By Alex Fradera
“Microaggressions” are seemingly innocuous words or behaviour that supposedly communicate a bias toward minority groups, such as asking Asian Americans where they are from, implying that they are not really part of the USA. According to advocates of the usefulness of the concept, microaggressions cause real harm, even if unintended by the perpetrator. However, the theoretical and evidential support for the concept of microaggressions is far from clear, as detailed in Scott Lilienfeld’s recent thorough critique, which recommended the term be revised or at least re-examined. Now, Craig Harper, a psychologist at Nottingham Trent University, has published a study as a pre-print online at PsyArXiv that, he argues, reveals a further key problem with the concept of the microaggression.
As it’s usually defined, a microaggression only counts as such when a majority group member commits an act that a minority group member perceives as a slight. The term was coined to account for slights against Black people, and has since expanded to other groups. On his Psychology Today blog, Derald Sue at Columbia University, one of the originators of the microaggression concept, states that microaggressions are “everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that … target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership”. For his new study, Craig Harper’s aim was to examine whether it’s true that the experience of “being microaggressed at” really does only flow in one direction.
Harper recruited around 400 US participants online and split them into three groups according to their political beliefs: conservative, liberal, or moderate. They also answered questions about their pride in belonging to their political grouping.
The participants then read six fictional scenarios in which a professor made a contentious claim to his students. For example, in one, a male professor explained that the reason women are under-represented in certain professions is entirely due to their personal choice. A female student then responded in a frustrated manner, but was told by the professor to calm down and that this was not a place for “policy agendas.” This is a fairly typical example of what the literature considers a microaggression.
Crucially, the scenarios were balanced so only half the microaggressions targeted people who would normally be seen as victims: women, Black people, and liberals. The other three scenarios kept the topics (such as educational attainment and political diversity), but switched the social identities of the perpetrator and victim. For example, in one case, a female professor justified lower rates of men in certain professions and then showed impatience towards a male student who complained.
After reading each scenario, the participants said whether they thought the student was right to feel insulted or had been overly sensitive. They also said whether they thought the professor was bigoted.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, the students’ own political orientation shaped their response. Harper found that political liberals judged the fictional professors more harshly when they targeted racial minorities, women and those on the political left, compared to other targets. The students with more conservative leanings were less bothered by the scenario content overall, but showed the opposite pattern, being more critical when majorities, men and conservatives were targeted.
Harper says this is important because it shows, contrary to the the conventional definition of the microaggression concept, that microaggressions aren’t only experienced by those who fall into certain minority political categories. Instead it seems that anyone who thinks their in-group has been slighted by an out-group member may feel as if they’ve been “microaggressed”.
Possibly relevant to one’s sensitivity to potential microaggressions, according to Harper, is the concept of “collective narcissism” – how much we believe in the superiority of our in-group (typified by agreement with statements like “If people with my political views had a major say in the world, the world would be a much better place”). Based on the participants’ ratings of their pride in their political in-group, there wasn’t any evidence this factor mattered for the liberal groups’ perception of microaggressions. For some of the conservative participants, however, it was those showing more collective narcissism who showed greater sensitivity to slighted right-wing targets.
This finding for collective narcissism is tentative at this stage. In fact, Harper’s paper has not yet been peer reviewed and there may be further interpretations of the results that Harper hasn’t considered. But it seems clear that once you are willing to put aside the lens of power to understand microaggressions, you can study the concept like other forms of motivated social cognition we understand quite well, such as, Harper says, the tendency “to shun or discredit those with whom we are ideologically opposed”. These new findings suggest that those who argue microaggressions are a societal concern specifically afflicting minorities may have to recognise that other interest groups – especially in spaces that lean left, not right, like most universities – will have a claim to play the same game.
—Political Microaggressions Across the Ideological Spectrum (note this study is a preprint and has not yet been subjected to peer review)