Article Review: The Current use of Microaggressions in Psychology.

The majority of my life I have never recognized microaggressions. I felt aggression and underpinned racism weren’t existent in my life. I lived in a predominantly white American neighborhood, and the majority of my friends were white American. 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 friend, who is also African, asked me why I was so struck by the comment. She said, “it happens to me all the time; I have just gotten used to ignoring it.”  Microaggressions are an interesting construct. Until you personally 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 affect, it 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 as, instead of how you perceive yourself. 

Similar to other psychological constructs, microaggressions are invisible but particularly powerful in their unconscious drives and motivations. Groups who are 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 that are deeply rooted in their attitudes, ideologies, or feelings. They are not aware of the hidden messages within the context of the microaggression. The question then becomes: should we be excusing these actions by focusing on the unintentionality of the microaggression? 

Working towards answering such questions and the effects of microaggressions is psychology researcher Scott O. Lilienfeld (2017). Lillienfeld found that there is 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 the psychology field. He identified 18 suggestions for advancing the status of microaggressions and also 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 stated as “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 by including aggression in the terminology, it would inherently make the victim feel as if the intention behind the microaggression was to harm the victim instead of an unintentional discriminative connotation. 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 that was displayed by white people on to 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 are currently still enduring 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 next 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 on 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 reservation with this qualitative methodology. Microaggressions are genuinely dependent on how the victim and the perpetrator perceive them. This subjectivity takes into account several other factors (environment, values, culture, race, occupation, gender, etc.). This approach would inherently leave out many personal instances. I do, however, understand the apprehension of the interpretation of microaggressions as one specific entity. There must be room to explore how several victims and perpetrators view microaggressions. 

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

Resource: Lilienfeld, S. O. (2017). Microaggressions: Strong Claims, Inadequate Evidence. Perspectives on Psychological Science12(1), 138–169.