Debating Racial “Microaggressions”

What constitutes a racial micro-aggression and when does it become a macro-aggression? Is the concept of micro-aggression misleading? Are they really macro-aggressions?

Following the Civil Rights era, second generation forms of discrimination replaced more overt, egregious acts of discrimination with subtle, repeated, cumulative exclusionary actions and behaviors. The term “racial micro-aggressions” was first introduced by Chester Pierce to describe the subtle insults experienced on a daily basis by black Americans. In his seminal work, Micro-aggressions in Everyday Life, psychologist Derald Wing Sue describes micro-aggressions as

brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership (p. xvi).

Sue introduces a taxonomy of racial micro-aggressions that include three categories: micro-assaults; micro-insults; and micro-invalidations. This taxonomy, while valuable in identifying the dynamics of everyday discrimination, does not yet provide clear distinctions by which to evaluate or differentiate the different types of aggressions.

Are micro-aggressions conscious or unconscious? Sue indicates that perpetrators of micro-aggressions are “usually unaware that they have engaged in an exchange that demeans the recipient….” (p. 5). Similarly, in his view, racial micro-aggressions occur “below the level of awareness of well-intentioned people” (p. 9). Yet when he differentiates the three types of micro-aggressions, he indicates that micro-assaults are “likely to be conscious and deliberate” and expressed as “explicit racial derogations” (pp. 28-29) whereas micro-invalidations and micro-insults are often unconscious.

The distinctions among the three types of racial micro-aggressions are also unclear. Sue gives examples of verbal micro-assaults as phrases like calling Chinese Americans “chinks” and gays as “fags.” He gives an example of a micro-invalidation as telling a Latino/a individual, “If you don’t like it here go back to your own country.” In another work, Microaggressions and Marginality, Sue provides an example of a micro-insult as when an African American student who has done outstanding work in his economics class is told by the professor, “You are a credit to your race.” He finds this to be a micro-insult rather than a micro-assault because it allows the perpetrator to adhere to his belief in racial inferiority, even if unconsciously and “denigrates in a guilt-free manner” (pp. 9-20). This example, however, seems to be at the very least a micro-assault.

Challenging Sue’s theoretical perspective, psychologist Scott Lilienfeld assails the micro-aggression concept as vague, subject to misinterpretation, and often referring to innocuous statements or what he terms inadvertent or unintentional cultural slights. He cautions against an overemphasis on micro-aggressions in diversity training, suggesting that such training can produce the opposite effect by increasing defensiveness by majority group members. Lililenfeld worries that the term “aggression” denotes negative intent and could cause pushback that would defeat the purposes of diversity training and cause the opposite effects. Further, from an empirical standpoint, Lilienfeld indicates that few studies have controlled for the experiences of the perceiving person, including that individual’s sensitivity, depressions, and other personality traits and attitudes. In addition, he notes that correlational evidence does not yet sufficiently support the causal link between micro-aggressions and negative mental health outcomes.

A new study brings greater clarity to these questions and probes the source and causes of micro-aggressions. The study focuses on whether or not slights or subtle derogatory messages delivered by majority group members to racial minority group members are symptomatic of more deep-seated racial animus and attitudes. Jonathan Kanter and colleagues surveyed a sample of 118 white, non-Hispanic students and 33 black students at a large public university and found a positive correlation between delivering micro-aggressive messages and the presence of racist attitudes. For example, when white students selected the item “a lot of minorities are too sensitive,” this selection was found to be the greatest predictor of negative feelings toward black students.

In seeking to understand this evolving body of evidence, Joe Feagin’s conceptualization of the underlying “white racial frame” offers a broad perspective and explanation for the manifestation of micro-aggressions. Feagin indicates that the white racial frame represents the composite of elements that come into play in everyday practice by those white individuals who seek to impose, emphasize, or retain racial identity. No one, in his view, uses the frame in exactly the same way. Each individual invokes a different internal hierarchy of selected racialized images, emotions, and ideas. Individuals can accept certain elements of that white racial frame while consciously or unconsciously rejecting others.

The “micro-” terminology itself seems inadequate in describing verbal and nonverbal acts of discrimination and hostility which often have long lasting and painful effects. In our survey study of diverse administrators in higher education, Alvin Evans and I found that the outcomes of acts of everyday discrimination can have lasting career impact. One of the most prominent examples is when Claudia, an African American administrator, was singled out by her white male supervisor while he was speaking during a staff meeting about African Americans in general. The supervisor uttered what Sue might term a micro-insult, “Oh, I don’t mean you. You’re different. You’re an Oreo.” He would often ask her, “How do black people feel about… “ (any number of subjects). Soon the supervisor would not take her phone calls or provide her with direction or feedback. He repeatedly tried to push her to the edge and force her to resign, sometimes calling her at 11:00 p.m. and giving her assignments due at 8:00 a.m. the next morning. Not long afterward, when Claudia would not comply with an unethical directive, he fired her and had security walk her off campus.

This example and others cited in our study suggest that research attention needs to focus on the material, social, career-related, and economic impact of micro-aggressions as well as the underlying causes of what Joe Feagin describes as the socially inherited white framework of numerous racialized images, emotions, stereotypes, and interpretations that give rise to day-to-day acts of exclusion.

The accumulation of micro-invalidations, micro-assaults, and micro-insults suggests patterns that require much further analysis as to whether they are conscious or unconscious–and whether their impacts on people of color are really “micro-” or almost always “macro-” We also need to study ways of coping and resistance that are effective in situations that involve power differentials between majority and minority group members in order to offer psychological support to those who experience everyday forms of exclusion.