Notes on: Cantu, E. & Jussim, L (2022). Microaggressions, Questionable Science, and Free Speech. Texas Review of Law and Politics, 26:218 – 267 [NB I got both the offprint and the web version --page numbers refer to the offprint]

Dave Harris

This is a popular topic, and diversity administrators often include lists claiming that racism is often unconscious. Legal academics are even using microaggressions research in proposing legal change. This article questions the scientific legitimacy about the claims made by psychologists — one author is a psychologist. Instead, 'ideological glue' is responsible for the 'propagative success' of the term and it risks 'socially caustic and legally pernicious effects' unless treated with scepticism.

One of the authors was asked by his institution to complete a training programme featuring unconscious bias and microaggressions. He was presented with a list of statements and questions that apparently constitute microaggressions, and they included questions like whether he had 'made the statement "I don't see colour"… Complained that someone or something is too "PC"; or "asked a person of colour to explain something about their culture"' (219). An affirmative answer would amount to an admission 'of having expressed at least unconscious racism'.

Microaggresions are acts 'often facially innocuous' [I think this means on the face of it] 'that conveys subtle animus or bias against someone in a traditionally marginalised group'. They are going to look only at spoken microaggressions and racial bias. Combating them is an attempt to root out the most insidious forms of racism, the subtlest forms such as language, habits that reinforce racial stereotypes. They are increasingly the focus of social justice discourse, legal scholarship and 'administrative programming'. They are also 'increasingly the basis for charges against professors and others who, for example correct student spelling and grammar in grading papers'. At 'Emory University, students have formally demanded that student evaluation forms include fields wherein students can report microaggressions committed by professors' (220).

There is published scholarship on this phenomenon, but how sound is it? They want to investigate the '"current microaggression construct" (CMC)', the current definition and the set of claims researchers make about it. Legal scholarship has been enriched by interdisciplinary work, but there are risks in that sometimes constructs are accepted as valid without checking the evidence, in this case provided by psychologists. Sometimes the concept is useful ideologically, and 'confirmation bias cancels vigilance' (221). Sometimes people assume that peer-reviewed publication means 'the idea has by definition been thoroughly vetted scientifically', even though psychologists have long canonised claims that turned out to be false, especially indicated byp=-;p-p the replication crisis.

In this case, the claim made for legitimacy of CMC 'is significantly unwarranted (222) and its utility 'limited' it is likely to be 'socially caustic — and therefore counter-productive in the quest for social justice'. They doubt that the commonly propagated lists of microaggressions do not reflect anything meaningful and remain to be empirically justified, partly because it is contaminated by '"methodological activism"'.

The term microaggression was first coined by Peirce in 1970 in the context of black and white racial interactions. He mentioned '"white putdowns done in an automatic, pre-conscious or unconscious fashion"' (2 to 3). The term existed before then but as a 'relatively narrow set of acts'. Peirce's examples included white men saying to black men '"we are good to you blacks"' which according to him meant '"we are good to you blacks and you should be grateful that we control you as gingerly [sic] and humanely as we do"'. In 2022, Solzarno et al. gave an example: '"when I talk about those blacks I really wasn't talking about you", and "if only there were more of them like you"'.

The concept entered the mainstream through the work of Sue, who significantly broadened the construct. He defined racial microaggressions as '"brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group'. These are continuing and cumulative. Examples include '"America is a melting pot" which contains an 'embedded meaning that a white speaker "does not want to acknowledge race" and that minorities should "assimilate" and "acculturate to the dominant culture"' (224).

Some reactions were critical, but mostly the article generated lots of research leading to the CMC, and lots of similar definitions, such as Williams: '"deniable [extra] acts of racism that reinforce pathological stereotypes and inequitable social norms"'. They have 'a list of microaggressions taken from diversity training materials and a major US university in the appendix'. It includes: '"you're a credit to your race"… (Rough translation: "your race is unimpressive but you're one of the few good ones")', which they take to be 'reasonably deemed as likely rooted in racism', but other items are more problematic, much broader and lacking an adequate basis. Psychologists have provided no valid basis, although the CMC looks as if it is the product of rigourous science. It does have the effect of stigmatising and silencing those who do not share the ideological assumptions of the microaggression researchers.

