Microaggressions in Psychology

I hardly recognized microaggressions in psychology, relationships, or experiences for most of my life – until I gained internal awareness.I felt aggression and underpinned racism weren’t existent in my life.

I lived in a predominantly white American neighborhood, and most of my friends were white Americans. This was the life I felt comfortable and safe in.

It was not until my junior year of college when another student said, “you look pretty — for a dark-skinned girl.” I was shocked. My African friend asked me why the comment struck me so. She said, “it happens to me all the time; I have just gotten used to ignoring it.”  

Microaggressions are an exciting construct. Until you experience a microaggression, it is little more than just another vocabulary word. When you become the recipient of the microaggression, however, it becomes a feeling in the pit of your stomach that churns and strikes a chord in your being. The moment of effect changes you from being who you think you are to being who the world sees you as. In that exact moment, you live in a world that reminds you of how “others” perceive you instead of how you perceive yourself. 

Cultural Awarness

Being Subject to Microaggressions

Like other psychological constructs, microaggressions are invisible but particularly powerful in their unconscious drives and motivations. Groups subject to microaggressions (microassaults, microinsults, microinvalidations) are often inexperienced with how they should react to these invisible forms of discrimination. If they respond with aggressive verbal tones or appear frustrated, the term aggressor is turned back on to the victim.

On the other hand, the perpetrator acts with unconscious or conscious biases deeply rooted in their attitudes, ideologies, or feelings. They are not aware of the hidden messages within the context of microaggression. The question then becomes: should we be excusing these actions by focusing on the unintentionality of the microaggression? 

Lilienfeld’s Perspective on Microaggressions

Working towards answering such questions and the effects of microaggressions is psychology researcher Scott O. Lilienfeld (2017). Lillienfeld found a relationship between microaggression indices and poor mental health outcomes. He also discovered that microaggressions are not adequately researched, and there is a need for these to be developed from a globalized perspective of critical domains within psychology.

He identified 18 suggestions for advancing the status of microaggressions and suggested a “call for a moratorium on microaggression training,” which I believe to be a regressive pattern for the multicultural component in training. Fundamentally, having an awareness of microaggressions is vital.

Lilienfeld’s first recommendation is “providing a clearer operationalization of microaggressions, with a particular focus on which actions and statements do not fall under the microaggression umbrella.”

I agree with this recommendation. I believe that it is essential that the term minimize confusion for both the perpetrator and the victim. Building a definition that offers specificity in the categories of microaggressions would be helpful. However, would this allow the perpetrator to rationalize their microaggressions?

If what they said did not fit a category of the new operationalization, it may excuse their behavior and dismiss how the victim was feeling. Lillienfeld offers new language in describing microaggressions; he preferred inadvertent racial slight over microaggression. He believed that including aggression in the terminology would inherently make the victim feel as if the intention behind the microaggression was to harm the victim instead of an unintentional discriminative connotation.

Miccroagresion vs. Racial Slight

I wonder if the term inadvertent racial slight would take away from the history of the term. It was created to describe the derogatory and negativity white people displayed toward African Americans. If the term is reduced to “racial slight,” will it take away from the magnitude of how it was derived?

The African American population suffered extreme oppression and still endures this racial indifference. For the culture’s oppression to be simply reduced to a racial slight does not capitalize on the severity of how often these microaggressions occur and how detrimental the impact is to the entire race.

The following recommendation he shared, “to avoid the problem of embedded political values, enlist collaborators who do not necessarily share the core assumptions of the microaggression research program, such as that subtle racism is pervasive in U.S. society,” is a recommendation I agree with. I shared this perspective when I was debating globalization within the social domains.

When researching or analyzing a social construct, in the case of microaggressions, there must be a diverse pool of researchers who can offer a different perspective. However, it sounds as if Lillienfeld wants researchers who question psychological constructs like microaggressions instead of researchers who can offer different forms and perspectives of microaggressions to support the evolution and clarity of it.

At the end of the recommendation, he includes “such as that subtle racism is pervasive in U.S. society.” Does he want researchers who do not believe that this is a true statement? How would they help enhance the core beliefs of microaggressions and the harm they cause if the researchers do not believe in the fundamental reason why the term was created?

The last recommendation I will discuss is “ensuring that microaggression items contain sufficient situational context to minimize ambiguity in their interpretation.” I have some reservations about this qualitative methodology. Microaggressions are genuinely dependent on how the victim and the perpetrator perceive them.

Everyone Experiences Microaggressions Differently

This subjectivity considers several other factors (environment, values, culture, race, occupation, gender, etc.). This approach would inherently leave out many personal instances. However, I understand the apprehension of interpreting microaggressions as one specific entity. There must be room to explore how several victims and perpetrators view microaggressions. 

To conclude, we must understand that our intentions and rooted goals are to promote equality, justice, and human values. We have a responsibility to stand for social justice and protect marginalized people.

Microaggressions in Psychology
Microaggressions in Psychology

In this article, it does not seem as if Lilienfeld’s intentions were aligned with the intentions of the aspirational counseling psychologist. Opinions are valued and needed. However, he may be conducting research just to conduct it. This approach can be harmful, especially if his biases are not considered.

With Intention, Sarafina.

Resource: Lilienfeld, S. O. (2017). Microaggressions: Strong Claims, Inadequate Evidence. Perspectives on Psychological Science12(1), 138–169. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691616659391