D.W. Sue: Microaggressions Are NOT Always Racism

The psychologist who popularized the term regrets its weaponization

Posted Jul 15, 2016

In my Wall Street Journal article with Jon Haidt, we argued among other things that the concept of microaggressions has become massively overused and weaponized. Microaggressions once referred to sometimes unintentional and subtle ways of insulting or derogating someone, or simply being insensitive, usually though not always, someone from a different demographic category than one's self.  

Understanding microaggressions is, in my view, important for two reasons:

1. To understand how we can all unintentionally give offense through our own ignorance or insensitivity -- thereby increasing our ability to make the same points without being hurtful.

2. To understand how the left pushes reasonable ideas way too far in ways that have chilling effects on speech and the civil exchange of ideas.  Think I am kidding? Chalking  "Trump" on a college campus political graffiti chalk board has been called a microaggression.

A good example of the weaponization of the term can be found here, where the authors argue that those committing such acts require "forgiveness," and arguing for  mandatory microaggression "reporting schemes" -- a policy which, as I argued here, is eerily reminiscent of the Soviet culture of informants.

Regardless, even Psychologist D.W. Sue, who has been at the forefront of studying and promoting the notion of microaggressions, thinks the left has gone too far.  An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education stated that "Mr. Sue said his goal had always been to educate people, not punish or shame them, if they engage in microaggressions."

It also quoted him as saying: "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."

The CHE article goes on, "It’s worth remembering, Mr. Sue said, that microaggressions don’t always indicate that a person is racist. In fact, he said, it’s often the opposite. 'People who engage in microaggressions are oftentimes well-intentioned, decent individuals who aren’t aware that they are engaging in an offensive way toward someone else,' Mr. Sue said."

I certainly agree, but I would go further.  Some substantial portion of what leftist 

Tom Fernandez
Source: Tom Fernandez

protestors are now declaring to be microaggressions are mere disagreements.  Chalking "Trump" is not a microaggression, nor are arguments contesting specific claims made by some feminists, nor are arguments opposing affirmative action.  You might not like those arguments; hell, I might not like all those arguments.  But they are not microaggressions. Go look at this "Racial Microaggressions in Every Day Life" tip sheet. It has some really crazy stuff.  According to this source, these statements are microaggressions, when made to nonwhites:

"Where are you from?"

"Where were you born?"

"You are so articulate" 

"America is a melting pot"

"I believe the most qualified person should get the job."

"Everyone can succeed in this society, if they work hard enough."

This does not deny that there are truly insensitive/insulting ways to talk to people that a reasonable person might want to avoid, even if it takes a bit of effort.  But this is concept creep on steroids, and it is having a chilling effect on speech on campus. Thus I am grateful that Dr. Sue has spoken out against weaponizing microaggression.