Mar 17 2017


microaggressions2I have to say, from the first time I heard the term “microaggression” I didn’t like it. Something deeply bothered me about the concept, but I kept an open mind as I tried to understand how it was being defined and used.

A recent article by Scott Lilienfield (who is a friend of mine and has written for SBM) put into technical terms much of my vague discomfort with the concept.

Here is how one article supportive of the concept defines microaggressions:

Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. In many cases, these hidden messages may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment.

They give some specific examples:

• A White man or woman clutches their purse or checks their wallet as a Black or Latino man approaches or passes them. (Hidden message: You and your group are criminals.).

• A female physician wearing a stethoscope is mistaken as a nurse. (Hidden message: Women should occupy nurturing and not decision-making roles. Women are less capable than men).

• Two gay men hold hands in public and are told not to flaunt their sexuality. (Hidden message: Same-sex displays of affection are abnormal and offensive. Keep it private and to yourselves.)

OK, I get the concept. There is definitely something here. What has always bothered me, however, is that the concept is premised on the subtlety of the act. This makes the concept vague and ambiguous. Scott now makes the point that, even in the psychological literature, the term is vague and ambiguous.

I argue that the microaggression research program (MRP) rests on five core premises, namely, that microaggressions (1) are operationalized with sufficient clarity and consensus to afford rigorous scientific investigation; (2) are interpreted negatively by most or all minority group members; (3) reflect implicitly prejudicial and implicitly aggressive motives; (4) can be validly assessed using only respondents’ subjective reports; and (5) exert an adverse impact on recipients’ mental health. A review of the literature reveals negligible support for all five suppositions.


Although the MRP has been fruitful in drawing the field’s attention to subtle forms of prejudice, it is far too underdeveloped on the conceptual and methodological fronts to warrant real-world application.

I think Scott nails it on the head. There are subtle forms of prejudice. I have had many women doctor colleagues who quickly grew tired of being called “nurse” by almost every older patient. Of course, I have friends and family who are nurses who wonder why someone would find that assumption so insulting (is that a microaggresion?). Regardless, this is clearly a prejudice resulting from a time when doctors were men and nurses were women, with very few exceptions. Society has changed and that is no longer the case.

I have seen patients make that assumption, and then get embarrassed when corrected. My assessment was that they were not overtly sexist, and were completely accepting and appreciative of their woman doctor. They may even prefer a woman doctor. They just fell into an assumption based upon the reality that existed for much of their life.

I have also had patients who were clearly sexist, did not trust a woman doctor, ignored or patronized them, and would treat a male medical student as superior to their female attending.

To put Scott’s conclusion into a more everyday context – the term “microaggression” carries with it many assumptions about the person making the alleged microaggression and its affect on the recipient, while downplaying the fact that there is a large component of subjective interpretation. The reality is that social interactions are complex webs of dynamic influences. The term “microaggression” too easily cuts through all this complexity and assumes that the act or words had a specific aggressive purpose.

Scott further makes an excellent point about a poorly understood psychological concept being adopted by the broader culture. Such adoption has a very sketchy history. I would go even further and say that in some contexts the term “microaggression” has been “weaponized.” What do I mean by this?

When one person accuses another person of a “microaggression” it marshals the appearance of psychological legitimacy for one perhaps narrow interpretation of what is likely a more complex behavior. It automatically puts the accuser in the role of victim and the alleged “microaggressor” in the position of being a perpetrator.

Further, because the very concept of microaggression requires inference (otherwise the act is simply an aggression) there is an unavoidable subjectivity to it. At worst, tenuous inferences requiring multiple cognitive steps can be invoked to interpret someone’s innocent actions as a microaggression.

That is probably what has bothered me about the concept the most. It takes a vague psychological concept, turns it into a pop-psychology simplistic concept, which then is used to cut through the complexities of human interaction to create a simplistic narrative of victim and perpetrator, with the alleged victim deciding on the subtle motives and inferences of the alleged perpetrator.

This is a recipe for motivated reasoning, bias, and seeing the world through a narrative filter.

The concept also encourages the fundamental attribution error. This is a well-established psychological phenomenon in which people tend to assume internal rather than external factors as causing or influencing the behavior of others (while simultaneously emphasizing external factors to explain their own behavior). Inferring a microaggression, it seems to me, cannot avoid the fundamental attribution error.

What if the woman who clutches her purse was recently the victim of a purse-snatching. She may clutch her purse whenever any young man, of any race, walks by. Whether or not you think this is a likely explanation is irrelevant to my point – she is an individual, not a statistic.

This has, in fact, become a common sit-com trope – the protagonist gets caught in an act that seems like it is bigoted, but we the viewers know they were just a victim of circumstance. We watch laughing as they try to correct the wrong inference, but only dig themselves in deeper.

To be clear – often times perceived microaggressions are, in fact, based in prejudice, or some other negative motivation. Most of us probably have someone in our lives who is known for making comments that are clearly meant to put down another person, while cloaking themselves in the plausible deniability of vagueness. You are left wondering, “Was I just insulted?”

We are emotional psychological creatures, and there is a lot of hidden meaning to our words and actions.  But it does often take time to get to know someone, and see the pattern in their behavior, before we can confidently interpret individual actions. Even then, when we get to know them further we may discover that they have hidden fears, personality quirks, or event in their history that influence their actions. We may become more understanding of the person as a whole and able to put their negative behavior into a more thorough context.

And some people are just assholes. Others are genuine bigots.

So, I do think that microaggressions are real. Inferring a microaggression, however, can be complicated. It should not be done lightly, or simplistically, but carefully and thoughtfully. It should not be used as a rhetorical weapon.

Scott recommends that the term not be used in public discourse, and instead the term “perceived slight” be used, which is a good idea (although I think that ship has sailed). That is a generally good rule – to communicate to someone else what you perceive, rather than what you assume they meant to do. You can’t read their mind, you can only say how what they did made you feel.

Again, at its worst there is also a smugness to the use of the term, which can be used to showcase your ability to make subtle inferences to implicit bias. If, however, you allow yourself to freely invoke a chain of subtle inferences, you can turn almost anything, no matter how innocent, into an apparent slight.

That is another way in which easy use of the term becomes counterproductive. It is no longer providing insight into implicit psychological processes, but serving as a mental straightjacket. If anything you say can be three cognitive steps away from a bigoted comment, then you can’t say anything. People need the elbow room to speak freely without constantly worrying that they are subtly betraying a hidden bias. We should strive to be aware of our implicit biases, of course, but we need to balance this against the necessary comfort to feel we can speak at all.

Where to draw the line takes a lot of judgment. My primary fear is that the term microaggression replaces this judgement with what has become simplistic pop-psychology.

126 responses so far

126 Responses to “Microaggressions”

  1. BillyJoe7on 17 Mar 2017 at 10:34 am

    The snowflake:
    Someone so sensitive to criticism that they see micro-aggressions everywhere.

    The safe place:
    Spaces for snowflakes insulated from all micro-aggressions imaginable.

    Virtue signalling:
    Calling out people for micro-aggressions with the intent of drawing attention to your own high standing.

  2. TheGorillaon 17 Mar 2017 at 10:53 am

    The first quote of yours says it can be intended or not, and specifically focuses on the resulting negative experience of the out group. Yet a lot of this article worries about assigning intent…. But that’s completely irrelevant.

  3. Gotchayeon 17 Mar 2017 at 10:58 am

    “Perceived slight” has its own issues, of course. Yes, when you put the ambiguous nature of the slight front-and-center people will probably make fewer type 1 errors, but surely they’re more likely to make type 2 errors. “Perceived” emphasizes that the slight may not be actual. Part of why people favor the term “microaggression” is just that it presumes wrongdoing. They’re wanting to short-circuit defenses like “your hair is unusual and surely it’s understandable that someone might want to touch it” or “well black people are statistically more likely to snatch your purse”. Persuading people to abandon the term probably requires convincing them that there’s a better way to get others to accept that perceived slights of this sort /can/ be and /often/ are actual slights.

    I had never thought of the term “microaggression” as carrying any scientific authority. I was unaware that the idea originated in psychology. I think it’s been so thoroughly co-opted by activists that misappropriation of scientific authority is not a huge concern.

    I’d agree that our whole way of thinking about racism and sexism and so on inclines us towards bizarre theories of the psychology of prejudice. This is everywhere. We equate prejudice with conscious hatred and then end up arguing about how many black friends someone has. “Microaggression” probably contributes to this, though it does strike me as being a pretty minor factor. Some people just have an interest in painting anyone who does something that could be characterized as racist as irredeemable hateful assholes, while others have an interest in it being impossible to do something racist unless you’re wearing a white hood and burning a cross.

  4. Steven Novellaon 17 Mar 2017 at 11:41 am

    Gorilla – I disagree. Look at the whole quote – “which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. In many cases, these hidden messages may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment.”

    These are all active verbs, and imply if not directly claim that, (even if unintended consciously) they are hostile and demean.

    That is kind of the idea, either they are intentional (meaning passive aggressive) or they are unintentional, which just means they reflect unconscious or implicit bias.

    That just makes it worse, because you can call an action a microaggression even if unintended, and even if the person committing the alleged microaggression has zero awareness of the three-step inference that connects the behavior to the assumed implicit bias.

    This is the – “Everyone who moves is a VC. Everyone who doesn’t move is a well-disciplined VC.” logic.

    It still assume completely internal factors (which does not require intent), without acknowledging the possibility of external factors or complex motives that do not require prejudice.

  5. lvllnon 17 Mar 2017 at 12:05 pm

    “The first quote of yours says it can be intended or not, and specifically focuses on the resulting negative experience of the out group. Yet a lot of this article worries about assigning intent…. But that’s completely irrelevant.”

    I think this is a motte-and-bailey situation. When microaggression is rigorously defined, it’s stated to be a subjective thing solely based on the the negative experience of the person or group receiving the microaggression – the “motte.” But when it’s used in the wild, it seems almost always used to call out the person committing the microaggression as having done something wrong – the “bailey.” And since words are defined not by fiat but by common use, we can’t just claim that the question of assigning intent is irrelevant to discussing the term.

    I mean, if the vast majority of the time something is deemed a “microaggression,” it’s accompanied by the admission that “this is absolutely my subjective perception which you have no responsibility for, but I’d greatly appreciate it if you’d take my perceived pain into account next time,” I think the question of assigning intent would indeed be irrelevant. But I think most of the time, it’s actually more accompanied by “and you should feel like you have hidden bigotry within you for not avoiding this easily avoidable hostile act.” I could be wrong on this, and maybe pointing out something as a microaggression is almost never accompanied by any sort of negative accusation or demand to change the behavior of the person committing the microaggression.

    But then the issue becomes, how useful is the term, really? If the concept of a microaggression holds no meaning beyond the subjective perception of the person being victimized by the microaggression, it is absolutely reasonable to say that a fundamentalist Muslim is the victim of microaggression by having to share public spaces with gay couples. Which is the point at which the term should carry no weight whatsoever.

  6. Atlantean Idolon 17 Mar 2017 at 12:25 pm

    What is most problematic with the concept of microaggression is that it associates speech with violence, thereby justifying violent retaliation against the microaggressed. In practice, this means physically attacking someone who says something that offends you, for instance the riots against Milo Yiannopoulos’ talk at Berkeley in January and more recently Charles Murray’s talk at Middlebury, where the moderator suffered concussion and whiplash.

    For more on the insane culture of sensitivity on college campuses I recommend Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s article “The Coddling of the American Mind” published in the Atlantic:

  7. edwardBeon 17 Mar 2017 at 12:34 pm

    “This is a recipe for motivated reasoning, bias, and seeing the world through a narrative filter.” i.e., Social Justice and/or Feminism. It is assumed that all white men are inherently racially prejudiced and misogynists, so literally everything we/they do is one form of micro-aggression or another. Holding a door open for a woman is a micro-aggression as is not doing it. And on and on. Just watch “MTV reloaded” and Franchesca will tell you in no uncertain terms that everything about us white people is just totally wrong and cannot be changed.

  8. cepheadon 17 Mar 2017 at 12:56 pm

    From a rhetorical standpoint, I think the Left is making a mistake in trying to “weaponize” terms like microaggressions. As Gotchaye mentioned above, some have a vested interest in taking away a sort of reasonable doubt threshold when it comes to “perceived slights” of racial bias, a strategy that calls out casual racists instead of simply overt racists. The problem is that you’re giving grist to the Right’s argument that the Left throws around accusations of racism to get their way. Their argument is more welcoming to someone in the middle. They can either embrace the idea that anything they say or do in the company of a minority is fair game to be interpreted as racist or they can believe that the Left is engaging in cynical identity politics.

  9. jreagleon 17 Mar 2017 at 1:07 pm

    I always thought “aggression” wasn’t the right term, but it is a real phenomenon. Everyone gets slighted throughout the day (intentional or not), but minorities likely have it disproportionately often given the Petrie Multiplier.

  10. Dobbleron 17 Mar 2017 at 1:22 pm

    It’s nice to see that after a piece that seems to make an effort to take a nuanced and fair-minded approach, the comments section jumps immediately to cliche (yes, I’m talking about you BillyJoe7).

  11. TheGorillaon 17 Mar 2017 at 1:30 pm

    Dr Novella,

    “That is kind of the idea, either they are intentional (meaning passive aggressive) or they are unintentional, which just means they reflect unconscious or implicit bias.”

    I agree completely that this distinction exists — it’s just not relevant to the issue at play; the concern about microaggressions is not over attribution of blame but over the real, research-backed (ie: experiences reported by minority groups.

