The Unintended Consequences of Microaggression

“Microaggression,” an unintentional slight that may have the effect of offending a person, such as asking someone with a foreign last name where they “really come from.” You are likely familiar with this concept as it has gained in popularity over the last few years. Indeed, many colleges have been adding microaggressions to their lists of proscribed, and punishable, speech and fielding “bias response teams” to intervene whenever these conversational faux pas occur.

It seems that no one is more surprised than the researchers who introduced this concept in the first place, Professors Derald Wing Sue and Christina M. Capodilupo. As we learn in this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education, the professors clarify what the original purpose of the idea was and bemoan its use as a tool to limit free thought and expression on campus.

[Professor Sue] said he’s glad colleges have found the research useful, but he is cautious about the institutions that are taking it as an absolute. Mr. Sue said his goal had always been to educate people, not punish or shame them, if they engage in microaggressions.

‘I was concerned that people who use these examples would take them out of context and use them as a punitive rather than an exemplary way,’ Mr. Sue said.

Now that the research has made its way into popular culture, Ms. Capodilupo said, some people use the word to shut down conversations instead of reflecting on the situation.

‘It was never meant to give a vernacular that then makes it OK to stop talking,’ Ms. Capodilupo said. ‘It was to ask people to be flexible in their thinking and to be open-minded to the concept that we don’t all walk through the world in the same shoes.’