSD and depression outcomes.”
Second, Lilienfeld fears that there has been “a substantial increase in the number of false-positive identi cations of statements as microaggressions.” This is derived from the concern that microag- gression theory “seems to fall prey to the pitfall of embedded political values.” For Lilienfeld, two iden- ti ed types of microaggressions, “myth of meritoc- racy” and “color-blindness,” stand out in this regard. Identifying political disagreements as microaggres- sions only exaggerates the fears Lilienfeld expresses over negative con rmation bias.
This, along with other concerns, leads to Lilienfeld’s main conclusion. Because the identi- able bene ts of microaggression-based training programs do not yet outweigh the risks, a moratorium on programs “which… inform students and faculty that certain statements and actions are microaggres- sions to be avoided, and which encourage students and faculty to identify them” is “prudent” until the research can be veri ed scienti cally. Such a call automatically draws controversy. It could mean massive changes to programming from the Of ce of Multicultural Affairs and other programs across the country.
But is the research as deficient as Lilienfeld claims?
The Small Slits of Words
Given only a few pages to respond to Lilienfeld’s research, Sue started his response with an African proverb. “The true tale of the lion hunt will never be told as long as the hunter tells the story.” He later writes that the more “we try to achieve internal validity… the greater the possibility that we move away from real-world phenomena.”
In his original study, Sue referred to his expe- rience riding on a private plane with an African- American colleague. After being told they could sit anywhere and after three white men sat in front of Sue, the white ight attendant went to Sue and his colleague and asked if they could sit in the back to balance the weight of the plane.
As he described it in the paper, that incident caused Sue to “feel [his] blood pressure rising, heart beating faster, and face flush with anger.” It could be an innocent mistake brought about by a reevaluation of the seating situation, or it could be a deliberate choice to discriminate reminiscent of Jim Crow. Either way, when Sue confronted the flight attendant, she was incredulous, denying every allegation with a “rational reason for her actions,” and leaving Sue with “a sour taste in [his] mouth.”
This illustrates the two-folded issue with microaggressions: both the event and the response. As Sue would put it, “if you’ve ever experienced a microaggression, it places you in turmoil, anger, and frustration… you’re always in a state of psychological vigilance when microaggressions occur and it takes a toll.”
This isn’t to say that scientific research has no place moving forward. “You need both,” as Sue would say. But to him, a moratorium on the microaggression programs would be disastrous. “The campus climate for white students might be affirming, but it is not true for people of color and LGBTQ individuals.” Without the programs in place now, whatever progress made might be lost, having major consequences for those populations.
As of this writing, it is unlikely a moratorium would gain traction at Columbia, but there may be ways to find common ground.
Vice President of the Black Student Organization Braxton Gunter hosted trainings on addressing microaggressions are only effective in so far as they give these individual experiences context. They need to be executed in such a way that exposes and educates—in such a way that alludes to history and demonstrates a genuine investment in the liveli- hood of others.”
Lilienfeld, in some ways, agrees. “Microaggressions should be the starting point, not the ending point, of campus conversations… ‘Let’s talk about this and try to better understand each other.’ That can actually be the opening of a constructive dialogue.” And the body of research is starting to address some of Lilienfeld’s concerns, namely, “examin[ing] how microaggressions affect psychological adjustment in everyday life.”
Until then, it is likely the “thousands of people talking about the fact that they experience a campus climate [that is] hostile and invalidating” will serve as evidence enough for Columbia students.