    What does it mean to say it “just” reflects something unconscious or implicit? It’s a concern over one’s own moral standing, and it’s very common in these sorts of discussions; HOWEVER, I want to explicitly point out, rushed accusations of deliberate slights *do* happen — but that is not an issue with microaggressions qua microaggressions, just the poor state of public discourse and the emotional ‘thinking’ of human beings.

    This focus on defending possible non-racist etc motivations for the behavior – which nobody would actually deny happens – is just a delegitimization of the experiences of minorities, especially when this non-racist alternative is offered up by a non-minority; the sociological issue of how minorities engage with a racist, sexist nation is at play, not whether someone was having a bad day or not.

    Looking at the rest of these comments… it’s really weird to me why the skeptic community has such issues with social problems. What motivates the amount of strawmanning/ignorance required to be against feminism (ie edwardBe)?

  12. Kabboron 17 Mar 2017 at 2:20 pm

    The internet could have been a special place, where people can honestly explore ideas in open dialogue and express nuanced opinion. Then people started using it, and people don’t like that. I appreciate the nuance in the article, and I find myself wishing more people could temper their social behaviour with such charity. I have found the attitudes of people online have become increasingly about policing and judging behaviour on both sides of the political spectrum rather than finding common ground.

    In short,
    The internet, as it is used today, is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.

    Again, nice article (don’t want to end on a bummer).

  13. zorrobanditoon 17 Mar 2017 at 2:23 pm

    When I started practicing law 40 years ago, in a big downtown law firm, women lawyers were rare as hen’s teeth, and bitterly resented in some quarters. You didn’t have to wait for “micro”aggressions, there were out and out aggressions.

    Of course this kind of thing has a tendency to cut the ground out from under your feet, especially when you’re a beginner, and not too sure of yourself to start with.

    However, I found personally that the best strategy is not to go around being perpetually offended. People, all people, tend to behave as they are expected to behave. If you act as though your presence and your competence are so obvious as to not be worthy of discussion, this kind of thing tends to die out.

    When it started to bother me, I tried compassion. Many (not all but many) of the men who were surprised or angered by this new state of affairs were rather elderly. After all, this new situation was challenging assumptions they had made for their entire professional and personal lives. I wondered to myself how I would react in their place….it might not, after all, be so easy for them. I took their rare efforts at courtesy gratefully, and tried to ignore the other stuff, which died down in due course. They say whatever you put energy into grows, whereas what you pull energy away from tends to wither.

    If the real goal is to extinguish this behavior (rather than give oneself an excuse to be perpetually the injured and angry victim) that might be a wiser strategy.

  14. FuzzyMarmoton 17 Mar 2017 at 2:28 pm

    I think you are missing the boat on this one, Dr. Novella. The whole point of the term microaggression is to correctly assign responsibility to the person causing harm, instead of the person being harmed. “Perceived slight” focuses on the response of the victim, instead of the actions of the perpetrator.

    Well-meaning people can and do commit microaggressions. The level of harm experienced by the recipient will depend on that individual, but the act itself is still wrong and should be corrected.

    Historically, these types of transgressions have been masked by trying to convince the victims that it is all in their heads. The use of the term microaggression makes it clear that it is a real transgression, not just paranoia or hypersensitivity.

    We should welcome the identification of microaggressions. By calling out these acts, we can all learn to be better, kinder, and more empathetic people.

  15. zorrobanditoon 17 Mar 2017 at 3:00 pm


    “Well-meaning people can and do commit microaggressions. The level of harm experienced by the recipient will depend on that individual, but the act itself is still wrong and should be corrected.”

    So, the woman whose purse was recently snatched, and who accordingly clutches her purse whenever anyone, of any race, gets close to her, is a “perpetrator” who needs to be held responsible.

    One of the many problems with the whole “microaggression” business is that sometimes the whole thing is in the head of the alleged victim. This happens more often than is usually recognized. My foster son, a black man, went out to get something out of his car, and the neighbor opposite came to her door and looked out. My son told me that “apparently she’s alarmed to see a black man on the street.” I found out later that her dog had been barking, and she was afraid someone was going to complain.

    So now, regardless of what she was or was not actually doing, she’s a well-meaning perpetrator of a “microaggression”? Deserving of blame doubtless.

    The only way for her to stay clear of what my son may be thinking is to stay inside her house at all times? The problem with correcting all “microaggressions” is that no conceivable action is safely harmless, since the whole problem resides in the perceptions of the self-annointed “victims.”

  16. lvllnon 17 Mar 2017 at 3:10 pm

    “The whole point of the term microaggression is to correctly assign responsibility to the person causing harm, instead of the person being harmed. “Perceived slight” focuses on the response of the victim, instead of the actions of the perpetrator.

    Well-meaning people can and do commit microaggressions. The level of harm experienced by the recipient will depend on that individual, but the act itself is still wrong and should be corrected.”

    This seems like just begging the question. Can we actually determine if the person committing a microaggression really is causing harm if the only evidence of harm we have is the testimony of the person claiming to be the victim?

    If we are to assert that microaggressions are a real harm that is the responsibility of the perpetrator, something that the perpetrator should have realized would be harmful and thus deserves to be called out on, then we also need to support it with evidence. One can argue that the victim’s testimony of harm is evidence of harm, but if that’s the ONLY evidence of harm, then it’s also true that the perpetrator couldn’t have known beforehand that it would be harmful, because none of us are mind readers. This is just basic skepticism.

    Surely, cases where such harm was inflicted definitely does exist. This fact by itself doesn’t help us determine in any way whether or not any particular individual claim of “microaggression” is valid or not. If only the personal testimony of the aggrieved individual is what’s necessary for us to determine if an act is a microaggression that causes harm and thus needs to be stopped, then we need to take just as seriously the testimony of, say, a fundamentalist Muslim who claims that being forced to share public space with open homosexuals is a microaggression as we take the testimony of female physician being mistaken as a nurse calling that a microaggression.

  17. TheGorillaon 17 Mar 2017 at 3:51 pm

    I think you’re off base a little, fuzzy. I think you’re right to say percecied slight is terrible and turns real oppression etc into a subjective judgement that inherently denies the legitimacy of minority experiences (similar to “wait for all the facts” on rape cases dismisses the victim’s story as not being a fact).

    But I think it’s wrong to portray this as an attribution of blame (I am treating this as what you mean by responsibility) at all — that’s just the opposite side of the same, mistaken coin. This is descriptive, a way of categorizing a certain type of experience for sociology psychology etc. The blame should come after someone is made aware of a behavior that qualifies and refuses to change (IE gender pronouns). I think “sourced” is the right sense of description.

    It’s important to remember that a lot of what we think of as overtly racist today was acted out unconsciously.

  18. Beamupon 17 Mar 2017 at 5:00 pm

    I agree with TheGorilla. Any formulation which disregards intent is unworkable. The term “microaggression” is inherently pejorative, indicating that the conduct is unacceptable. But if intent is disregarded, how is it possible for anyone to avoid committing microaggressions? Are we required to have perfect knowledge of the state of mind of all witnesses to our words and actions (even those witnesses of which we are unaware), and how they will interpret said words and actions? What if one witness will perceive a microaggression in a particular word choice while another will perceive a microaggression in the LACK of that same choice?

    In order for society to function, a reasonable good-faith effort has to be good enough. Taking offense where none was intended simply doesn’t allow people to live together.

  19. FuzzyMarmoton 17 Mar 2017 at 5:18 pm

    I think I was clumsy with how I worded my comment. I think microaggression is a useful term in assigning responsibility, because it indicates who should modify their actions to reduce future harm. It’s not meant to label someone as bad or evil (perp was the wrong word to use), but it is meant to say, “hey, this could potentially harm individuals from marginalized groups, so think about changing your behavior.”

    To the hypothetical purse clutcher– I feel for her and know why she does what she does. But she should realize that if she defensively clutches her purse when walking by a young black man, she is reinforcing a terrible message. He’s not going to take her purse. It would be helpful to everyone if she would change her behavior.

    Everyone seems to be approaching this from the perspective of the guilt/innocence of the person committing the microaggression. That is totally backward. Think of the groups being hurt, and how to prevent that from happening. The goal of identifying a microaggression is finding small things we can improve, not of convicting someone of a sin.

  20. Gotchayeon 17 Mar 2017 at 8:50 pm


    I don’t think this is quite right. It’s totally normal for a person making a reasonable good-faith effort to get along to still wrong someone else. A reasonable good-faith effort is not an infallible effort. Many responses can be appropriate in such situations, including pointing out the failure.

    Like, as I go about my day, I make a reasonable good-faith effort not to physically bump into people. Sometimes — very rarely — this happens anyway. If it seems to have been my fault, perhaps due to a momentary lapse, and really even if it’s not clear who’s at fault, I’ll apologize. Hypothetically, if the person I bumped into spilled a drink or dropped a box of stuff — if they were harmed in some clear way — I would spend a little effort trying to fix them up.

    Yes, probably nobody’s going to get through life without committing a microaggression or two. That’s not the end of the world. We’re not required to be perfect. But we should generally want to know when we’ve (inadvertently) insulted someone so as to apologize or at least consider not doing that in the future.

    It’s also true that people will differ in what they find offensive. This doesn’t render the whole idea nonsense. Yeah, it doesn’t make much sense to significantly alter your behavior because a fraction of a fraction of people might disapprove. Of course, if a single person I’m interacting with takes issue with something I say or do, I’m not going to completely ignore them just because they’re being idiosyncratic. Sure, sometimes the right response to someone getting mad at you for something is: “go fuck yourself”. But sometimes, even if they’re being really weird, the right response is to apologize and try, at least in your interactions with that person, to do something a bit differently going forward.

  21. mumadaddon 17 Mar 2017 at 9:47 pm

    “I think I was clumsy with how I worded my comment. I think microaggression is a useful term in assigning responsibility, because it indicates who should modify their actions to reduce future harm. It’s not meant to label someone as bad or evil (perp was the wrong word to use), but it is meant to say, “hey, this could potentially harm individuals from marginalized groups, so think about changing your behavior.””

    It’s is sort of nice that it’s come to this, but I fear there may still be macro-aggressions to tackle, and we might well miss them if we lay back and stroke our own tummies like this.

  22. Skeptical Steelon 17 Mar 2017 at 11:40 pm

    I don’t think I could have put it any better than TheGorilla. Let me second all he has to say and urge you, Steve, to think a little longer on this one.

  23. BillyJoe7on 18 Mar 2017 at 12:51 am


    “It’s nice to see that after a piece that seems to make an effort to take a nuanced and fair-minded approach, the comments section jumps immediately to cliche (yes, I’m talking about you BillyJoe7)”

    Are you sure you read the article?

    I didn’t see nuance and fair-mindedness. They were, actually, not needed in this case. What I saw was criticism of the simplistic view of those championing the term “micro-aggression” and, instead, encouraging and promoting a more complex evaluation of human behavior

    In my comment, I was defining a few more terms that could be used to describe the situation in which the term “micro-aggression” is applied in a sort of politically correct simplistic way on college campuses. Perhaps you didn’t understand the reference to “safe places”?

    Of course micro-aggressions exist, but a simplistic application does no one any good.

  24. BillyJoe7on 18 Mar 2017 at 1:20 am

    I think what many commenters here are doing is using a sanitised version of the word “micro-aggression” (as not being AGAINST the “micro-agressor”, but FOR the minority group) instead of using the term as it is being playing out in reality. In reality, the word is being used AGAINST the so-called “micro-agressor”, regardless of motive or intent, and FOR an extreme version of the minority group. (ie when TheGorilla criticises edwardbe for being against feminism, he fails to understand that edwardbe is only against an extreme version of feminism in which an even reasonable person can win no matter what they do)

  25. BillyJoe7on 18 Mar 2017 at 1:22 am

    …in which even a reasonable person cannot win no matter what they do

  26. EvanHarperon 18 Mar 2017 at 7:12 am

    Phew, long comment incoming. I have a pretty mixed reaction to Lilienfeld’s paper. A lot of it is precise, well-calibrated criticism that clearly needed to be made. Some of it really doesn’t seem that way.

    His best points:
    MRP (his term) people have conflated straight-up bigoted comments with microaggressions. They’ve overclaimed their knowledge of how harmful microaggressions actually are. They’ve probably overstated the fact of that matter, in part by neglecting a confounding factor of “negative affect” which may make people both more inclined to report microaggressions and more inclined to experience stress generally, apart from microaggressions. They’ve imported political/value judgments about issues like economic fairness into the MRP in a questionable manner and shoehorned extraneous examples into the microaggression concept. (He doesn’t mention Sue et al.s howler about excessive numbers of liquor stores in black communities being a microaggression, but he could have.) In general they’ve done too much theoretical and exploratory work (focus groups etc) and not enough really rigorous well-designed studies. And worst of all they’ve at times invoked cliches about “blaming the victim” and “playing into the hands of bigots” to gainsay legitimate questions about their research program.

    His worst point:
    He seems to attack the very idea that specific microaggressions could reliably communicate specific messages. He calls it “mind reading” and invokes some research about “cognitive-transactional models of coping.” This part of the paper really seems like a mess to me. Asian guys from Fresno who are sick of being asked where they were born would seem to be perfectly entitled to conclude that some people see Asians as inherently “other,” without being accused of invalid “mind reading” practices. The reference to cognitive-transactional models is even less convincing. He basically seems to be arguing that because (same example) some Asian guys might not be bothered by frequent questions about their birthplace, it’s “exceedingly doubtful” that we can connect the “where were you born” question to the “Asians can’t be from America the same way Whites can” message.

