GRAD 5214 – Critiquing Microaggressions

Early in the semester, we discussed microaggressions. Microaggressions according to Dr. Derald Wing Sue are “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership”.

The class discussion got me interested in exploring what critics of microaggression say. I came across an academic article published on Perspectives on Psychological Science about the concept. The article starts by acknowledging “racial and cultural insensitivities” exist and that “prejudice at times manifests itself in subtle and indirect ways”. Below, I highlight two points of critique discussed in the article. (There are more and I highly recommend reading the article.)

The author, Scott Lilienfeld, highlights ambiguity as one element that is problematic in the dialogue of microaggressions to the point where it is impossible to establish if they happened. Meaning the list of microaggressions may risk to include any behavior.  As such, Lilienfeld suggests the importance of clarifying boundaries of the concept. He also mentions this kind of ambiguity to be double-bind and demonstrates this with an example. In the classroom, a professor ignoring a minority student is a form of microaggression; calling on and complimenting a minority student is also considered microaggression. Lilienfeld acknowledges context would help clarify why to seemingly contradictory behaviors would be considered as microaggressions and suggests microaggression lists be presented with clear contexts.

The generation of microaggression items is another dimension the author challenges in the article. The focus-group methodology usually used to generate these lists, the author says, “have been drawn from highly selected samples”. In addition, the author highlights, “team leaders have been selected on the basis of their acceptance” of the concept. The author suggests to rectify that by diversifying focus-group participants to include those with little or any beliefs of microaggressions. Lilienfeld also suggests that the environment in which discussions take place need to allow for participants to disagree freely that they do not consider some behaviors as microaggressions.

Your thoughts?


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