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Microaggression Claims and Evidence

Microaggressions: The Contemporary
Enter microaggressions. Microaggressions are typically
defined as subtle snubs, slights, and insults directed
toward minorities, as well as to women and other historically stigmatized groups, that implicitly communicate or
at least engender hostility (Sue et al., 2007). Compared
with overtly prejudicial comments and acts, they are
commonly understood to reflect less direct, although no
less pernicious, forms of racial bias. For example, in
attempting to compliment an African American college
student, a White professor might exclaim with surprise,
“Wow, you are so articulate!”, presumably communicating
implicitly that most African American undergraduates are
not in fact well-spoken. Recently, Shaun R. Harper,
founder of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in
Education, described meeting an African American student whose professor in a large engineering course
expressed incredulity that he had received a perfect score
on an exam (Intelligence Squared U.S., 2016).
Few would dispute that these remarks, even if not
malicious, are almost certainly callous. At the outset, one
point should not be in contention: Racial and cultural
insensitivities persist in contemporary America, including
college campuses. Nor should there be any doubt that
prejudice at times manifests itself in subtle and indirect
ways that have until recently received short shrift in psychological research.
The microaggression concept has acquired considerable traction within this cultural backdrop. The Global
Language Monitor deemed “microaggression” the word of
the year in 2015 (Brown, 2015) in recognition of its skyrocketing prevalence in everyday language. In fact, the
microaggression concept has begun to alter the landscape
of popular culture. For example, a Facebook page, The
Microaggressions Project, was launched in 2010 to document instances of microaggressions and to demonstrate
“how these comments create and enforce uncomfortable,
violent, and unsafe realities onto people’s workplace,
home, school, childhood/adolescence/adulthood, and
public transportation/space environments” (https://www
.facebook.com/microaggressions/info/?tab=page_info). As
of November 2016, a Google search for “microaggression”
and its close variants returned approximately 511,000 hits.
The concept has also received considerable recent attention in research circles: A Google Scholar search from 2007
(when the initial seminal article on microaggressions
appeared in print; see “History of the Microaggression
Concept”) to the present reveals 3,090 manuscripts containing the term “microaggression,” 2,030 of them since
2012 alone.
Over the past few years, the microaggression concept
has also made its way into public discussions at dozens,

if not hundreds, of colleges and universities, with many
institutions offering workshops or seminars for faculty
members on how to identify and avoid engaging in microaggressions. In other cases, colleges and universities, such
as the University of California, Berkeley, have disseminated
lists of microaggressions to caution faculty and students
against expressing statements that might cause offense to
minorities (Barbash, 2015; Elder, 2015; Mehrotra, 2014).
On many campuses, calls—and, in some cases,
demands—from college students to formally address faculty member and fellow-student microaggressions are
mounting. For example, in late 2015 at Emory University, a
large student group demanded that administrators add two
items assessing student-perceived instructor microaggressions to all undergraduate course evaluations. According
to the students, “these questions on the faculty evaluations
would help to ensure that there are repercussions or sanctions for racist actions performed by professors” (Soave,
2015). As of this writing, Occidental College is considering
the implementation of a formal system to allow students to
report faculty microaggressions (Schmidt, 2015), and the
University of Wisconsin–Madison is planning on requiring
1,000 freshmen to undergo “cultural competency training,”
which incorporates the identification of microaggressions
(Gunn, 2016). At Missouri State University, an instructor in
the theater and dance department trained a team of actors
to educate the campus community and neighboring communities about the hazards of microaggressions (Caplan &
Ford, 2014). Perhaps not surprisingly, these and other
actions have generated a backlash, both within and outside the academy. In May 2016, in a widely publicized and
controversial commencement address to students at the
University of Michigan, former New York City Mayor
Michael Bloomberg criticized the undue focus on microaggressions on campuses around the country: “A microaggression,” he said, “is exactly that: micro” (Siagler, 2016).
Microaggressions have captured the interest of the
business industry, too. One estimate has placed the cost
of microaggressions to U.S. workplace productivity at
between $450 to $500 billion per year (Gates, 2015). In
response to these figures and to broader concerns regarding the impact of microaggressions on workplace satisfaction, a number of major companies, including Coca-Cola
and Facebook, have recently provided training to employees to detect and avoid implicitly prejudicial comments
and actions, including microaggressions (Fisher, 2015).
All of these practical applications of the microaggression concept hinge on one overarching assumption that
has gone largely unchallenged. Specifically, they presume that the microaggression research program (MRP)
has been subjected to, and withstood, rigorous scientific
scrutiny. In this review, I raise a variety of challenges to
this presupposition and demonstrate that the scientific
status of the MRP is far too preliminary to warrant its