    His in-between points:
    He gives good reasons to think that “microaggressions” can’t reasonably be understood as “aggressions” as such, but he tries to spin this rather banal point about etymology into some big conceptual problem with MRP. (Redheads aren’t heads. There’s no problem with the redhead concept.) He notes that gaps in the definition of microaggression combined with its “eye of the beholder” nature could create a “capacious umbrella” under which e.g. academic research that makes black people uncomfortable could be censured, but he fails to acknowledge that this problem can be fixed pretty readily by filling in the gaps in obvious ways, such as limiting the concept to direct interpersonal contexts. He notes the lack of evidence actually documenting that specific “implicit messages” are communicated by specific microaggressions, and not perhaps other messages or no message at all.

    Finally: He gives some good reasons for caution in the use of “microaggression” literature and questionnaires as interventions on college campuses. But I think he overstates it in his call for a total moratorium and his assertion that microaggression talk is “not close to being ready for widespread real-world application.” I think he needs to be asking whether campus anti-racism education that draws on psychology and the microaggression concept is better than campus anti-racism education that doesn’t. This, and not “do nothing,” is the practical alternative to the “microaggression training programs and publicly distributed microaggression lists” he criticizes. And even if it were possible to actually do away with this kind of (cough, cough) “PC indoctrination” altogether, would that actually be a good thing? Maybe at Emory, where Lilienfield is, and where the social and class background of the students coming in probably makes them more likely to be self-righteously “woke” types than racial boors in the first place. But I’m not sure that’s true at a more representative institution. Don’t big companies, which are not normally thought of as hotbeds of left-wing political correctness, also typically do anti-racism training? This suggests to me that there’s a legitimate need being met here and the real question is what’s the best way to do it, not whether it should be done at all.

  27. Steven Novellaon 18 Mar 2017 at 7:18 am

    This is a complex issue, and I wrote about it partly to foster a conversation. I would not say my feelings on it are settled.

    I do encourage you to read Scott’s article, especially if you are going to cite “microaggression” as a legitimate pscyhological concept to defend your position.

    I actually don’t think theGorilla’s second comment is far off from my position. I understand that the concept here is about those harmed by intended or unintended slights and primarily about being sensitive and empathic. I am simply saying – that is all good, and microaggressions are certainly real, but the situation is more complex than the way many people are using the concept.

    the disagreement between TheGorilla and Fuzzy is a good example, and it shows how complex the application of this concept is.

    As with many things, I think we need balance. Absolutely we need to recognize that sometimes even innocent statements or actions can be harmful to historically marginalized groups, and we need to be sensitive to their plight and their experience.

    At the same time, this has to happen with full understanding of the complexity of human behavior, and with special attention to the fundamental attribution error. The fact is people routinely DO assign blame to the “perpetrator”, on flimsy evidence, based upon assumptions that may not be reasonable, and that also causes harm.

    People need to be reasonably sensitive, and reasonably thick-skinned. Too much in one direction or the other and you have a witch-hunt, and an oppressive social environment.

  28. Pete Aon 18 Mar 2017 at 9:00 am

    The scientific evidence for microaggressions is weak and we should drop the term, argues review author, by Alex Fradera, The British Psychological Society Research Digest, 2017-03-16:

    See also — especially the subsection Criticism:

    The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has suggested that microaggressions can contribute to unhealthy thinking habits in the form of magnification, labeling, catastrophizing, and negative mental filtering.[6]

  29. BillyJoe7on 18 Mar 2017 at 9:30 am

    In the end, it all comes down to how to improve the situation.

    It certainly won’t be helped by supporting and encouraging minority groups to be hypertensive to micro-aggressions. And it won’t be helped by attacking the “micro-aggressor” whether intended or not intended (macro-aggressors, of course, are fair game), because they are far more likely to then dig their heels in.

    Zorrobandito’s post at 2:23pm seems to me to be a pretty good strategy for a member of a minority group to effect long term change that is beneficial to both sides.

  30. edamameon 18 Mar 2017 at 12:22 pm

    As has been pointed out, intent is not particularly decisive here. Consequences are. If I raise a little kid to say the n word and teach them it means ‘smart black person’ it doesn’t mean they aren’t spewing racist crap: it doesn’t matter what is in their heart. Clueless white people are precisely the problem, e.g., not realizing black folks don’t want their hair touched, etc..

    Obviously it isn’t as if we can’t *argue* about what counts as an implicitly racist act (versus an overtly racist act). It will be harder to pinpoint precisely because it isn’t explicit. That’s all the more reason to name it, talk about it, and actually start to call it out, debate specific instances. E.g., touching a black person’s hair.

    But one thing is clear: I will count what black people say 1000x more than what some white person says they think is “reasonable” to get offended by.

    Calling them ‘microagressions’ versus ‘implicit racist acts’ or whatever I’m fine with. Indeed, I think a term without the word ‘racist’ in it was chosen partly to spare white people’s feelings, because they are snowflakes and have heart attacks when the R word is used.

    Now, when calling someone out in specific cases, we can be patient and nice obviously. If someone is clueless on something that is generally agreed upon to be implicitly racist, and it has never been brought to their attention, then that deserves different treatment than a repeat offender who just ignores the information that X is not appreciated.

    In general, though, my response is “boo hoo someone invented a term to subtly let me know I’m being a racist and it hurt my feelings. Poor white people might have to be careful about being racist. What did we ever do to them? I’m in a mental straightjacket, this is *hard*. Whaa.” My shorter response would be two words. I really don’t have the sympathy. This post comes off as basically white guy crying cluelessly.

    Scott didn’t nail it. He did what most defensive white guys do when confronted with racism and sexism: he went to motives rather than the most important factor, consequences.

    The stuff about attribution error seems to miss out on the huge literature that would suggest people do indeed act differently, without realizing it, around black people. You can come up with Seinfeldian scenarios to try to confabulate, but gimme a break can we get any further from science? That’s basically the old “They are imagining it” BS people have been saying for years to dismiss black people’s concerns. We know that’s not true. We know people have implicit racial biases that play out in lots of ways. That’s what the science shows.

    We should stop being so sensitive to white people being terrified of being called racist. For Christ’s sake they create a new term, microaggression, and now you are freaking out about that. Calling it a perceived slight is about the most whitewashed BS.

    It needs to have a name with negative connotations. Deal with it. It shouldn’t be a neutral term. yes in an individual case if it is a *candidate* microagression then call it that. But it’s not just a perceived slight.

    I’ve focused on race here, but same points should hold for sexism, salva veritate.

    Sorry usually I would go back and edit and bowdlerize and make it more nice and kind and such but I have to run to work…you here have my unedited thoughts.

  31. edamameon 18 Mar 2017 at 12:36 pm

  32. zorrobanditoon 18 Mar 2017 at 2:00 pm

    “To the hypothetical purse clutcher– I feel for her and know why she does what she does. But she should realize that if she defensively clutches her purse when walking by a young black man, she is reinforcing a terrible message. He’s not going to take her purse. It would be helpful to everyone if she would change her behavior.”

    How does she know he’s not going to take her purse? After all, someone already did once.

    Great. First, her purse is stolen. Then if she reacts normally, defensively, thereafter, she’s a bad person. Suddenly she’s the “aggressor.” It would be “helpful to everyone” if she would just stop being such a bad person.

    The woman who got her purse snatched is already a victim, and now you want to victimize her further and blame her for the situation, which is totally backwards.

    This whole discussion is starting to sound like the urging women constantly hear about how WE can stop rapes by wearing muumuus (or tents) and not going out in public (or whatever it is this time). That’s the wrong focus. We could stop rape if MEN would stop raping women.

    “Think of the groups being hurt, and how to prevent that from happening.”

    In this case, it would be most helpful to everyone if young men of all colors were to change THEIR behavior and stop snatching purses.

    Until then, victims will continue to grab their purses when people walk by. Live with it.

  33. zorrobanditoon 18 Mar 2017 at 2:09 pm

    So the senior partner who told me when I started at the firm that if only I (and women like me) had not gone to law school he would be able to hire a decent secretary….was that a micro-aggression? It sounded anything but micro to me at the time. It was an up front, pretty blunt statement that my proper role in this world was to be his handmaiden.

    I chose to treat it as a “perceived slight,” and then I did a little personal work and stopped perceiving it that way.

    Because what good would it do either of us, or anyone else, to continue in that vein? Wouldn’t we just have been freezing ourselves in the pattern of a generation and more in the past? He wasn’t a bad egg, this senior partner. He just didn’t think it through.

    We all need to try to assume the best about each other, instead of starting at the other end and assuming racism, sexism, whatever, absent proof to the contrary. Going around blaming strangers for thoughtless actions does not improve the world.

  34. mumadaddon 18 Mar 2017 at 2:37 pm

    People feel strongly about this it seems. To me, focus on micro-aggressions–perceived or real–seems a wasted effort. People carry implicit biases, which manifest in behaviour — this seems straightforwardly obvious. But these biases are programmed into us by the culture around us; we aren’t aware of them, and they are a symptom of bigger societal issues that maybe we can address. To blame somebody for their cultural programming just seems odd.

  35. BillyJoe7on 18 Mar 2017 at 4:28 pm


    You say “it’s all about consequences” but you seem oblivious to the fact that your attitude has consequences that almost certainly will make the situation worse on both sides. A lose/lose situation. You don’t help minorities by hypersensitising them, and you don’t help the so-called “micro-aggressors” to change by attacking them.

    Maybe have a read about how zorrobandito dealt with the situation. Sounds like a win/win situation to me

  36. BillyJoe7on 18 Mar 2017 at 4:32 pm

    BTW, why don’t black people like white people to touch their hair?

  37. Lightnotheaton 18 Mar 2017 at 6:31 pm

    I wish I had been able to join this discussion earlier. For now I’ll just point out that I haven’t noticed anyone mention the “pc” aspect of this. In almost all of the examples cited the victims are members of groups officially regarded by liberals as being marginalized or oppressed. Nothing along the lines of “People roll their eyes when a white man in a pickup truck drives by on a country road with country music blasting from the speakers. (Hidden message: Rural whites are ignorant lowbrow rubes.)” In theory there’s no reason people like rural whites or evangelicals need to be excluded as victims of microagression, but in practice this kind of thing is seen as another manifestation of being pc and there is a backlash. Members of these and other, not “officially” marginalized groups feel like only they have to watch what they do and say, while at the same time they have to endure ridicule and scorn that is not considered agression against them. One of the most consistent reasons Trump supporters have given for liking him is that he “tells it like it is” and is not afraid to be un-pc. Clinton’s defeat was due to a lot of different factors, but it seems reasonable that one of them was all the white people in rural areas of purple states like Pennsylvania flipping from Obama to Trump, at least in part because they saw him as anti-pc in a way previous Republicans had not been. I say this as someone who very much did not want Trump to win..

  38. BillyJoe7on 18 Mar 2017 at 8:36 pm


    “I haven’t noticed anyone mention the “pc” aspect of this”

    I did mention it in my first post here, but it’s a bit off-topic here.

    Accusations of “micro-aggression” are a mechanism by which the public is kept in politically correct mode, especially on college campuses. Some college campuses have become “safe places” were students are insulated from opinions that make them feel “unsafe” – meaning they never have to have their beliefs confronted, questioned, or ridiculed, even when their beliefs are irrational and ridiculous. It sounds the death-knell for open enquiry and free speech.

  39. BillyJoe7on 18 Mar 2017 at 9:40 pm


    Here are a couple of links explaining the stultifying effect the terms “micro-aggressions”, “safe places”, and “trigger warnings” have on college campuses.

    It is largely conducted by the “regressive left”, mainly in private colleges dominated by white and asian student elites, where they terrify their peers and their lecturers into submission by means of those three terms, backed up by verbal and physical assaults that have the effect of shutting down open enquiry and free speech. This is what those terms mean in practise (beside which an academic discussion of what those terms mean is almost totally irrelevant)

    In my opinion, all those terms should disappear without trace (of course the cats are out of the bag!)

    The second is the better of the two, but the first contains numerous links to similar pieces by other authors which are all worth reading if you are interested in the topic.
    Perhaps a separate topic for SN to write about?

  40. Charonon 18 Mar 2017 at 11:06 pm

    BillyJoe7, you might productively ask yourself why those private colleges are “dominated by white and Asian elites”. Is it in part because black or Latino students can face a hostile environment, and indeed this is why people on these campuses are concerned with taking these students needs into account? Yes. E.g., or .

    Other than BillyJoe7, this has been an interesting discussion to read on the concept and practice of microaggressions.

  41. BillyJoe7on 18 Mar 2017 at 11:53 pm


    I think you’ve gotten the wrong idea about what I’ve been saying here.

    (And it is not just about race.
    It is also about sex, gender, ideology, politics, and religion.)

    I thought I made it pretty clear when I said: “macro-aggressors of course are fair game”. I am not condemning colleges for making colleges safe from physical harm and personal attack. Perhaps the following video will make the difference clear, as well as asking the question about what happens when these sheltered students venture into the big wide world outside the “safe spaces” of the college campus? (Did you read the second link above?)

    (And white and asian elites dominate private colleges because they are the ones able to afford to go there).

  42. TheTentacleson 19 Mar 2017 at 12:36 am

    It is hard when you look at the sheer imbalance of power in society (i.e. the number of African American and other minorities killed by the Police[1]), to not realise that the group status of “micro”-aggressor and “micro”-aggressed is not equal. If it was then to move forward, the principle of charity makes a lot of sense as pointed out above. But to discount the tangible, substantial asymmetry of power in terms of race, gender and sexuality and suggest that we should all equally follow the principle of charity is unfair. As a white man I think it is much more my duty to reflect on my behaviour to others, because we live in a society where the group to which I am placed by circumstance asymmetrically wields power. And I will respect how someone in a minority chooses to deal with the daily slights/aggresions they bear. Sadly most people don’t reflect on their privilege, and on the sad status of group dynamics we humans end up in.

