Don’t Go for Woke: Microaggressions are unscientific

Editor’s Note: This article is part of an ongoing symposium on white fragility and its related concepts. To view all of the essays in this series, click here.

The fact is that there is racial insensitivity. People have to be made aware of what other people feel like…what insults them, what is demeaning to them. It’s important that people know…It makes a gigantic difference in the way a child is able to grow up and have a sense of self-esteem.

Democratic Nominee Joe Biden, defending “racial sensitivity training” in the first presidential debate

The New War on Science

Like most professors, I am not a supporter of Donald J. Trump; unlike many, I will admit when the Trump administration gets something right. Regarding revisiting and at least temporarily defunding the diversity training forced on federal employees, the Trump administration likely has it right, and former Vice President Biden, as well as one of my professional associations, the American Educational Research Association, almost certainly has it wrong. (For AERA’s statement, joined by 15 other professional associations, click here).

First, to be clear, in a free society we should not muzzle those advocating diversity training, as the AERA statement points out. Only through free speech, debate, and inquiry can we arrive at the truth over time, which should be the key goal of higher education in particular, as Princeton Professor Keith Whittington shows in Speak Freely: Why universities must defend free speech, a book required of Princeton first-year students. Here, AERA’s argument is a distraction, since, so far as I know, no one advocates outlawing diversity training, while many, including in AERA, advocate silencing criticisms of diversity training and other programmatic offshoots of Critical Race Theory and like structural racism paradigms.

In any event, permitting a behavior differs from subsidizing and requiring it. To make an analogy, in a free society we should generally allow medical treatments whose utility is highly dubious; we should not publicly fund such treatments. Regarding education and training, obviously, the First Amendment rightly protects the right to advocate for Intelligent Design and other offshoots of creation science. This does not mean we should teach Intelligent Design in school, at least not in science classes, as opposed to religion or philosophy classes. Intelligent Design does not accord with the scientific knowledge developed through hypothesis testing within the modern field of biology, and therefore has at best a very marginal place in biology class. One might say the same for much of Marxist economics.

The nature of truth and of science is a key area in which modernism differs from postmodernism, as Helen Pluckrose (who will write a later essay in this series) and James Lindsay show in their just-published, must-read Cynical Theories: How activist scholarship made everything about race, gender, and identity. Science accepts truths based not on tradition or religion, but through questioning and rigorous empirical testing. Postmodern theories like Critical Race Theory, Queer Theory, Fat Studies, and most other Social Justice approaches reject scientific processes, arguing instead that so-called objectivity reflects only who has the power to construct subjective reality. Postmodernism recognizes few if any objective truths. Power alone matters, and postmodern theories seek to redistribute power from white, “heteronormative” males to others with various intersectional identities.

For those of us in the academy—and we are still the majority—who believe in science, it is time to admit that many and likely most forms of diversity training are roughly equivalent to creation science. Yet they are far more popular in polite society, and often publicly funded. Indeed, in 2015 the Global Language Monitor deemed microaggressions the word of the year. Regarding microaggressions and many other concepts taught in diversity training, many educators and businesspeople are waging a war on science. As Musa al-Gharbi’s recent summary “Diversity Training: What is it good for?” details, with few exceptions, decades of research have not validated the positive claims for diversity training:

Beginning in the mid-90s, it became increasingly clear that, due to this lack of validation, many widely-used interventions could be ineffective or harmful. An empirical literature was built up measuring the effectiveness of diversity-related training programs. The picture that has emerged is not very flattering.  In a nutshell, it seems that these training programs generally fail at their stated goals, and often produce unfortunate and unintended consequences…Generally speaking, they do not increase diversity in the workplace, they do not reduce harassment or discrimination, they do not lead to greater intergroup cooperation and cohesion – consequently, they do not increase productivity. More striking: many of those tasked with ensuring compliance with these training programs recognize them as ineffective…

We will reprint al-Gharbi’s summary in full in the coming weeks. As Peter Bregman declared in the Harvard Business Review, “Diversity training doesn’t extinguish prejudice. It promotes it,” partly since “anyone who has ever been scolded is familiar with the tendency to rebel against the scolding.”

Likewise, as Harvard Sociology Professor Frank Dobbin detailed in a Persuasion podcast titled “Why do diversity programs fail,” taken as a whole, more than a thousand scientific studies indicate that most popular diversity training-related interventions “tend to do nothing or backfire” regarding increasing demographic diversity and improving intergroup relations, for predictable psychological reasons. Yet organizations have put ever more resources into these programs, doubling down on failure. In contrast, as Dobbin notes and as I will detail in a later installment, there is at least some evidence that mentoring programs and broader recruitment strategies can increase diversity, and improve productivity.