Accepting the commonly propagated list has 'little to no basis'. Other psychologists have said this to, and identified numerous weaknesses including that '"there is no research evidence that the microaggressions identified… are linked either probabilistically or inexorably to the negative messages" researchers claim are embedded in them'(225 – 6). That is because researchers are ascribing racist meaning to often innocuous acts and language, and doing so  for metaphysical reasons.

They are insisting that microaggressive items 'have intrinsically embedded racist meanings' regardless of the non-racist intent of the speaker or even the 'lack of malign interpretation by the recipient' (226). They have been able to 'divine objectively racist meanings in facially innocuous acts that others cannot detect'. The public just have to believe they can do this, to 'discern hidden forces and essences in social phenomena'. This is 'now common in social justice discourse and critical academic theory'. Williams, for example has argued that a statement like '"America is a melting pot"' is a microaggression, but this is not based on the conscious intent of the offender or the perception of the target – instead it is '"by nature offensive… a form of racism"' (227). Acts can be 'inherently and at least unconsciously racist' because 'by definition [they] are caused by socially conditioned racial biases and prejudices… designed to reinforce the traditional power differentials between groups, whether or not this was the conscious intention of the offender'. [Clear hints of false consciousness here, some world historic role for white people]

Speakers are at least negligent in directing some packet of 'objectively extent coded racism' towards a recipient. Such acts must be rooted in racist beliefs, some hidden meta communication, for Sue, beneath the level of awareness. The logic seems to be that you define a situation where A causes B, then if you establish that A has caused B you know you have that situation: to conclude an act as a microaggression, you have to demonstrate that it has been caused by racism, but how do you show that there are racist messages embedded in microaggressions, including questions such as '"can I touch your hair?" Or '"how did you get so good at science?"'. For microaggression researchers, there is an alleged embedded meaning in these questions, but it seems at least as plausible that the speakers believe something else, that partners are good at science [or have touchable hair], and this is equally plausible as a 'default embedded meaning'. Why should a racist embedded meaning be more likely '"by nature"', as Williams argues?. She just rejects the possibility of alternatives, but provides no meaningful evidence to support the claim.

It might be possible to get evidence. They could assess levels of racism among a group of whites independently, and then see if there is a correlation with the likelihood of committing microaggressions, and then rule out alternative explanations. However this is not been done so far. Instead researchers have simply assumed there are embedded meanings and declared statements and questions to be microaggressions 'essentially by fiat' (229). They have relied on 'intuitive assumptions' as a basis of their methodology.

Sue et al. in the original 2007 article offered a list of microaggressions that has subsequently been highly influential in the preparation of various lists, although the authors themselves only said that these items '"may potentially be classified as racial microaggressions"'. As a critic said, this 'taxonomy… was generated in an armchair fashion"' although it has subsequently been used as a template.

Focus group methodology has been used subsequently, where POC participants were put into small discussion groups to discuss microaggressions they think they suffered and new items were generated. Here participants' intuitions replace those of researchers, but it is still 'subjective self reporting', and this is still 'clearly insufficient for showing that listed microaggressive items have objectively embedded in them racist messages. The subjects might also have been highly selected and '"already predisposed to endorse the concept"'  and POC might suspect subtle racism is at play.

The same goes with appeals to lived experience, as Williams has offered, apparently replacing the need to prove any connections. However, 'academics can claim anything they like about their lived experience, which is why such experiences do not count as scientific evidence' (230).

So the methodology involves simply asking POC or other psychologists to think of ways in which racism can manifest itself in language, and thinking of examples that they 'intuitively conclude' reflect subtle racism. What makes it correct? For Williams, the whole  complaint is a red herring, and the issue is whether the behaviour reinforces pathological stereotypes and promotes exclusion, and whether it is also easy to explain away as nothing to do with race [I think]. This is still unsatisfactory, because the original emphasis was on unconscious intents rather than explicit behaviour, and it is not so clear what rationalising away might look like if the emphasis is on effects anyway [I think]: Williams seems to be now focusing on effects not on states of mind. It also asks for a difficult test, whether or not pathological stereotypes are actually reinforced as a necessary effect. In practice, Williams is probably just claiming that she should be believed because she is an expert. There is also an incoherence in seeing rationalisation involving nonracial factors as really evidence of racial intents, making 'the breadth of acts qualifying as microaggressions… breathtakingly vast and indeterminate' (232).