    “BTW, why don’t black people like white people to touch their hair?”

    I’ll assume you are just trying to be provocative, but I can say if your question is genuine, your statement and sheer inability to reflect is a perfect example of why microaggression is still a politically useful term!

    [1] Radiolab has some fascinating recent podcasts covering the human dimensions of this.

  43. tb29607on 19 Mar 2017 at 12:41 am

    I find it curious that Hardnose has not appeared in this thread. A person, who is so gung-ho for conflict, opting for silence?
    Personally I have experienced micro and macro aggressions from all demographic groups and feel that you should work hardest to eliminate your own biases first. If you are confident that you personally, have no bias, then your next task needs to be to eliminate bias in those closest to you. Expand from there if you can.
    Only after working to eliminate bias in those closest to you, should you be taken seriously when discussing “microaggressions”.

  44. BillyJoe7on 19 Mar 2017 at 2:45 am


    “Other than BillyJoe7, this has been an interesting discussion to read on the concept and practice of micro-aggressions”

    Well, I referenced zorrobandito favourably twice, so did you mean “other than BillyJoe and zorrobandito…”?

  45. Beamupon 19 Mar 2017 at 7:16 am

    @ Gotchaye:

    A good chunk of my point is that if that’s your concept, then the term “microaggression” is completely inappropriate since it is strongly pejorative and blame-assigning. The proposed “perceived slight” is far more reasonable and suited to that concept.

    Calling it an “aggression” implies that it is unacceptable to ever commit one, it’s not an honest mistake or oversight, and it’s bordering on criminal behavior. Not only is that how the etymology points, it’s how the term is used in real life. So YES it absolutely does entail an obligation to “significantly alter your behavior because a fraction of a fraction of people might disapprove.”

    It’s not how it should be used, and it’s not a useful concept in that form. But that’s how it is in fact used as a matter of course.

    The relevance of intent also depends a great deal on this. If the concept one is going for is “let’s all be a bit more aware of other people’s feelings and try not to offend people inadvertently” then no, intent isn’t so important. If the concept one is going for is “you are a bad person because you’re doing this” then intent is critically important. And while I don’t have any good data on the point, my impression based on the uses of the term I’ve encountered (in situ uses, as distinguished from discussions like this) is that the second is firmly the predominant usage. People who want the former concept refer to “insensitivity” or some such; “microaggression” is used by people who intend the latter IMX.

  46. Beamupon 19 Mar 2017 at 8:10 am

    @ edamame:

    It’s important to distinguish conclusions about actions from conclusions about people. That an action can have racist implications, regardless of whether any such was intended, I’ll agree with. That this makes the person in question a racist I won’t, without understanding their intent.

    In your example, if I teach my kid that, then I pretty much have to be a racist. My kid is not, she’s been misinformed and needs reeducation.

    It is morally wrong to punish someone who’s trying to do the right thing simply because they’re human and have a merely human level of perception. And make no mistake, calling them a racist is punishing them.

    More importantly, it doesn’t work. Calling someone a racist won’t convince them to reevaluate their subconscious biases about race. It’s far more likely to get them to dig in their heels and conclude that you’re an extremist not worth listening to. If you want someone to listen to you, you have to work within their own self image.

    Whenever one is evaluating a PERSON intent is central, both because it’s a vitally important factor governing how to effectively reach people AND on moral grounds. ACTIONS can be evaluated for their consequences alone, but when you try to go from the act to the actor you can’t get away from intent.

  47. edamameon 19 Mar 2017 at 1:09 pm

    Beamup I definitely realize things are more complicated than I said in my diatribe, as I mentioned I had to run to work and didn’t have time to do the due diligence of adding qualifications, toning down my initial thoughts, etc.. But I liked my initial heated response enough to not just delete it.

    I think I could be persuaded that the term ‘microaggression’ should be replaced by something else. That said, treating it as a scientific term of trade seems a big mistake frankly. That is one more of the many, many problems of have with the OP. It is a normative, not scientific, term of trade. It *should* have negative connotations, we should want to *not* be clueless white people walking around touching black people’s hair, or giving black boys detention more than other kids, etc.. We should be embarrassed to be doing this (whether it be called ‘microaggression’ or being a clueless unintentional racist, whatever, but ‘perceived slight’ is not what we want here).

    This discussion is too focused on the feelings of the people who are scared of being called out, whining how hard it is to be sensitive to race. I was just trying to focus it back on the victims of implicit racism because frankly it has been a F of a lot harder for them than white kids on college campuses. I do realize political correctness can be a problem, and there is a major liberal bias on college campuses, and this can be stifling. But to dismiss this as that…nope.

  48. edamameon 19 Mar 2017 at 1:23 pm

    Beamup what I find interesting his how many people here are empathizing so strongly with the implicit racist, and what we can do to make their life more comfortable. It is sort of weird. To put it nicely.

    We want to be objective, but suddenly become all sweet and understanding and empathetic rise to these sensitive heights of concern about how *hard* it is to be sensitive, and if this poor white child is raised to say the N word then it is their parents that are racist. But when it comes to black people’s feelings we start to warn about everything that could go wrong when we take them seriously (e.g., misattribution, political correctness, god forbid they get it wrong, and we start to invoke all these social science categories to dissect and perform a vivisection on their feelings and dehumanize them–it is really f’d up).

    You learn a lot about yourself when you observe who you tend to naturally empathize with in social clash type scenarios. It is really important to observe this…

  49. MosBenon 19 Mar 2017 at 2:04 pm

    I think that Steve’s use of “innocent” in his comment gets at something important in discussions of racism/sexism that I think lead to people talking passed each other. There’s a way of thinking that people are responsible for intentional acts, so, for instance, you see people discussing a controversy about a You Tube celebrity’s sexist/racist statements passed off as “He was joking. He didn’t mean it.” Or arguments that the patient calling a female doctor a nurse didn’t intend to offend her, therefore he is innocent. But implicit bias is real, and though we may be absorbing some degree of sexims or racism passively through living in a world with a lot of racism and sexism in it, the harm that it does is still real. I may not intend the harm that my implicit bias causes, but if I’m made aware of that harm and fall back on “But I didn’t mean it!” then I don’t think the term “innocent” really applies.

    Like any term, especially a term used in internet discussions, “microaggression” has been and will be misused, but we should be open to the harm that we cause in the world, whether unintentionally or intentionally, and be willing to attempt change when that harm is brought to our attention. And bringing harm that would otherwise be invisible is what the term is about, as I understand it.

  50. zorrobanditoon 19 Mar 2017 at 2:08 pm

    ““Other than BillyJoe7, this has been an interesting discussion to read on the concept and practice of micro-aggressions”

    Well, I referenced zorrobandito favourably twice, so did you mean “other than BillyJoe and zorrobandito…”?”

    I’m perfectly OK with being in the “out” crowd on this one.

    “Calling it an “aggression” implies that it is unacceptable to ever commit one, it’s not an honest mistake or oversight, and it’s bordering on criminal behavior. Not only is that how the etymology points, it’s how the term is used in real life. So YES it absolutely does entail an obligation to “significantly alter your behavior because a fraction of a fraction of people might disapprove.””

    Indeed. Actually I have been assured on this very thread that a woman who has recently had her purse snatched is a bad person if she holds tightly onto her purse when a young black (or, white) man comes close to her, that she should hurry up and “change her behavior”, because it might make some total stranger feel bad. Actually it’s probably ok if she does it when the stranger is white, but she should bend over backwards so the black man doesn’t feel slighted. She’s “reinforcing a terrible message.” (What message was the original purse-snatcher “reinforcing,” and how come we’re not taking after HIM?)

    “You learn a lot about yourself when you observe who you tend to naturally empathize with in social clash type scenarios. It is really important to observe this…”

    I’ve played both sides of the street on this one, target and perp. Many of us have been on both sides of this for reasons of color, gender, or some other factor. (If this spreads we can expect more of that, ending with a situation where everyone’s feelings are perpetually affronted.) But I think it’s pretty understandable that when we’re talking about women with purses vs. purse snatchers (or, random black men) that I would identify with the woman. Since I am one, and since we women are disproportionately the victims of such crimes. The implication, of course, is that this proves yet again, if further proof were necessary, that I am a bad person. It is really important to observe this.

    I think it’s even more important to move away (when possible) from a position where nearly everyone is ready to take offense at nearly everything.

  51. edamameon 19 Mar 2017 at 2:10 pm

    Note so it doesn’t get lost, I am sensitive to context. We don’t want to traumatize people. As I wrote above:
    “[W]hen calling someone out in specific cases, we can be patient and nice obviously. If someone is clueless on something that is generally agreed upon to be implicitly racist, and it has never been brought to their attention, then that deserves different treatment than a repeat offender who just ignores the information that X is not appreciated.”

    But I do think white people need training on how to deal with being called out. It isn’t up to everyone else to walk on eggshells and figure out how to make the (implicit) racist comfortable. That’s a courtesy, not a necessity. Maybe people should expect to just more bluntly be told “Yeah dude that’s racist don’t do that.” And then instead of expecting to have it explained, go do your own research. It isn’t up to them to educate you, it isn’t their job. Again, if they want to, then they are doing you a solid, but you shouldn’t necessarily expect it.

    Obviously in the US there is a stigma so I’m not naive here about what the fear is. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done.

  52. marcus5454on 19 Mar 2017 at 2:31 pm


    We can’t really discuss migroagression as one defining meaning.

    It’s better to think of it as a range of behavior. From intended slights or insults to unconscious behaviors to careless use of language to no malicious intent at all.

    For the receiver we might trail of what the ‘average person would think.

    It’s easy to think the victim as perceiving something that is not there, to the aggressor playing coy with plausible deniability.

    Indeed I don’t think there is one of us who have not been on either side of this equation.

    I fear that the nuanced position of Dr. Novella is being lost.

    Yes there are people who play the victim card, be it by false allegations of racism and being it false us of anti political correctness used to hide blantant prejudices.

    Meanwhile what ever happened to asking the person what they meant. If particularly insulting, a leading question, are you implying something?

  53. Fair Persuasionon 19 Mar 2017 at 4:01 pm

    Microaggressions have been conceived since the 1970s as one-sided to whom it concerns. “Marginalized” groups can be any minority of persons with certain characteristics which number in the minority to the larger census of persons in the region. Micro by any other name is simply provoking a response. Even fashion pertaining to clothes and hair can be considered an assault on current culture at large.

  54. SteveAon 20 Mar 2017 at 5:49 am

    Zorrobandito: “I think it’s even more important to move away (when possible) from a position where nearly everyone is ready to take offense at nearly everything.”

    I recently came across an article about a young Jewish student (sorry, I’ve forgotten the publication details) who’d joined some University group that had opened his eyes to the anti-Semitism that surrounds him. Apparently he’d been unaware of it before, but he now carefully monitors all his conversations with others to listen for veiled ‘anti-Semitic’ slights.

    To which my reaction was, ‘Well, you have a nice life now…’

  55. BillyJoe7on 20 Mar 2017 at 6:48 am

    Zorrobandito: “I think it’s even more important to move away (when possible) from a position where nearly everyone is ready to take offense at nearly everything.”

    And one of the main reasons why this is so important is that freedom from offense and freedom of speech are pretty well mutually exclusive.

  56. lvllnon 20 Mar 2017 at 9:54 am

    “But I do think white people need training on how to deal with being called out. It isn’t up to everyone else to walk on eggshells and figure out how to make the (implicit) racist comfortable. That’s a courtesy, not a necessity. Maybe people should expect to just more bluntly be told “Yeah dude that’s racist don’t do that.” And then instead of expecting to have it explained, go do your own research. It isn’t up to them to educate you, it isn’t their job. Again, if they want to, then they are doing you a solid, but you shouldn’t necessarily expect it.”

    This simply doesn’t work; white people who aren’t already welcoming of this kind of thinking is more willing to just disengage. If they’re told they can never avoid being racist according to your rules, they can just deny your rules altogether and just go vote for Trump so that your rules have less of a chance of having power.

    But more to the point, your arguments can be made with just as much validity on the people calling out microaggressions. It isn’t up to everyone else to walk on eggshells and figure out how to make them comfortable. Being part of a microaggressed population doesn’t grant one extra privileges that one gets to lord over other people. If we want to say that they DO deserve such privileges, we need actual evidence, something beyond the testimony of subjective internal experiences of the microaggressed.

    If a male chauvinist claimed that women were committing microaggressions on him by being visible to him in public, we would tell him to toughen up, even if he claimed to experience the worst pain imaginable during these encounters. This is because there is no external objective evidence that supports his claim. Likewise for a black man claiming that a woman clutching her purse when he’s nearby is a microaggression; unless we can support his claim with external evidence, it makes no sense to take him any more seriously than the guy in the former example.

    As an aside, I’ve read recently that implicit bias is another one of those things in social sciences that has fallen due to inability to replicate, but I don’t know exactly what’s happened. But in any case, it seems that right now, the reasonable skeptical position is that implicit bias isn’t something that we can consider as being rock-solid proven.

    Another aside: as an American with Asian heritage, I like it when people ask me “Where are you from? No, where are you REALLY from?” It shows to me that they want to learn more about me and my heritage, and that feels pretty good. I’m a little saddened that such behavior is getting discouraged due to being labeled a microaggression.

  57. somniphileon 20 Mar 2017 at 12:00 pm

    Whether implicit bias exists or not, the term “Microaggression” is used almost exclusively in the victim, SJW culture, to drum up oppression where it simply does not exist. Not to even mention that aggression is an act of violence, not emotional offense, and as such, the way the term is most commonly employed is disingenuous, at best.