So why do institutions do diversity training if it doesn’t succeed in its stated objectives, and may even make things worse? I see at least four reasons. The first is money and power, as any postmodernist might predict. Many bureaucrats and consultants make good livings from diversity training. Profit-seeking prophets promote their ventures as a way of warding off charges of racism and as a defense against lawsuits, no matter an organization’s actual treatment of the disadvantaged. The New York Times notes a major corporation, Levi Strauss, mandating “white fragility” training for overwhelmingly white executives who had just received large bonuses, in part for laying off mainly minority frontline workers. Likewise, the Minneapolis Police Department mandated diversity training before one of its officers killed George Floyd. One might forgive his family for failing to see the irony.

Of course, if the main purpose of diversity training is symbolic, to improve public relations rather than human relations, then there is in fact no irony in learning politically correct language while treating minorities (or majorities) badly. Higher education has been doing this for decades.For the upper classes, diversity training is symbolic rather than real, teaching one to keep above the hoi polloi; hence the obsession by the uber rich over politically correct language rather than humane and equal treatment of janitors (including fellow students) at places like Harvard and Yale, as Natalia Dashan writes in “The Real Problem at Yale Is Not Free Speech.”

Third, most agree that more diverse organizations with good intergroup relations and fewer civil rights lawsuits are desirable. Diversity training has been branded as a quick, relatively cheap way to achieve these competing goals, even if its actual record is quite poor. Finally, despite its demonstrated ineffectiveness, diversity training and similar woke activities have become standard “best practices” at major corporations, making them low-risk for managers to adopt—again see Dobbin. In real-world bureaucracies, once something is enshrined as an industry standard, it becomes very difficult to dislodge, particularly when outside interests think it matters, or get paid for saying so.


The Particular Case of Microaggressions

Within the diversity industry, “microaggressions” are a growth sector, reflecting the concept’s common-sense appeal. As both a social scientist who has studied bigotry and a person who has seen it, I think the microaggression concept might sometimes capture empirically slippery realities. I got it when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor opined that “race matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments.” I understand and sympathize with Joe Biden’s good intentions to improve intergroup relations through training in how to avoid microaggressions. Alas, good intentions do not make good policy. The use of microaggressions is unscientific, and thus not ready for real-world application. Currently, it likely does more harm than good.

To understand why, consider an example that the recently departed and completely decent and brilliant Emory University Psychology Professor Scott Lilienfeld gave us, that of one particular “major microaggression” committed by a great political leader. One of the late Senator John McCain’s finest moments came in his losing 2008 presidential campaign against Barack Obama, when at a rally in Minnesota, a McCain supporter called then Senator Obama an Arab, not an American.

“No, ma’am,” McCain countered, grabbing the microphone and shaking his head sadly. “He’s a decent family man and citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.”

McCain’s rebuttal of a bigoted remark combined truth, grace, and firmness.

As former President Obama recalled a decade later, speaking movingly at McCain’s funeral, “we’ve seen footage [of] John pushing back against supporters who challenged my patriotism during the 2008 campaign. I was grateful, but I wasn’t surprised…I never saw John treat anyone differently because of their race or religion or gender. And I’m certain that in those moments that have been referred to during the campaign, he saw himself as defending America’s character, not just mine. For he considered it the imperative of every citizen who loves this country to treat all people fairly.”

Yet in higher education, corporations, and government, McCain’s statement could have gotten him in big trouble. This is no exaggeration. Columbia Professor Derald Wing Sue, who popularized the term “microaggression,” condemned McCain’s defense of Obama as aggression against Obama. Sue interpreted McCain’s phrase “a decent family man” as a “major microaggression,” signaling that Obama can’t be a Muslim because Muslim men neglect their families. In The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, safe spaces, and the new culture wars, sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning chronicle dozens of such cases in which people are disciplined for such actions. (Campbell has a forthcoming essay in this series.)

So even rebuking a bigot gets you denounced as a bigot unless you use perfect language in doing so. The old civil rights movement sought to make people from different groups more comfortable interacting with each other, to build empathy and understanding. Postmodern approaches to intergroup dynamics, in contrast, seem designed to foster self-segregation to avoid the risk of sanctions from verbal missteps, which could then be reported to the bias response teams operating at hundreds of colleges and universities. Those teams, and the opaque diversity bureaucracies which employ them, have considerable ability to sanction miscreants, as R. Shep Melnick notes in The Transformation of Title IX. (Melnick will also author a forthcoming essay in this series.)