So there is still no consistent substantiation and proper evidence. Can the methodology be reconstructed? Perhaps you should focus on POC experience of microaggressive acts, if they are authoritative and accurately record objective embedded meanings of facially innocuous language, as microaggressions scholars claim. Apparently, 53% of black participants in a study believed the question about being good at science was 'at least "slightly racist" in context' [1 of the researchers was Williams]. Surely this is 'extremely weak evidence of racist embedded meanings'? Williams speculates that the remaining 47% were either less intelligent or engaging in denial, or perhaps simply not offended by anything, anything rather than they correctly perceive the question as not a microaggression. What does the finding of 53% saying it was slightly racist actually mean — that hardly anyone who says this is racist, or everyone who says this is a tiny bit racist? The responses are not broken down into proportions of slightly racist or very racist anyway, but are presented as 'at least slightly racist'. Similar problems affect many of the other items in the study. 'There have been no rigourous preregistered attempts to replicate the study' and there is a long history of dismal replication rates anyway. The study was conducted 'with a small sample of 20 black students' and focused on college-age students in one region of the USA, who had probably been already exposed to diversity training, so they were probably already primed to agree with the researchers. No other study they have found does any better in demonstrating 'that POC agree with researchers about what constitutes microaggressions' nor that there is any consistent agreement about the common lists of microaggressions (236).

What about measuring the racism of white people to see if they commit listed micro-aggressive acts? Williams invokes a study by Kanter and Williams and says it provides empirical support that microaggressive acts are rooted in racist beliefs and feelings. They first asked black participants to review various microaggressions to see if they believe they were at least possibly racist. They could score the items as somewhat racist or very racist. They chose the items that at least half of them saw as possibly racist. They then asked white participants to review the other items and rank how likely they were to say or think them. Then they measured the racial hostility of the white participants. Again this was only a small scale study, 33 black and 118 whites, all from one university. No replication again. It established correlations. Even so, only  10 of 30 correlations reached the conventional cut-off for significance; for two thirds of the supposed microaggressions there was no meaningful relationship between white prejudice and the likelihood of expressing it. Among the two thirds of microaggressions that failed to meaningfully correlate with white racism 'most were the very ambiguous items that give rise to overbreadth challenges to the CMC. In other words the facially innocuous items that researchers claim are microaggressions — the only items that make the CMC allegedly useful — the very items the researchers failed to connect with white racism' (237). One microaggression — 'I "don't think of black people as black"' correlated with positive attitudes toward blacks!

Even if all the correlations were significant, all that we would learn is that 'the more racist someone is the more likely they are to do or say things that POC deemed problematic'. We would not be able to conclude that microaggressive items are '"rooted in" racism' (238) any more that we could argue that carrying a pocketknife is rooted in violent tendencies just because those who carry them more likely to commit acts of violence.

Detailed examination of the microaggression items reveals further problems. One item that at least half of the black participants found to be '"at least possibly racist" concerns a statement where a white person with a mixed group of friends is talking about current events including police brutality and says that he doesn't think of black people as black, that he is colourblind, which comes over as a microaggression that suggests that he is not recognising '"identity-based experiences, challenges and needs"'. 33.3% of black participants saw this item as possibly racist, 27.3% somewhat or very racist. Possibly racist is a very low threshold, but that was the response for the majority of items, and only 13 of them 'were identified by a majority of the black participants as "somewhat" or "very" racist': merging the data gives a misleading impression.

The more obviously offensive statements were the ones that were deemed somewhat or very racist like '"you are smart for a black guy"'. Asking to touch hair directed at a black woman was found to be racist by only 27.3 of black students — most of them, apparently saw this as 'likely simply a genuine expression of appreciation of difference or otherwise nonracist, even if sometimes annoying to black women' (240). Including clearly racist items with ambiguous ones gives the impression that they all belong on the same continuum and again there is no basis for this. There is an assumption that everyone agrees these are racist acts. The same goes with the exercise correlating matters with white racism. Again the statement about being smart for a black guy does correlate with negative attitudes towards black people, but Williams makes the assumption that the correlation of the total scale is some sort of evidence that all the listed items are microaggressions, including the ambiguous and apparently nonracist items which 'ride on the correlative coat tails of the more blatant' (241).

Methods like this appear central in maintaining the legitimacy of CMC. Otherwise surveys like this would merely proclaim the banal — that pretty blatant statements can be microaggressions. Instead they want to claim that all 30 questions, including innocuous ones, are rooted in racism, validating the whole list.