  58. Beamupon 20 Mar 2017 at 12:20 pm

    @ edamame:

    I’d be fine with a pejorative term so long as it was clearly pointing to the action being undesirable rather than the actor. But that’s a pretty high hurdle to clear, so a neutral term is probably most practical. I’d be quite interested to hear it if anyone can come up with a term which DOES clear that hurdle.

    I’ll also point out that the feelings of the alleged microaggressors are precisely the point, if the objective is to change their actions.

    IMO the term has become so loaded that it’s profoundly counterproductive at this point and needs to be abandoned if there’s to be a meaningful conversation. As has been mentioned by several people, this is a very complex subject which needs a great deal of nuance. Wording which evokes knee-jerk responses are not helpful in that regard.

  59. BillyJoe7on 20 Mar 2017 at 4:40 pm


    “we need actual evidence, something beyond the testimony of subjective internal experiences of the microaggressed”

    It’s actually worse than this.

    Take the case of someone who is so fearful of dying in a plane crash that he travels across the country by car. The objective facts are that he is much more likely to die in a car crash than a plane crash. So what do we do? Do we legitimise his fears by talking about the hundreds of people who die in air crashes, thereby increasing his fear of air travel, or do we ameliorate his fears by talking objectively about the actual likelihood of dying in a plane crash.

    Those championing “micro-aggressions” are responding to the subjective experiences of the “micro-aggressed” that are mostly objectively unjustifiable, and this serves only to increase the subjective sensitivity of the “micro-aggressed”. This is not only objectively unjustifiable aggression against the so-called “micro-aggressor”, it is also a disservice to the “micro-aggressed”. The way to deal with irrational fears is by facing them not by legitimising them.

    “Micro-aggression” seems to me to be no more than a feel-good concept, or a form of “virtue signalling”, which achieves the opposite of what is intended.

  60. TheGorillaon 21 Mar 2017 at 12:37 am

    I think some people need to look in a mirror if they are dismissing the experiences of entire groups of people *as documented by research* because they, apparently, don’t count as evidence. It’s so absolutely vile. On top of this, the dismissal is combined with various right-wing talking points, with no basis in reality, about evil SJWs and the (completely made-up) “””””regressive left”””””. Talk about hypocrisy. Let’s just dismiss evidence we don’t like, tell people their experiences do not matter, fail to understand what things like ‘safe spaces’ actually are, effectively deny the objective existence of widespread racism and sexism in the US, and check as many other “alt-right idiot” boxes as possible. I’m just surprised that nobody has said “cuck” yet or mentioned “Cultural Marxism.”

    It’s not exactly a coincidence that the people who throw those terms around are completely ignorant of the social sciences. But, hey, since when has skepticism involved caring about experts?

    Kudos to those of you having serious, open-minded conversation instead of writing ignorant, bigoted, reactionary trash.

  61. BillyJoe7on 21 Mar 2017 at 6:19 am

    ^ “I think some people need to look in a mirror”

  62. BillyJoe7on 21 Mar 2017 at 7:40 am

    …For your information, everyone here is aware of the problem, we just disagree on how to solve it. If your solution is one that demonstrably has not worked in situations removed from that of racial minorities, then you don’t have a solution whether you realise it or not.

  63. Bill Openthalton 21 Mar 2017 at 8:56 am

    There is something profoundly disturbing in the notion that people are convinced they can decide to classify other people into categories of their liking, with attributes they find suitable, based on criteria only they define, and then proceed to not only treat those people in a stereotyped way, but to assign intent, and to demand subservience based on their classification.

    Of course, a society can and will define rules (politeness) to follow when dealing with strangers. This is necessary because by definition, we don’t know how strangers want to be treated, but we can reasonably assume they know the rules of society. There used to be a time when social standing was indicated by clothing (priestly garb, military uniforms, etc.) and people were expected to know how to address a person of a certain rank and status. It is funny to see how these quaint customs are now reintroduced but based on “race”, “sex”, “chosen gender”, etc. Where once laborers would show subservience to landowners, or ordinary folk genuflect and kiss the rings of bishops, “males” are now supposed to be subservient to “females”. And of course, all in the name of “equality”.

    If it weren’t so sad it would be hilarious.

  64. Kabboron 21 Mar 2017 at 9:52 am

    Bill Openthalt,

    I’ve never prostrated myself before females I encounter in my daily activity, and yet I have also managed to avoid being called sexist. Similarly I don’t grovel before minorities and have also not been confronted as a racist! What a strange world.

  65. MosBenon 21 Mar 2017 at 10:36 am

    I’ve never understood the idea that being aware of implicit bias and the possibility that I could say something that offended someone would mean that I have to constantly walk on egg shells, or being aware of the existence of sexism would mean that I have to be subservient to “females”. If I punched someone in the street for no reason, I’ll probably feel really bad about it later. If I unintentionally use a term or use body language that someone tells me was offensive to them, I’m not going to feel like a terrible person, but I’m going to take their feedback and try to be mindful of it in the future, at least around that person. The whole “anti-SJW” ideology is based on the idea that you should be able to say or do whatever you want and then not have to care how what you say or do affects other people, which just sounds like “being a dick” to me.

  66. MosBenon 21 Mar 2017 at 10:37 am

    Also, wow, I did not expect there to be this much alt-right nonsense on this blog.

  67. Bill Openthalton 21 Mar 2017 at 11:01 am

    Kabbor —

    You probably haven’t been accused of microaggressions, or being told to check your privilege either. As far as I can discern, American college campuses seem to be where this is happening a lot. Closer to home (for me at least), the Sinterklaas tradition in the Netherlands has been forced to change because of the (age-old) presence of “Black Pete”, which was deemed offensive. The BBC had a story about the outcry about a mother dressing up and griming/blackfacing a boy who wanted to look like his sports hero ( proving some people see offense where there is only admiration.

    There clearly are people who think that their feeling offended (for whatever reason) combined with belonging to a historically discriminated(*) group entitles them to be offensive to others. The fact you haven’t run into them obviously proves you are privileged, which means you owe me. 🙂

    (*) Even when the perceived discrimination was merely a different social order re-interpreted using modern assumptions.

  68. Bill Openthalton 21 Mar 2017 at 1:09 pm

    TheGorilla —

    they are dismissing the experiences of entire groups of people *as documented by research*

    Groups have no experiences, there are (at best) statistics showing a majority of people classified in a group to have checked the same boxes on questionnaires.
    And then there are people who claim their experiences and explanations are shared by those classified in the same group, and hence should become normative.

  69. TheGorillaon 21 Mar 2017 at 3:04 pm

    Bill, I’d suggest maybe actually reading something other than whichever blogs have convinced you that men are supposed to be subservient to women. And groups have experiences — nobody has ever meant this as spreadsheet categories literally having sentience, so stop trying to cover up your dismissal with disingenuous crap like that.

    Billy once again makes some (attempted) cute remark while remaining silent as to the actual content of my comment.

    You are both parroting alt right garbage (Which, shockingly, is disconnected from reality). So please stop.

  70. Pete Aon 21 Mar 2017 at 3:13 pm

    During my childhood, many people regularly commented on how skinny I was. Exactly the same comments have been regularly given throughout the many decades of my adult life.

    Written words cannot begin to convey how very deeply it hurts to be constantly reminded that I am skinny [adjective]: (of a person or part of their body) unattractively thin.

    However, I have eventually managed to learn that their comments are simply based in their deep desire to maintain both their wilful ignorance and their stereotyping of different others.

    In England, I know full well that whenever I am in the queue at the checkout it is fully acceptable for customers and staff to talk about how skinny I am. I also know full well that if I dared to even just insinuate that they are a ‘lard-arse’ then I would suffer from the store manager either a severe warning for my behaviour, or being permanently banned from their store.

    There are circa 7.5 billion people currently living on planet Earth. My significance to you all is only 1.3E-10. I’m not surprised that people form minority groups, especially ‘oppressed’ minority groups, in the vain attempt to promote their significance to a level far greater than their true significance, which is only 1.3E-10.

    This would be a dream world to live in if all of us very carefully considered our impact on everyone we interact with, right down to the level of every utterance we make. But, be careful for what you wish for in your dreams because a state of perpetual euphoria is incompatible with both human physiology and the human mind. Take the desire for utopia a step too far then the only thing that you will be able to achieve is creating yet another: alternative-to-medicine; New Age religion; or a similarly evidence-lacking series of self-help books 🙂

  71. Atlantean Idolon 21 Mar 2017 at 3:34 pm

    Milo 4EVER!

  72. BillyJoe7on 21 Mar 2017 at 4:40 pm


    I am not parroting the alt-right I’m criticising the regressive-left. But you conveniently don’t recognise the regressive-left exists so therefore you make the error that I am alt-right.

    You seem to think that the subjective experiences are always legitmate. Which is so obviously false as to be ridiculous. I guess you would legtimise the subjective experience of those suffering from depressive disorders, anxiety/panic disorders, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Well, obviously you wouldn’t, but you can’t see that you are doing the same with the “victims of micro-agressions”. You are legitimising maladaptive subjective experiences instead of helping overcome them.

    Please read again zorrobandito’s accounts here about how she overcame sex discrimination. It does no one any good to go around feeling oppressed and victimised the whole time. So please stop doing that. Minorities deserve better.

  73. BillyJoe7on 22 Mar 2017 at 6:54 am

    TheGorilla: “You are both parroting alt right garbage”

    We are in good company.

    Sarah Haider is also accused by the progressive regressive left as being on the right, but she is a liberal who is simply against the progressive regressive left garbage which, in the case of Islam, parades hijab-wearing female muslims as heroes and pillories apostate female ex-muslims such as Sarah Haider and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who live under the threat of death at the hands of Islamic extremists, as traitors to the cause.

  74. arnieon 22 Mar 2017 at 7:42 am


    Thanks for that link. Excellent! The “regressive left” has wandered off the the path of critical thinking. People like Haider and Ali are the true liberal advocates for liberation and progress.

  75. Yehouda Harpazon 22 Mar 2017 at 8:24 am

    > # Bill Openthalton 21 Mar 2017 at 1:09 pm

    > Groups have no experiences, there are (at best) statistics showing a majority
    > of people classified in a group to have checked the same boxes on questionnaires.

    “Groups have no experiences” is really BS.
    Groups (of people) clearly have experiences.
    You may want to argue that the statistics don’t describe the experiences correctly, but
    that doesn’t mean that the experiences don’t exist.

  76. BillyJoe7on 22 Mar 2017 at 2:22 pm


    Amazing isn’t it, how anti-liberal some on the left have become, supporting the wearing of the hijab while simultaneously criticising those who have managed, at great personal cost, to campaign against it as a sign of the subjugation of women.


    In what sense do groups have experiences???
    (As individuals)

  77. arnieon 22 Mar 2017 at 5:26 pm

    BillyJoe7…..It is amazing. Happens over a number of other issues, also, e.g. safety of vaccines which save millions of lives and safety of GMOs which offers hope for better nutrition of millions. When it comes to both science and religion, many on the “left” are shockingly both anti-liberal and anti-critical thinking. Some of my best friends…………..

  78. Yehouda Harpazon 23 Mar 2017 at 7:00 am

    ># BillyJoe7on 22 Mar 2017 at 2:22 pm

    > Yahouda,

    > In what sense do groups have experiences???
    > (As individuals)

    It is not “as opposed”. Individuals have experiences, and groups of individuals have experiences which are combinations of the individual experiences.

    In some cases how you combine is not obvious, but in some cases it is. For example, it is obvious that African-Americans experienced slavery, both as individuals and as a group.

    ( it is Yehouda (with ‘e’))

  79. BillyJoe7on 23 Mar 2017 at 7:23 am

    Individuals experience either alone or within a group.
    A group doesn’t have a brain to experience with.
    Anyway, no big deal.

    And sorry about the ‘a’.

  80. edamameon 23 Mar 2017 at 10:44 am

    mosBen it is indeed redolent of 4chan or /r/The_Trump, and was nourished by the OP. We should fight against racism in all its forms, including implicit racism. Dr Novella, I would wager a month’s paycheck, would agree with this.

    At this point I’m pretty much sick of articles from the perspective of the racist, showing sympathy for the clueless, looking at how nice they are and their motives, or how old they are and how they lived in a different time. Fine, you guys can address your motives. People who are hurt don’t give a crap about your motives they just want you to stop being a-holes. If you are stepping on my neck I don’t care if your motives are pure, just f’ing stop, and stop expecting my sympathy when you tell me you did it because you are old, or your parents taught you to do that, or whatever. You aren’t the victim.

    Just do your best to fight racist behavior. And if you want to be an ally in this fight, don’t think you know better than black people what they should be offended by, and bear in mind the suggestion it is all in their heads, that they are just being oversensitive, shows you just don’t get it. If that is one of the first things you go to? You aren’t being an ally. Getting caught up in the words like ‘microaggression’ and not listening to what people are saying? Also pretty weird and not helpful, because everyone is fine with alternative language nobody is forcing you to use that particular word. The point is the fight against racism.

  81. MosBenon 23 Mar 2017 at 11:04 am

    Something that I say frequently in discussions about racism/sexism/etc. is that an explanation is not an excuse. I can understand and sympathize with a person who grew up in a racist environment and therefore carries some racist tendencies today. To some extent, we all do. But that’s not a reason to deny that harm is caused as a result of my tendencies and the aggregate tendencies of society, nor is it an excuse to avoid addressing those tendencies or trying to reduce that harm.

  82. edamameon 23 Mar 2017 at 11:08 am

    The irony is that the same people who want to micromanage the language oppressed groups use to describe implicit racism are the ones in comment threads that will call everyone snowflakes and laugh about “safe spaces” and attack political correctness.