Scientifically, as Professor Lilienfield showed in “Microaggressions: Strong Claims, Inadequate Evidence,” microaggressions are currently “far too underdeveloped on the conceptual and methodological fronts to warrant real-world application.” They are so ill-defined that, as Lilienfeld writes, “either ignoring or attending to minority students in classrooms have been deemed to be microaggressions by some authors.” Moreover, inherent to the psychological concept of aggression is intent on the part of the aggressor; yet those committing microaggressions typically intend no offense. Microaggressions are “often or usually extremely ambiguous in nature, rendering it difficult or even impossible to ascertain whether they have actually occurred” for either the “victim” or “perpetrator,” as Professor Sue repeatedly acknowledges. So far, researchers have not studied whether microaggressions might cohere with empirically established indicators of aggression in perpetrators.

Second, microaggression theory assumes that minorities, women, LBGTQ+, and other “marginalized” peoples both recognize microaggressions (remember that these are micro actions) and suffer harm when they occur. So far, the limited empirical evidence fails to support either proposition. While some researchers have found correlations between perceptions of widespread microaggressions and reported mental well-being, rather than one causing the other, each might be caused by Negative Emotionality (NE), the tendency in some to “be critical and judgmental of both themselves and others” and thus notice ambiguous interactions and interpret them negatively, as evidence of aggression. The ambiguous nature of microaggressions practically assures such outcomes.

Relatedly, science requires objective measures, not just individual feelings. Microaggressions, in contrast, exist in the eye of the beholder. They are thus unscientific and ripe for abuse. Anyone who wants revenge on a boss for a poor evaluation can charge him with a microaggression, and others have no objective standard by which to judge the complaint. Judgements then come down to who has what power. This will undermine rather than promote equity, posing serious normative concerns. Avoiding microaggressions will be far harder for uneducated people (like my parents) who lack the time and verbal cunning to comply with ever-changing politically correct language, something even Ivy League students have trouble doing. Fighting bigotry by reporting microaggressions will punish a truck driver or janitor who works with, lives among, and loves others, while leaving untouched a bigoted lawyer, Hollywood mogul, politician, or business executive who talks right, but acts wrong.

Fourth, when everything is prejudice, then nothing is: charges of bigotry lose credibility. Calling out John McCain and tens of millions of other white heteronormative males for their supposed microaggressions gives a free pass to Donald Trump, who reasonable people agree has real issues in this area. This likely explains why many voters dismissed charges of racist behavior on the part of Trump, behaviors documented by conservative political scientist John Pitney in Un-American: The fake patriotism of Donald J. Trump.

Finally, obsessions with linguistic subtleties distract from behaviors that literally kill people. In the real world, some schools educate minorities and others miseducate them. Similarly, as my collaborators and I show, some police departments protect the lives and dignity of minorities; others do neither. Some organizations segregate; others integrate. On this we have excellent scholarship like Charles Moskos and John Sibley Butler’s All We Can Be: Black leadership in the U.S. Army. We also have insightful commentary like Baylor Professor George Yancey’s Patheos essay, “Not white fragility—mutual responsibility,”a version of which will appear here in the coming weeks.

I will discuss these paradigms and better ways to manage diversity in a future installment, in response to the question I often hear from the left: if not diversity training, then what? For now, I will end by pointing out the obvious: Better intergroup relations require both common sense and science; like diversity training generally, Microaggression training hasn’t got either.

We can do better.

Image: Alexis Brown, Public Domain


  • Robert Maranto

    Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership at the University of Arkansas, and with others has edited or written 15 books including The Politically Correct University. He edits the Journal of School Choice and served on his local school board from 2015-20. These opinions are his alone.

6 thoughts on “Don’t Go for Woke: Microaggressions are unscientific

  1. Thank you for the fine article. The fact that lawsuits pertaining to microgressions have not fared well in court have dispelled any semblance of legitmacy for this irrational grievance. In addition, I have some relatives who seem to often interpret ambiguous situations in the worst possible way. They have made self-pity pretty much a way of life. And they have been verbally aggressive to their so-called transgressors about their hallucinatory offenses. However, such instances on their part have acted instead as a Rorschach test of their below average emotional intelligence than of having anything to do with actual objective reality. I have since disowned them since they are clearly not worth knowing for that very reason. I cannot help but wonder if cognitive behavior psychology were a requirement in our schools if this kind of irrational thinking would be less prevalent. The sad irony is that the people who need to wake up from this mass foolishness are the least open to rational intervention.

  2. To the editor. The comments by the author on intelligent design were unnecessary, unrelated to the topic of the article, and decidedly pejorative. Clearly the author has a personal bone to pick with the ID community. He is entitled to his opinion, but there was no need for his attacks. I’m surprised those comments were permitted to be published.

    And for the record, I am no fan of ID. Indeed, I have peer-reviewed, published work highlighting its flawed ideas.

  3. As a college professor now afraid to teach a course on the topic of liberty to senior level college students again, I greatly appreciate this essay. The only bad news is my book reading list just got longer. (First world problem, that!)

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