However, neither of these further experiments, correlating either with recipient perceptions or white racists, is commonly cited, because neither is likely to strongly justify the researchers' claims, especially about hidden meta communications. There are no robust tests: 'researchers conclusions about embedded meanings appears to be a priority belief in the existence of those embedded meanings' (241). We can represent 'the current propagative success of the CMC [as] an example of "idea laundering"' (242).

In idea laundering, peer review gets captured by activists so that 'certain idea logically and rhetorically useful claims have scientific credibility'. Once an article is published it can be cited by other articles as evidence for the validity of a claim. CMC is just such a product, growing in the psychological scholarship and broader culture, hard to resist unless you're prepared to dive into primary sources. Kanter has shown that strongly bigoted statements do reflect prejudice against 118 students and 33 black ones, and this study is now cited as evidence '"indicative of racial prejudice and offenders"' (243). [ie on another sample?]  We want more severe testing, ideally seeking alternative explanations and additional research.

Ideally this would be aimed at finding new manifestations of microaggressions, and replicating the existing work with larger samples and meta-analytic studies. Preregistered work would be needed to reduce researcher biases — the 'hypotheses, methods and analyses would all need to be articulated in writing prior to conducting the study'. The work is still by these standards in its infancy, 'most definitely not ready for real-world application'.

There are other problems as well, turning, for example on the constancy of microaggression, daily, according to Sue. This has been tested, and one study found that POC had not experienced microaggression 'in the past six months at all, or if they had, did so 1 to 3 times' (244). It's hard to see this as constituting a major social problem or having a terrible caustic effect.

Overall, it's hard to see CMC as representing scientific activity at all, but rather as 'an activism', where widespread and subtle racism is assumed and activist narrative is the preordained conclusion. This overcomes the problem that CMC is listing items that people do or say that could be inspired by racism. Instead it claims to have revealed something hitherto invisible, groundbreaking and important, something insidious, and therefore compatible with CRT.

CRT is social constructionist, focusing on '"demeaning patterns of thought and speech"' (246), with inequality persisting because of 'something secret, subtle, hidden and underground'. Initially there were concepts such as 'symbolic racism'or 'implicit bias', with each greeted by initial enthusiasm and publication, followed by critical review highlighting weaknesses and alternative explanations. Microaggression is now invaluable to CRT, especially the argument that overt racism has transformed into subtle racism, as a tactic designed to preserve white supremacy, a new social mechanism, identifiable only by critical minds.

Microaggression research provides 'a veneer of scientific credibility' to these critical premises with all its paraphernalia of statistics and reliability coefficients [odd, because another tradition criticises positivism, of course]. However, because of methodological shortcomings, significant assumptions and 'the tactic of concept creep' (248) are also essential.

Take the idea that the racism in microaggression is unconscious, that there must be intent even though it does not appear in individual consciousness, that there is intentionality in fact, appearing as a manifestation of the goals of the group. There is this idea of 'society's intent' — 'a creature of critical social metaphysics' (249). At the same time there is 'methodological activism', advancing CRT, criticising scientific method as an illegitimate constraint on ways of knowing by traditionally marginalised people, hence emphasising the experience of some POC, rejecting too much empiricism as imperialism. Sue rejects evidence as representing dominant values, especially scientific scepticism, with his critics imposing their own racial realities, 'made in the unmistakable spirit of post-modernism' (250) that scientific rigour is really a powerplay. Williams has the same response to her critics, identifying a '"racist framework"' (251) in one demand for empirical substantiation, and seeing such a demand itself as a aggression, demanding a review from a diversity researcher, reinforcing pathological stereotypes for denouncing Williams as being angry and aggressive. All this shows 'an aggressive fragility, combined with an assumed but unjustified moral and epistemic authority' that sees challenges to CMC as racists or racially insensitive, this is really 'powerplay' (252).

What do CRT and CMC advocates actually propose? They want to change society for the better, but they also seem to want to 'stigmatise and silence those who disagree with a certain ideological view of social reality', including those who challenge their work. Microaggression has 'insinuative power', connoting hostility, oppression, domination, an example of 'tactical concept creep'. This phenomenon has accompanied psychology becoming a '"tribal moral community" bound together by moral commitments to social justice and progressive ideals"' (253), with victim groups: the concept of harm has crept, together with concepts like abuse and discrimination, so that it is '"ever harder for anyone to defend themselves against ugly moral charges"'.