    But ‘microaggression’? Suddenly words, and their consequences, are extremely important, and people should be much more careful and sensitive about the terminology they use to describe oppressors. “May I suggest ‘perceived slight’, my good sir? It would surely guard against all of the many traps your people are sure to fall into with this very complex issue, what with the potential attribution errors and such that I’m sure you have never thought of before. We wouldn’t want you making a mistake, would we now? You might offend us and we might dig in our heels and become even more racist? And you wouldn’t want that. You really don’t want to make us more racist, now do you?”

  83. Steven Novellaon 23 Mar 2017 at 11:40 am

    edamame – much of what you say is reasonable (and yes, of course we need to address implicit racism), but I think a major unstated premise of your position is that the world is divided into racists and not-racists. I think there is a vast spectrum in between.

    Yes, racists are often just assholes, and they exploit the complexity of these issues in order to blame the victim and shield themselves from responsibility, and to protect their privilege. That’s all true. But that does not describe everyone.

    I have a problem with the false dichotomy approach (which occurs on both ends). I think it results in polarized extremes that talk past each other, and people in the middle who feel they are being caught in the crossfire.

    There are plenty of people in the middle who are not racists by any reasonable definition, and want to be sensitive, but bristle at what seems like excessive micromanagement of speech, or don’t like being called a racist because of innocent misunderstandings.

    You can simultaneously be sensitive to oppressed minorities and the need to be aware of implicit racism or unintentional slight, and be sensitive to the fact that there are many people who mean well and are your ally, but still may be caught in an overly broad net, and recognize that there are real racist assholes who need to be called out.

    The psychological literature is a parallel and distinct issue, because there is a need for objective and operational definitions in the technical literature. At the same time we have to be careful how technical terms are coopted for popular use.

  84. edamameon 23 Mar 2017 at 12:18 pm

    There is definitely a continuum of racist behavior, and as I was explicit above I would treat different cases *very* differently depending on context and motives and history (e.g., is this a pattern, have they been told this is probably a bad idea, or is this just an honest mistake?). So I’m not saying to bear into grandma the same way you would a Klan member.

    The problem is I think you have not absorbed the point you made. Folks here are overreacting to the term ‘racist’, and not treating it as a continuum. The alternative language of microaggression and implicit racial bias is meant to ameliorate and placate the hypersensitivities of folks to the R word.

    But even then, people are saying “you are doing it wrong.” It’s partly because there is no way to mask that we are talking about racism. It will never make you feel good about yourself, and it shouldn’t. We are by definition talking about hurtful behavior that is based on race, regardless of motive or intent. We should want to weed it out. Just deal with it. My God, man. Nobody is saying that anyone deserved to be fired if they touch a black person’s hair, or call a doctor ‘Nurse.’ Who is it that doesn’t see the continuum here?

    I also question the overall premise that there is this acute danger of a science term being co-opted: it’s not exactly an extremely well-defined term such that people can be mangling it. That just seems a pedantic and condescending, and frankly misplaced concern, to the point of being incredible. If the word were ‘odd’ and they were arguing about math, then maybe. It is social science and the meaning is intrinsically vague enough that I think we can trust people to use it. It refers to systematic implicit racial bias and how that plays out. It isn’t that complicated, especially to black people who deal with it constantly. If folks find a term that originated in social sciences useful, sure it can sometimes be “misused” but gimme a break we aren’t talking about electron spin. Talking about the “technical literature” here is a major stretch.

  85. rskuraton 23 Mar 2017 at 12:25 pm

    Synchronicity – here’s a recent article from the BPS Digest on precisely this topic:

    A term this politically charged is difficult to pin down, even if the behavior isn’t.

  86. edamameon 23 Mar 2017 at 12:42 pm

    Note I avoid discussions of whether someone is racist. I think it is more useful to focus on behavior, regardless of the nebulous question of whether someone “is a racist”. I would rather discuss whether this or that behavior is racist, which tends to be more easy for people to argue about rationally. Arguing about who is a racist or not is weird, and counterproductive, and just makes people defensive.

  87. MosBenon 23 Mar 2017 at 1:39 pm

    On the nose, edamame. If someone is determined to take offense at any discussion of how their actions could have racial implications, there is no term, whether microagressions or something else, that is going to make them comfortable. To the extent that someone talking about microagressions likens someone clutching their purse to riding around in Klan sheets, they’re being ridiculous. This is the internet, so I’m not saying that nobody has ever made that comparison, but I suspect that these people are so vanishingly few as to be nearly a straw man.

    As edamame said, trying to pin down who is or isn’t a racist is fraught with definitional problems and isn’t really productive. We don’t really care about the categories anyway, we care about the behavior. Yes, the church burning and sheet wearing of people who are “racists by any reasonable definition” should be opposed, but the aggregate of seemingly small things which happen predominantly to oppressed groups is bad too, and addressing those problems (eg, candidates with “black sounding” names getting fewer interviews) is more important than whether I get upset at the idea that someone might be saying that I’m not a sterling pure Good Person. If people can’t get passed the idea that they may have done something that had adverse racial effects then we’ll never get around to actually addressing the adverse affects.

    We’d have more luck talking about how “microagressions” aren’t committed by terrible, horrible, no-good people than trying to find a term that doesn’t make people squirm in their seat. It’s not the term that makes people uncomfortable, but what the subject.

  88. BillyJoe7on 23 Mar 2017 at 2:34 pm


    I have three criticisms of your position:

    Firstly, the term “microaggression” has been applied not only to racism, but also to religion, politics, and sexual orientation, so you are wrong to concentrate only to racism.

    Secondly, the term “microaggression” applies exactly to the middle ground, otherwise the appropriate term is “macroaggression” and no one here is supporting overt racism, sexism etc.

    Thirdly, it is the outcome for the “microaggressed” that is important thing. As I have explained, you don’t get good outcome by alienating the “microaggressor” who is actually on the side of the “microaggressed”, and you don’t do the “microagressed” any favours by hypersensitizing them, which is exactly is what is occurring with the use of that term.

  89. Steven Novellaon 23 Mar 2017 at 2:56 pm

    Edamame and MosBen – the issue seems to have been reframed in the comments. As I made very clear – microaggressions are real, they cause harm, we need to be sensitive to them and make efforts to increase awareness and avoid committing them, etc.

    My concerns are not about the feelings of people accused of committing microaggressions, but the simplistic use of a vague concept to wash over the complexities of human interaction, culture, and society.

    The concept of “microaggression” creates a simplistic narrative, and I think that is generally counterproductive. In some cases the term actually refers to an aggression, or reveal actual racism. In other cases it refers to innocent misundertanding, or simply situations in which someone is naive to history or culture, or perhaps their own privilege.

    In the middle, where you are dealing mostly with reasonable people, we need to be able to have a nuanced conversation about how to move forward and root out more and more subtle implicit bias. I am not convinced that the term microaggression as commonly used is productive to that conversation.

    My reference to the technical literature is not a stretch – I specifically cited a paper in the technical literature that reviewed the use of the term in the technical literature. I used it to make one specific point – even at that level it is poorly defined and carries unproven assumptions.

  90. BillyJoe7on 23 Mar 2017 at 4:36 pm


    “The irony is that the same people who want to micromanage the language oppressed groups use to describe implicit racism are the ones in comment threads that will call everyone snowflakes and laugh about “safe spaces” and attack political correctness”

    That’s because you are thinking of “microaggression” only in reference to racism.

    To be clear, my use of these terms was in reference to people educated in religious schools, who feel “unsafe” when they move into the wider world. They have a “need” to continue to be sheltered from alternative world views. Some universities provide a “safe place” for them by labelling almost everything that can even remotely be interpreted as anti-religious as a “microaggression”, and create an environment where it becomes politically incorrect to commit a “microaggression”. Students and professors live in fear of transgressing in these environments, and the protected students are indeed treated like “snowflakes”. It suppressses open enquiry and free speech which is what these places of learning are supposed to be all about. It even becomes impossible to properly teach science in these environments.

    Just thought I’d better put a context to my first comment in this thread.

    Also, they are not exactly an oppresssed group. Religious people comprise a majority of the population. Some act as if they are an oppressed minority when, in fact, it is their actual priviledged positions that are being questioned.

  91. mumadaddon 23 Mar 2017 at 5:38 pm

    Out of curiosity, have any of you done an IAT (Implicit Association Test) for race?

  92. MosBenon 23 Mar 2017 at 5:56 pm

    Fair enough, Steve. To bring things back to your original post, I think that problem is part 3 of the definition of microagression from Lillianfield’s article. Now, I won’t speak to whether this is the accepted definition of microagression in the field, being neither familiar enough with the literature nor trained in the field. What I will argue is that this should not be part of the definition. The point of the concept of microagressions is, as Lillianfield and you both acknowledge, to bring to light more subtle forms of oppression (I’m using oppression rather than writing racism/sexism/etc. every time). The focus is not on determining whether an individual who clutches their purse is doing so because the were recently mugged or because they grew up in a society that told them that men of a certain age and race are dangerous. The focus in on the fact that men of a certain age and race are regularly subjected to very similar behavior which presents them as being dangerous and that this cumulatively has negative effects on individuals of this group and the group as a whole.

    As an example, it is my understanding that men in general have a tendency to talk over and interrupt women. Feel free to point out if the evidence doesn’t statistically support that. I’ve heard it from sources that I consider reliable, but haven’t done independent research. Anyway, I am a gregarious, extroverted person, and I have a tendency to blurt things out or be very active in a conversation. Now, I THINK that I do this to men and women equally, but, of course, I wouldn’t know if I was wrong if I have an implicit bias. I have been (gently) called out on this by a couple female friends. It doesn’t matter if I actually interrupt people equally; when I interrupt a female friend I’m contributing to an aggregate that hurts them. I know that I don’t mean to be harmful, but my feelings aren’t the issue, the effects of my actions are.

    People who assert that the perpetrators of alleged “microagressions” don’t mean it are, I think, missing the point. Racism in general, from Klansman on down to purse clutching, is about the harm that it causes the oppressed group. If someone holds racist beliefs but is completely non-racist in every external way, who cares what’s in their head? It matters to the extent that the person burns down a church or disproportionately denies home loans (even inadvertently).

  93. MosBenon 23 Mar 2017 at 6:02 pm

    TL:DR version – The focus on the perpetrators of microagressions is a mistake. The issue with oppression is the harm it causes, not the wrong thoughts of the perpetrators. Whether you intend to demean a woman by calling her a nurse or do it because you live in a society that has primed you for sexist behavior, you still cause the harm. We may think that you’re more of a jerk if you mean it, but once you learn that you caused harm it doesn’t relieve you of responsibility for the harm or the duty to attempt to adjust your behavior in the future.

    To invoke Wil Wheaton’s Law: Don’t be a dick. Sometimes you can be a dick without meaning to, but despite the lack of intent, you were still a dick.

  94. mumadaddon 23 Mar 2017 at 6:52 pm

    A thought experiment:

    Take the example of ‘purse clutching’.

    • A White man or woman clutches their purse or checks their wallet as a Black or Latino man approaches or passes them. (Hidden message: You and your group are criminals.).

    Put some measurable parameters around it, such as time taken to clutch, tightness of grasp etc. You have two subjects. One is a person who’s grown up in the culture, has no interest or idea about the statistical distribution between demographics of who’s more or less likely to make a grab for her purse; the other has been raised by benevolent robots in a utopia, but has an intimate and unbiased statistical understanding.

    Is it better or worse if the one or the other happens to clutch quicker and tighter when encountering a particular demographic?

    Is it worse behaviour if the demographic has been historically persecuted? Better if they haven’t? If they are more or less offended by the slight? What’s the difference in terms of the moral quality of the subject’s behaviour?

  95. edamameon 23 Mar 2017 at 8:29 pm

    Steven, definitely cultural interactions are complex, and identifying actual instances of implicit racial bias are notoriously difficult to pin down in individual cases. But we need a term that does justice to the dynamic that is more specific than ‘perceived slight’ which is so general as to be noninformative about the dynamic. That could apply to my kid when she doesn’t get her lollipop.

    I think maybe just ‘implicit racial bias’ is good too, and probably more literal and accurate, and leaves less open to interpretation and confusion. I’m not actually all that wedded to the particular jargon here (‘microaggression’), as much as acknowledging implicit racism, making an explicit conscious attempt to fight it, talk about how it plays out, and naming it something more specific than ‘being offended.’ Because it is more than that, it needs a name that acknowledges the power dynamics at play. So, go ahead and pick a new name better than microaggression, but ‘perceived slight’ is not it.

    Billy Joe in practice macro implies micro. But for the rest (the majority of us who have some implicit racial bias, that we want to fight), those of us that want to fight racism should be fine with having it called out. This was one of the points of the parody video on how to handle racism in the workplace (my second post in the thread). Are we that thin skinned that we cannot handle it?

    I don’t see religion really fitting in here.

  96. MosBenon 23 Mar 2017 at 8:35 pm

    It’s all about your frame of reference. If we’re evaluating the moral quality of the individual doing the clutching, then all of those things matter. Where we come from, our intent, these are all things that matter for evaluating our own individual moral standing. When we talk about microaggression, we’re not talking about the moral quality of the aggressor, we’re talking about the cumulative effects of small, subtle acts against a traditionally oppressed group. To the person who sees ten people clutch their purses as they walk by each day it doesn’t matter if person #8 just got mugged or that they grew up in a robot culture that placed great value on handbag safety. What matters is that it happens consistently and the message is that they are a dangerous person.

