Items filed as microassaults – supposedly one form of microaggression – include racial slurs and swastika graffiti.
Racism and prejudice are sometimes blatant, but often manifest in subtle ways. The current emblem of these subtle slights is the "microaggression", a concept that has generated a large programme of research and launched itself into the popular consciousness - prompting last month's decision by Merriam-Webster to add it to their dictionary. However, a new review in Perspectives on Psychological Science by Scott Lilienfeld of Emory University argues that core empirical and conceptual questions about microaggressions remain unaddressed, meaning the struggle against them takes place on a confusing battlefield, one where it's hard to tell between friend and foe.

So what exactly is a microaggression? First coined in the 1970s but rejuvenated in 2007 in a paper in the American Psychologist by Derald Wing Sue and colleagues, it originally referred only to racism but has expanded to a range of commonplace slights or hostility towards an oppressed group. The definition includes microinvalidations, such as being told that a negative interaction couldn't have been due to racist motives, and microinsults, such as a teacher avoiding calling on you in class due to your gender, as well as a third class of microassaults. The prototypical microaggression hides the offence within apparently innocent words or actions, which places those on the receiving end into a catch-22: swallow the indignity, or respond and risk being accused of overreaction?

This seems coherent on its face, but Lilienfeld argues there is an elastic nature to the definition, for example allowing Sue to assert that "the fact that psychological research has continued to inadequately address race and ethnicity...is in itself a microaggression." In addition, items filed as microassaults include racial slurs and swastika graffiti; Lilienfeld argues that there is nothing micro about these events, so including them alongside the other examples muddies the waters and could spuriously make microaggressions appear culpable for harm, when the responsible party was old-fashioned abuse.

It's not just that the edges of microaggression are poorly defined: ambiguity is baked into the entire concept. Advocates see this as a key feature, and claim that more ambiguous acts of prejudice are the most damaging, because they are the hardest to deal with - that aforementioned catch-22. (Sue again: "The invisibility of racial microaggressions may be more harmful to people of color than hate crimes or the covert and deliberate acts of White supremacists such as the Klan and Skinheads.") Ambiguity can have its uses but the risk is that the concept becomes overly subjective.

For example, it could be that the experience of microaggressions is at least partially explained by a propensity to see fault or attack in statements. It could also be that the apparent impact of microaggressions on health or wellbeing is because people prone to negative emotionality (they score high on the trait of neuroticism) are more likely both to perceive microaggressions and to experience poorer health. One study did find an effect of microaggressions on negative moods and physical symptoms even after controlling for trait neuroticism, but the personality scale used in this study didn't include any items related to proneness to feeling victimised, which seems an oversight.

Personality having a hand in microaggression experience would also explain why some people from minority groups report no microaggressions when canvassed. The (limited) evidence that more ambiguous slights lead to more negative outcomes could also reflect the established psychological fact that in "weak" situations with no clear guidelines for action, people's personality - in this case, their negative emotionality - tends to assert itself to fill in the interpretive gaps.

Lilienfeld raises a lot of other issues we simply don't have space for here: political assumptions, no measurement of base rates of everyday slights, inclusion criteria that limits participants to those who already buy into the concept to begin with, and the need to address whether people who commit microaggressions show other signs of a prejudicial mindset (something that research into the Implicit Affect test has also struggled to demonstrate). But he stresses that while he is not here to praise research into microaggression, nor is he here to bury it. He emphasises that many of these issues could be addressed by joining the microaggression field more closely with other more established areas of psychological research, and he offers a number of steps researchers could take to strengthen their research base.

Lilienfeld also suggests we all consider putting aside the word microaggression in favour of "perceived racial slight" - because we don't yet understand the role of interpretation due to personality, and because it simply isn't clear that those using microaggressions are showing aggression as we usually understand the word. Putting aside the charged term, together with the "victim and perpetrator" parlance used by advocates and researchers, would allow us to affirm that these ambiguous events have a reality of their own, while recognising that the nature of that reality needs further investigation to be understood.

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Microaggressions Strong Claims, Inadequate Evidence