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Prejudice remains a huge social evil but evidence for harm caused by microaggression is incoherent, unscientific and weak
Across college campuses and the corporate landscape, a big idea has taken hold: the notion that microaggressions – subtle but offensive comments or actions directed at minorities or other powerless people – can lower performance, lead to ostracism, increase anxiety, and sometimes cause so much psychological pain that the recipient might even commit suicide. Yet despite the good intentions and passionate embrace of this idea, there is scant real-world evidence that microaggression is a legitimate psychological concept, that it represents unconscious (or implicit) prejudice, that intervention for it works, or even that alleged victims are seriously damaged by these under-the-radar acts. It is entirely possible that future research will alter some of these verdicts. Until the evidence is in, though, I recommend abandoning the term microaggression, which is potentially misleading. In addition, I call for a moratorium on microaggression training programmes and publicly distributed microaggression lists now widespread in the college and business worlds.
Context is all-important here. Despite impressive societal strides, racial prejudice remains an inescapable and deeply troubling reality of modern life. As recently as 2008, 4 to 6 per cent of Americans acknowledged in a national poll that they would be unwilling to vote for any African-American candidate as president. And this deeply troubling figure might be an underestimate given the social undesirability attached to admissions of racism. Indeed, a growing number of scholars contend that prejudice often manifests in subtler forms than it did decades ago. From this perspective, prejudice has not genuinely declined – it has merely become more indirect and insidious. There could well be some truth to this possibility.
Enter the concept of microaggressions, those subtle snubs, slights and insults directed at minorities, as well as women and other historically stigmatised groups. Compared with overtly prejudicial comments and acts, they are commonly understood to reflect less direct, although no less pernicious, forms of racial bias. For example, in attempting to compliment an African-American college student, a white professor might exclaim with surprise: ‘Wow, you are so articulate!’ presumably communicating implicitly that most African-American undergraduates are not in fact well-spoken. Last year, Shaun R Harper, founder of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania, told an Intelligence Squared debate about meeting an African-American student whose engineering professor had expressed incredulity that he’d received a perfect score on an exam.
Few would dispute that these remarks, even if not malicious, are almost certainly callous. Prejudice undoubtedly manifests itself in subtle and indirect ways that have until recently received short shrift in psychological research.
Given this sort of backdrop, the microaggression concept has acquired traction in recent years. The Global Language Monitor deemed ‘microaggression’ the word of the year in 2015, in recognition of its sky-rocketing prevalence in everyday language. A popular Facebook page, The Microaggressions Project, was launched in 2010 to document instances of microaggressions and to demonstrate ‘how these comments create and enforce uncomfortable, violent, and unsafe realities onto people’s workplace, home, school, childhood/adolescence/adulthood, and public transportation/space environments’. As of June 2017, a Google search for ‘microaggression’ and variants returned more than 700,000 hits.
Over the past few years, the concept of microaggression has made its way into public discussions at dozens, if not hundreds, of colleges and universities, with many institutions offering workshops or seminars to faculty members on identifying and avoiding microaggressions. In other cases, colleges and universities such as the University of California, Berkeley have disseminated lists of microaggressions to caution faculty and students against expressing statements that might cause offence to minorities.
Microaggressions, which impact workplace satisfaction, have captured the interest of the business industry, too. In response, a number of major companies, including Coca-Cola and Facebook, have recently provided training to employees to detect and avoid implicitly prejudicial comments and actions, including microaggressions.
All of these applications hinge on one overarching assumption: that the microaggression research programme aimed at documenting the phenomenon is sound, and that the concept itself has withstood rigorous scientific scrutiny. This is not the case. Microaggressions have not been defined with nearly enough clarity and consensus to allow rigorous scientific investigation. No one has shown that they are interpreted negatively by all or even most minority groups. No one has demonstrated that they reflect implicit prejudice or aggression. And no one has shown that microaggressions exert an adverse impact on mental health.
I am hardly the first to raise questions regarding this body of research. Over the past few years in particular, the microaggression concept has been the target of withering attacks from social critics, especially – although not exclusively – on the right side of the political spectrum. These writers have raised legitimate concerns that concepts such as microaggression and trigger warnings (warnings to people regarding distressing material to come) along with so-called protective safe spaces can at times discourage controversial or unpopular speech, and inadvertently perpetuate a victim culture among aggrieved individuals.
My major concern is the rigour of the psychological science itself. In no way do I deny that subtle forms of prejudice exist and are becoming more prevalent in some sectors of society. Nor do I wish to discourage, let alone reject, research into implicit, or unconscious, prejudice. Nor do I contend that microaggressions don’t exist (even if a Breitbart story on my work claims the contrary). Instead, I contend only that microaggressions must be studied properly before we can claim to know their impact or the best ways of reducing the pain that they might cause. Good intentions are a start, but they are not sufficient…