    A friend brought up this example on Facebook, where I was discussing this post, and it applies to me: As a straight, cis, white man I don’t have tons of experience with microagressions, but as a person who is significantly heavy, people call me variations of “big guy” all the time. Some of them may intend to insult me, but most of them think that their action is neutral or friendly. And if it were something that happened only from close friends or only rarely I probably wouldn’t notice. But it happens all the time, and it pretty much always makes me feel bad about myself. What each individual person thought when they said it doesn’t matter because I’m not evaluating whether each individual person is “good” or “bad”. I simply don’t have the information about their state of mind to make that evaluation. But their actions still cause harm, and it would be better if as a group we caused less harm, particularly to groups that have a long history of being disadvantaged (note: I’m not making a direct parallel between overweight people and any historically oppressed group, it’s just the best personal frame of reference available to me)

  97. MosBenon 23 Mar 2017 at 8:39 pm

    Agreed, edamame. I’m not married to the term “microaggression”, but “perceived slight” is not a good replacement.

  98. MosBenon 23 Mar 2017 at 8:48 pm

    It also seems to me that there is a lot of concern on the anti-microaggression side about distinguishing “real racists” from “reasonable” or “well-meaning” people. I don’t think that that is an issue here. While it’s certainly possible that someone, somewhere on the interwebs has railed against the horrible racists who commit microaggressions, in my experience that’s only very rarely the case. This isn’t some race/gender version of negging, it’s decades or centuries of ugly history infecting even small ways that we interact.

  99. MosBenon 23 Mar 2017 at 8:51 pm

    I’m not a medical professional, so this might not be a perfect analogy, but here it goes: racial bias is the disease, microaggression is the symptom.

  100. Steven Novellaon 24 Mar 2017 at 7:22 am

    MosBen – to follow your analogy, I agree microagressions can be a symptom of implicit or explicit racial (or other) biases, but they are a non-specific symptom that can also result from other causes and even occur in the healthy population.

    But to be clear – I have the same goal you do, to identify and root out implicit bias and raise awareness of the subtle ways in which we can oppress certain populations. I really just wanted to discuss the complexity of this.

    I would summarize my current feelings about this complexity this way: First, the concept and application of “microaggressions” as a concept is problematic, in the ways I discuss above. Mainly it is a very blunt instrument ripe for misuse.

    Second, I think that the goal of living in a pluralistic society without pissing each other off all the time or oppressing certain groups requires multiple approaches, not just avoiding “microaggressions.” I think it is fine to say that the majority of the burden is on those who currently have privilege, are in a historically privileged group, or more likely to be in the role of “oppressor.” I just don’t think it’s practical to say that 100% of the burden is on them.

    Everyone has to make a sincere effort to be reasonably thick-skinned, to not look for insult or to confidently make assumptions about multi-step inferences of offense.

    The reason for this is that any culture in which no one ever says or does anything that can possibly be interpreted as a slight by anyone else is, in itself, an oppressive culture, and one in which free-speech is unacceptably chilled.

    There is a reasonable balance in the middle. Of course, whenever you try to achieve a reasonable balance, both ends accuse you of being an advocate of the other extreme.

  101. BillyJoe7on 24 Mar 2017 at 9:19 am


    “I don’t see religion really fitting in here”

    That was my point. You don’t. I do. And my first comment was about religion…which you misconstrued as being about race…which explains your antagonism.
    But, like it or not, religion does fit in here.
    In some circles you can’t criticise Islam for fear of upsetting Muslims and being called an “Islamophobe” as a result. Even ex-Muslims criticising Islam get a hard time. Some ex-Muslims have been victims once as a result of FGM, twice as a result of death threats because of their apostasy, and thrice as a result of accusations of Islamophobia by white male journalists.
    Open enquiry and free speech are the casualties.

    Anyway, it seems we are all agreed that “microaggression” is a bad term. And we are all agreed that there is inherent unintentional racism (and other isms). We just disagree on method of achieving the goal of having minority groups feel more inclusive. I just don’t understand how hypersensitising minorities and alienating those who essentially support them achieves this end.

    Personal anecdote: recently at a social gathering I happened to be talking to a young female who I vaguely remembered had something to do with the health professions and I jumped to the conclusion that she was a nurse. I simply thought this was a reasonable conclusion based on the fact that nurses are far more common than doctors, especially amongst the people in my social groups. Also my son is in his third year of a nursing course and I was hopeful of a discussion about nursing. Turns out she is a doctor and her annoyance was palpable. I chose to ignore her annoyance and said something along the lines of “oh, of course, yes, I remember now…its your brother who’s the nurse isn’t he? (which, it turns out, he is)”, and the conversation turned to a discussion about doctors and nurses and how valued females doctors and male nurses are in their respective professions. I suppose you could almost call that reverse discrimination! But who’s keeping count?

    I think we need to lighten up a little. It doesn’t need to be so intense. Every word and gesture does not need to be scrutinised and analysed. A bit of a thick skin and a charitable interpretation of what people say (on both sides) is far more likely to achieve the goals that everyone is after. I like the way zorrobandito handled her situation, and I suspect she made far more friends and achieved far more for the cause of women than she would have if she’d had this insane obsession with seeing and calling out microaggressions everywhere. On its face it is an alienating process. And I’m sure that, in practise, this is exactly what it does.

  102. Pete Aon 24 Mar 2017 at 10:11 am

    Dr Novella,

    I am very grateful for your article, and for your replies to the commentators, because the various applications of the concept of “microaggression” can, and do, sometimes cause a great deal of harm — especially when the concept is covertly deployed to make it seem that the roles of the aggressor(s) and the victim(s) are reversed.

    On 24 Mar 2017 at 7:22 am, you wrote in your reply to “MosBen”:

    Everyone has to make a sincere effort to be reasonably thick-skinned, to not look for insult or to confidently make assumptions about multi-step inferences of offence.

    The reason for this is that any culture in which no one ever says or does anything that can possibly be interpreted as a slight by anyone else is, in itself, an oppressive culture, and one in which free-speech is unacceptably chilled.

    There is a reasonable balance in the middle. Of course, whenever you try to achieve a reasonable balance, both ends accuse you of being an advocate of the other extreme.

    Yes indeed!

    There are many examples of covert attempts to role-reverse the aggressor and the victim, but to avoid a heated debate, I shall use a cognitive disorder to illustrate how easy it is, simply due to our ignorance, to believe that we’ve been on the receiving end of a microaggression/microaggressor…

    Prosopagnosia, also known as “face blindness”, is the inability to recognise faces.

    A person with prosopagnosia may avoid social interaction and develop social anxiety disorder (an overwhelming fear of social situations).

    They may also have difficulty forming relationships or experience problems with their career. Episodes of depression aren’t uncommon.

    Some people with prosopagnosia are unable to recognise certain facial expressions, judge a person’s age or gender, or follow a person’s gaze. Others may not even recognise their own face in the mirror or in photos.

    Someone with prosopagnosia may worry that they appear rude or disinterested when they fail to recognise a person.

    That last paragraph is, I think, a huge understatement. They know perfectly well that they repeatedly cause offence via the verbal and non-verbal feedback they receive!

    This ‘minority group’ of circa 2% of the population cannot help being thought of as part of the much larger group of aggressors that includes racists, sexists, etc.

  103. MosBenon 24 Mar 2017 at 12:11 pm

    Steve, I don’t disagree with anything in your last post, I just don’t think that the problem is with the term “microaggression” or how I have seen it conceived/applied in the real world. As I have encountered the term, people applying it seem to me to understand that in general people should have reasonably thick skin and not all purse clutchers are terrible people. Indeed, it’s not about any individual, but about the pattern. It’s not about calling all purse clutchers racists, it’s about pointing out that in the aggregate the disproportionate distribution of purse clutching shows a lingering race problem. Some of those data points are going to be people with a perfectly reasonably non-race-based reason to have clutched their purse, some will have had negative racial intent, and some will just be reflecting inherent bias of which they aren’t even aware. But it’s not about painting them all with a broad brush, but to plant a seed in all of their minds so that they know that there’s this harm being caused out there and they might have contributed to it. Maybe next time the walk passed a man of a particular age and race they’ll catch themselves.

    To switch up metaphors, inherent bias is like an externalized cost in economics. It’s not that everyone who benefits from an externalized cost is nefarious. The point is to bring an extra piece of information to the discussion to allow people to have a more fully informed view of their choices and how those choices affect everyone else.

  104. MosBenon 24 Mar 2017 at 12:12 pm

    Thanks for the discussion, by the way. I appreciate your thoughtful responses, though I must admit that I’ve found some of the posts by other commenters a bit troubling.

  105. BillyJoe7on 24 Mar 2017 at 4:29 pm


    “I’ve found some of the posts by other commenters a bit troubling”

    I’m not sure who you mean, but for me the only “troubling commenters” were Dobbler and Charon, who dumped their load and ran, not even bothering to back up their aggressive outburst.

    As I said, we are all after the same outcome but disagree about the method of achieving that outcome. I do find it surprising that no one pushing the microagression stradegy has responded in any way to zorrobandito, who gave some real life examples of how to deal with both implied and overt sexism. And I believe the psychological literature backs up that stradegy.

  106. BillyJoe7on 25 Mar 2017 at 1:18 am

    The following is something that i’ve had in the back of my mind throughout this thread, but that no one has yet touched on. It undermines, in my opinion, the case for microaggression (or whatever term you wish to replace it with):

    The use of the word “race” is, itself, problematic. Many claim that there is no such thing as “race”, meaning that there are more differences within “groups from different parts of the world” (euphemism for “race”) than between them. Therefore we should replace the word “race” with “groups from different parts of the world”. Therefore, using the word “race” is to draw attention to differences that don’t exist. This drawing attention to differences that don’t exist is seen, in some circles, as a microaggression. On the other hand, to deny that there are “races” can be seen as a microaggression against those who self-identify as a being part of a “race”.

    Also the use of the world “racism” is seen, in some circles, as a microaggression against Asians. Because, when we talk about “racism” we are unintentionally, reflexly, and unthinkingly thinking about bigotry against black African-Americans and we are, therefore, excluding Asians who can then feel marginalised and victims of microaggression.

    There is also the “intersection problem” which arises when there is mutual marginalisation and microaggression between, for example, a black male and a white female, or even a black male and a black female, each against the other. Some will accuse the female of microaggression in order to champion the case against racism, while others will accuse the black man of microaggression in order to champion the case against sexism. Note, also, that you need not be a minority to be a target of microaggression. Females, after all, are not a minority group.

    So, everyone in this thread, who has used the word “racism” in defence of the word microaggression (or whatever word you want to replace it with) is also guilty of “microaggression”.

  107. BillyJoe7on 25 Mar 2017 at 1:51 am

    As an aside, what is wrong with this headline:

    “Climate, not just genetics, shaped your nose, study says”

  108. BillyJoe7on 25 Mar 2017 at 2:27 am

    And this is almost humourous if it weren’t also tragic:

    The March for Science has been plagued by accusations of non-inclusiveness.
    Their mission statement has undergone several revisions in response to the criticism.
    Here is part of their latest version:

    “We hear you, and thank you for your criticism. At the March for Science, we are committed to centralizing, highlighting, standing in solidarity with, and acting as accomplices with black, Latinx, Asian and Pacific Islander, indigenous, non-Christian, women, people with disabilities, poor, gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, trans, non-binary, agender, and intersex scientists and science advocates. We must work to make science available to everyone and encouraging individuals of all backgrounds to pursue science careers, especially in advanced degrees and positions. A diverse group of scientists produces increasingly diverse research, which broadens, strengthens, and enriches scientific inquiry, and therefore, our understanding of the world”

    The previous statement did not mention those with disabilities and had to be revised.
    If you can’t find a group still not included in this statement, then you’re not trying very hard!
    How about…brown…white…men…cis…African…Christian…Muslim…atheist…rich….

    This would be almost humorous if it weren’t for the fact that it risks totally overshadowing the purpose of the march which is to protest the changes Trump has made to government run science organisations and what he plans to do to science funding.

  109. BillyJoe7on 26 Mar 2017 at 3:32 am

    Consequences for open enquiry of promoting the concept of “microaggression”:

    Interest in this topic has waned, so I don’t expect a response, but here is a good example of where “microaggression” in relation to racism (which seems to be the only connection supporters of “microaggression” here seem to be interested in) has transitioned into full on verbal and attempted physical assault.

    The incident involves one of the authors of “The Bell Curve” published in 1994, Charles Murray, who was heckled and threatened with physical assault when he attended to give an invited speech at Middlebury College.

    For background on the allegations of racism in “The Bell Curve”, and the author’s (unconvincing) defense against these allegations, please read the following:

    Here is Charles Murray’s account of the incident at Middlebury College:

    Here is an editorial in The New York Times, which gives a good account of the attack on open enquiry and free speech posed by students reacting to perceived – and probably justified – racism in the book. And note that his speech was not about the contents of “The Bell Curve”, but about the contents of his new book, “Coming Apart”, which is also about class:

    There is a lot to criticise in the book, and it is generally recognised that its conclusions are false, and racially motivated. The question is, should opinions you don’t like be censored to protect people from being offended?

    My own opinion is that it should not – as long as the discussion is about ideas and not an attack on individuals or an incitement to do direct harm to people.

    If someone with appropriate qualifications (and, in my opinion, a political scientist writing a book on the subject qualifies, regardless of his possible motivations) is of the opinion that the IQ of African-Americans is lower than that of White Americans, then let him put his case. The correct response is to counter the arguments, not censor them for fear of causing offense to African-Americans. The students were determined to stop him delivering his invited speech.

    Similarly, if someone is of the opinion that the holocaust did not happen, let him put his case. The correct response is to counter the arguments, not to censor them for fear of causing offense to the Jewish population.