Microaggression researchers are able to declare to be microaggressions any statement that reflect reasonable disagreements. Williams has said that if a white person says to a black person that they just don't believe in political correctness but that does not mean they are racist this amounts to a microaggression, a denial of individual racism, not just a lack of self-awareness or simple mindedness. Any white person who denies that they are racist or who dislikes political correctness 'is a racist because of that denial' (254'. It is also a racist microaggression for a white person to oppose affirmative action by seeing it as conveying unfair advantages. The same goes for colour blindness, or saying there is only one race, which do not celebrate diversity or emphasise common humanity, but brand people as racists including those who 'may have constructive doubts about the legitimacy of "identity politics"' (255). CMC is a device for weaponisation against those with more conservative or liberal views.

Sue thinks a racist microaggression is the statement that the most qualified person should get the job, because it reflects the myth of meritocracy. CRT theorists used to think that meritocrats were naïve or uninformed, but 'CMC posits that they are racists'. This might stifle debate about who to appoint as the best candidate if the main issue is to avoid microaggression.

Overall, CMC has insulated itself from healthy challenge. Interlocutors have been stigmatised and silenced. [It is incorrigible internally]. It is 'little more than a mechanism to vindicate the intuitive hunches of those who see racism as more pervasive than others do' (256).

There are costs, harms. Both authors have come from 'traditionally marginalised groups' but neither remembers being assaulted with microaggressions, nor experiencing extreme harm. They don't conclude that subtle racism is as widespread as CRT thinks. Yet POC are being taught that they are under constant assault, that they 'are being conditioned to be constructively offended… In situations that do not implicate racism… Being encouraged to develop what Sue et al. term a "healthy paranoia"' (258). Racial paranoia is not healthy. White people may be being taught that racism permeates everything they do and that they should 'walk on egg shells when interacting with POC'. There may be a chilling effect on free speech.

Walking on egg shells can also be considered a racist microaggression, of course — '"aversive racism"' for Williams — exclusion and ostracisation as forms of aggression, avoidance, even well-intentioned. Denial of committing microaggression is a microaggression and can be the same as gas lighting. The overall effect can be 'the most significant prerequisites to reducing bigotry: interpersonal connection, goodwill, interpretive charity, and a reflexive humanism' (259).

The Supreme Court is not likely to ban speech claimed to be microaggressions, but there is a worry about campus speech codes. Many colleges have '"bias reporting systems"' where people are encouraged to report anything they witness. Universities often push or even violate First Amendment boundaries [microaggressive speech cannot be banned under the First Amendment] to protect students from offensive speech. Academic culture is already inclined to subscribe to ideas like CMC. One professor was fired for criticising the concept of microaggressions and failing to attend microaggression training. Student protesters at UCLA have attacked professors for correcting students' grammar. The University was advised to police microaggression in order to dilute conduct like this in the future, and, at Emory University, student evaluation is likely to be used to punish professors even if they 'had no way of knowing [they] would be perceived as racist' (261).

Microaggression is so subjective and elastic that an objective definition is '"all but impossible in practice"'. There is unlikely to be a shared understanding. Reports may infringe the First Amendment, but there is '"an invisible line, drawn by known only to the offended party"' [at least you have a First Amendment in the USA]. Informal punishments like those at Emory come very close to pressuring professors to toe the line. Ithaca College came close to developing an online reporting system so that '"oppressors"' would have their name recorded. Even Sue has been worried about the implications.

Delgado has called for regulation for the '"subtle nuances and codewords"', including '"body language"' (262), and has suggested that the First Amendment courts are pressured to accommodate campus speech codes, and this has been echoed by people like Matsuda and others. CRT is gaining ground. The post-modern argument that discourse shapes reality and identity is as well, and social sciences are increasingly claiming to uncover subtle aspects of daily life such as discourse norms and their role in power. The whole thing will end in 'increasing demands for the policing of ever more subtle aspects of human interaction', (264) beginning with college campuses.

They think that they are only scratching  the surface of the problem by focusing on definition. A 'broad and indeterminate number of acts' have been declared as 'inherently subtly racist' and 'a number of those in positions of power have been ideological inclined' to adopt them. In practice, CMC does little more than 'retroactively validate initial ideological hunches', and 'at best, to give voice to POC by substituting the scientific method for the perceptions of some of them'. Nobody should take the current lists as representative of anything meaningful.