    Otherwise, you are simply attacking open enquiry and free speech.
    Regardless of good intentions when it was introduced, the concept of “microaggression” has become a means to this end – silencing open enquiry and free speech.

    And it’s not as if there is not a better way…

  110. BillyJoe7on 26 Mar 2017 at 3:53 am

    …and here is a totally unconvincing letter signed by 450 Middlebury College alumni protesting at the invitation extended to Charles Murray to speak at the College.

    Apparently free speech does not apply “in this case”.

  111. Pete Aon 26 Mar 2017 at 10:54 am


    [verb]: speak to or treat with disrespect or scornful abuse.
    [noun]: a disrespectful or scornfully abusive remark or act.

    [noun]: a breach of a law or rule; an illegal act.
    [mass noun]: annoyance or resentment brought about by a perceived insult to or disregard for oneself. [my emphasis]

    [noun]: a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority.
    [mass noun]: indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group.

    One very important lesson that I learnt ages ago was the utter futility of attempting to change the behaviour of everyone in the world, other than myself. People are entitled to, and sometimes do, hurl insults at me. However, whether or not I take offence — using the above mass noun definition — is entirely under my control, it is never under the control of the insulter(s), therefore my reaction and my subsequent behaviour are my responsibilities. I think that this is one of the fundamental definitions that adequately serve to delineate between children and adults.

  112. BillyJoe7on 26 Mar 2017 at 4:43 pm

    As a counterpoint (definition: a thing that forms a pleasing or notable contrast to something else) to the letter by 450 Middlebury College alumni, here is a letter signed by 100 Middlebury College professors. It is worth quoting in full:

    “Free Inquiry on Campus: A Statement of Principles by over One Hundred Middlebury College Professors

    On March 2, 2017, roughly 100 of our 2500 students prevented a controversial visiting speaker, Dr. Charles Murray, from communicating with his audience on the campus of Middlebury College. Afterwards, a group of unidentified assailants mobbed the speaker, and one of our faculty members was seriously injured. In view of these unacceptable acts, we have produced and affixed our signatures to this document stating core principles that seem to us unassailable in the context of higher education within a free society.

    Our statement of principles first appeared in the Wall Street Journal on March 7, 2017.

    The principles are as follows:

    Genuine higher learning is possible only where free, reasoned, and civil speech and discussion are respected.

    Only through the contest of clashing viewpoints do we have any hope of replacing mere opinion with knowledge.

    The incivility and coarseness that characterize so much of American politics and culture cannot justify a response of incivility and coarseness on the college campus.

    The impossibility of attaining a perfectly egalitarian sphere of free discourse can never justify efforts to silence speech and debate.

    Exposure to controversial points of view does not constitute violence.

    Students have the right to challenge and to protest non-disruptively the views of their professors and guest speakers.

    A protest that prevents campus speakers from communicating with their audience is a coercive act.

    No group of professors or students has the right to act as final arbiter of the opinions that students may entertain.

    No group of professors or students has the right to determine for the entire community that a question is closed for discussion.

    The purpose of college is not to make faculty or students comfortable in their opinions and prejudices.

    The purpose of education is not the promotion of any particular political or social agenda.

    The primary purpose of higher education is the cultivation of the mind, thus allowing for intelligence to do the hard work of assimilating and sorting information and drawing rational conclusions.

    A good education produces modesty with respect to our own intellectual powers and opinions as well as openness to considering contrary views.

    All our students possess the strength, in head and in heart, to consider and evaluate challenging opinions from every quarter.

    We are steadfast in our purpose to provide all current and future students an education on this model, and we encourage our colleagues at colleges across the country to do the same.”

  113. SteveAon 27 Mar 2017 at 5:39 am


    As Eleanor Roosevelt put it: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

  114. BillyJoe7on 27 Mar 2017 at 7:06 am

    I am one for all with Pete and Steve and Eleanor Roosevelt and, of course, zorrobandito.

  115. arnieon 27 Mar 2017 at 8:55 am

    IMO, Eleanor Roosevelt’s assertion is so wildly oversimplified as to be not only misleading, but wrong. It gives no credence to the complexity of the brain and the vast amount of processing of input that goes on unconsciously which can result in feelings of inferiority without “consent” (which implies a conscious and willful act).

    Let’s get real, folks. While I agree with the professors’ approach to college education, Eleanor’s quoted assertion is purely wishful thinking and irrelevant to this discussion. Again, IMO.

  116. arnieon 27 Mar 2017 at 9:02 am

    For what it’s worth, the “O” in “IMO” did not come out of thin air, but is based on five decades of neurology and psychiatry education and practice.

  117. Pete Aon 27 Mar 2017 at 9:19 am


    Thank you for that quote. I didn’t understand what it meant so I searched for examples and explanations. For me, the following was very helpful:

    Dr Novella’s article has reminded me of a question that I’ve always wanted to ask, but never did because it seems to be embarrassingly naive: Where is, or what is, the generally accepted dividing line between preferences and prejudices? In other words, how am I supposed to know if what I think are my preferences are indeed just preferences, or some of them are actually deep-rooted prejudices that I need to correct?

    PS: After writing the above, and just about to post it, I’ve seen the comments by BJ7 and Arnie: I would greatly appreciate your feedback.

  118. arnieon 27 Mar 2017 at 9:58 am

    In a nutshell, ER’s assertion that you have to “consent” (not defined by her but, by implication, a conscious choice”) to feel inferior and her admonition to just “be confident……” would, paradoxically, only work if you already are a confident person who does not consciously or unconsciously have a sense of, or self-image of, inferiority.

    One way of looking at “preferences” is as conscious experiences of likes and dislikes even though one may not be fully aware, or even partially aware, of the sources or reasons for those preferences. Prejudices, in contrast, usually refers to, or implies, reflexive “pre-judgments” made about something or someone without conscious thought or reason and so are “rationalized”, i.e., cognitive process occurring outside of awareness and thought by the individual to be based on reason and logic. In reality, I think there is a fair amount of overlap between “preferences” and “prejudices” but also some relevant distinction to be made.

    Don’t know if that helps with your questions (which doesn’t seem at all naive to me) but, off the top of my head, that’s how I think about the distinction. BJ7 will probably have a more interesting and less pedantic response, if he’s true to form. 🙂

  119. SteveAon 27 Mar 2017 at 10:07 am


    Interesting question. Not sure I have an answer.

    If was going on a long train journey and had a choice between sitting in a carriage full of Englishmen and another full of Nigerians, I think my preference would be to sit with the people I was likely to have most in common with (the conversation being easier). However, if I discovered the Englishmen were all Seventh Day Adventist naturopaths I might swiftly move to sit with my Nigerian brothers. Not to do so would, I think, be evidence of prejudice.

    Perhaps it all boils down to the quality of our assumptions i.e. preferences are based on reasonable assumptions; prejudice is based on unreasonable assumptions. In the above example, it would be unreasonable of me to think that, based on what I’d found out about the Englishmen, that the Nigerians were still likely to make worse travelling companions.

    Does that help at all…?

  120. arnieon 27 Mar 2017 at 10:11 am

    In addition, if follows that preferences tend to be more amenable to change with experience and evidence than preduices, which, through confirmation bias and other logical flaws frequently “harden” in the face of contrary experience and evidence. Put another way, prejudices are more deeply embedded in one’s sense of self and developmentally earliest views of external reality.

  121. Pete Aon 27 Mar 2017 at 12:51 pm


    Thank you for your detailed answers. You have explained very clearly why I didn’t understand the quote from Eleanor Roosevelt (absolutely no criticism aimed at SteveA for quoting it, I’m very glad that he gave me the courage to start asking question that have been bothering me for a very long time).

    If I’ve understood your replies correctly, I shall carry on doing what I usually do: I seriously introspect my knee-jerk reactions/responses because I cannot rationalize them; they are ingrained heuristics that may, or may not, be useful or appropriate. They are, very clearly to me, not my preferences.

    In the past, too much introspection resulted in OCD (something I’d always hoped that I would never ever be able to understand!), but that very unpleasant experience gave me the incentive to speak openly and honestly about mental health, especially to the people within my local community. Most of them are very appreciative; a few of them take it as a golden opportunity to verbally abuse anyone and everyone who has, or has had, a mental health problem.

    So, yes, I think that I fully understand your opening paragraph:

    In a nutshell, ER’s assertion that you have to “consent” (not defined by her but, by implication, a conscious choice”) to feel inferior and her admonition to just “be confident……” would, paradoxically, only work if you already are a confident person who does not consciously or unconsciously have a sense of, or self-image of, inferiority.

    Many thanks again, Arnie, for your thoughtful reply,

  122. Pete Aon 27 Mar 2017 at 1:00 pm


    Thank you very much for your reply, which is indeed very helpful to me.

  123. arnieon 27 Mar 2017 at 1:33 pm

    Thanks, Pete. I’m glad that exchange was helpful. I laud your courage to speak up about mental health in your community.

    Steve A, I think your example is a very good one and that your conclusion is right on. Perhaps my response to your ER quote was slightly hyperbolic. I know a lot of people believe in that view about how people can, apparently quite easily, so something purely consciously about their deep seated negative image or sense of themselves. i think much evidence has shown it doesn’t work that way. I wasn’t really meaning to criticize you personally quoting her. In fact, if I wanted to be really critical of people passing on simplistic and misleading quotes they read or hear, I would have plenty to criticize starting right here with myself without looking further.

  124. arnieon 27 Mar 2017 at 1:39 pm

    By the way, I think the distinction between preferences and prejudices is actually very relevant to some aspects and misunderstandings involved in this long thread on microaggression. No really easy or simple answers there and whichever “side” one comes down on also has it’s “down” side. (Two interesting and common uses of “down”.)

  125. BillyJoe7on 28 Mar 2017 at 7:14 am


    Eleanor Roosevelt: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”

    arnie: “Eleanor Roosevelt’s assertion is so wildly oversimplified as to be not only misleading, but wrong. It gives no credence to the complexity of the brain and the vast amount of processing of input that goes on unconsciously which can result in feelings of inferiority without “consent””

    ER’s sentence is ten words long, so it is necessarily going to be a simplification. I’m not sure that it is a wild oversimplification. That would depend on the context in which she said it. In the context of this thread, however, it seems to me to be an appropriate quote.

    I don’t think you are responding directly to ER’s quote. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to be talking about people with inferiority complexes. For example, some indviduals spend their lives feeling inferior to everyone around them. And they don’t seem to need much help from those around them. Perhaps past experiences caused them to develop inferiority complexes but now it’s just a reflex.

    ER seems to be giving advice as to how you should react to those who “make you feel inferior”. In other words, how to react to people who’s actual intention is to make you feel inferior (so that they can feel superior to you). She is talking to you (the average person), and what she is saying is that you don’t have to play their game.

    And this relates back to this thread. You don’t have to play the game of “microaggression”. You don’t have to feel offended with every comment that can be evenly remotely viewed – even when not intended by the “perpetrator” – as a “microaggression”.

    I could be wrong because I don’t know the actual context of her quote. However, it did seem appropriate in the context of this thread

  126. arnieon 28 Mar 2017 at 9:48 am


    Thanks for your thoughtful perspective on ER’s quote. I also don’t really know the full context of it. And I did acknowledge that my use of the phrase “wildly oversimplistic” was perhaps a bit hyperbolic.

    In terms of the context of this thread, I do agree partly with ER and you (I think) that the so-called “microaggressors” don’t unilaterally “make” other people feel inferior with their intended or unintended comments. The person feeling offended and put down also does play a role in their “I’m inferior” response. However, when that is their response, it is not because they have “consented” (ER’s position) to feel that way nor does it necessarily have to be that they have a deep and pervasive “inferiority complex”, a vague and broad-stroke concept at best. In the context of this thread, the so-called “victims” (not necessarily intended targets) of the of the microaggressions are members of groups that have been historically looked down upon or treated as inferior in some way. We know that when such attitudes toward these groups spans generations, the individuals in these groups tend to identify (automatically and unconsciously) with such attitudes by the dominant (in terms of power) group(s). So they become highly sensitized to those attitudes and, as a protective measure, tend to “scan” for those behaviors and attitudes. That is a fully natural, reflexive tendency, leads to feelings of hurt, taps into a generational and personal conditioned sense of inferiority, and is not the perceived victims fault, intention, nor conscious consent, so it does virtually no good, ala ER, to admonish them to “simply don’t let that person do that to you”. So, no, I am not talking about those people with pervasive ” inferiority complexes”, although they would likely be the most devastated by “microaggressions”.

    Many individuals, perhaps Zorrobandito among them, in those historically oppressed or marginalized groups are, perhaps due to complex and compensatory developmental/experiential circumstances, have more well established self-esteem and confidence. Although initially apparently feeling some hurt and urge to retaliate, she was able to reflect on the situation, broaden her perspective and options about how to respond and to avoid responding with feeling “down” and “inferior”. Good (and possibly lucky) for her. Probably Eleanor Roosevelt could also do that. For many, probably most, that is far more easily said than done, and to be admonished to stop being so sensitive is probably not going to help “thicken their skin”.

    I doubt that we disagree much on this, BJ. As usual, I’ve mostly been agreeing with your comments on this thread but am also trying to keep a perspective on the good points made on both sides and not to take the position that the historically “downtrodden” can, in just one or two generations, simply throw off their deeply embedded sensitivities and self-protective responses (and, yes, confirmation biases) to the privileged. In turn, the historically privileged (whether in power, economics, respect, etc.) also cannot easily cast of their learned and deeply embedded attitudes (and, yes, confirmation biases) even when they become more aware of them.

    It’s very complicated and takes a long time. I think this thread has, for the most part, been very productive and, to me, enlightening. Thanks for your part in that.

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