A Structural Microaggression Concept for Causal Inquiry

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Submission Summary
Microaggressions have received increasing attention in recent decades because, although individually they may seem minor, they are hypothesized to have significant harmful psychological and social effects in aggregate. However, correct usage of the term “microaggression” is contested; authors across disciplines defend a variety of inconsistent accounts. Psychologists, moral philosophers and other scholars (e.g. Sue et al., 2007; Rini, 2020; McTernan, 2018; Pérez Huber and Solorzano, 2015) construct definitions or glosses in service of their varied investigative aims, which include the assessment of moral responsibility, near-term institutional reform, and the construction of anti-oppressive phenomenologies. However, I argue that these accounts are not so well-suited to guide empirical research about how microaggressions cause certain social ills. I propose a pluralist account of microaggressions that builds on these extant accounts while facilitating causal-explanatory inquiry. Public health researchers (e.g. Gee and Ford, 2011) have found that inequitable structural outcome gaps—like the U.S. racial health gap, racial and gendered income gaps across the world, gaps in mental health outcomes, etc.—are not fully explained by correlated factors like socioeconomic status. Microaggressions are thought to contribute to these outcome gaps, but there are outstanding questions about precisely what causal role microaggressions play. Let the “explanatory project” be the effort to answer these questions. I recommend a pluralistic causal role account, that microaggressions are whatever interpersonal and institutional factors explain the outcome gaps. I identify a number of independent (but not mutually exclusive) hypotheses about mechanisms that might fulfill this causal role, including attributions to prejudice, attributional ambiguity, plausible deniability of discrimination, and implicit bias. These hypotheses correspond to emphases in various extant accounts of microaggressions, and suggest distinct kinds of interventions. While a priori disputes about these accounts can serve some investigative aims, the explanatory project can only be resolved satisfactorily through future empirical work. Most extant accounts of microaggression are poorly suited to the explanatory project, because they are crafted to accommodate, rather than to overcome, our present epistemic limitations. In particular, most extant accounts take as given various social controversies or gaps in our understanding of microaggressions and the causal role they play in individual well-being and structural oppression. Rini (2020) objects to “structural” accounts like mine on the ground that they lack epistemic humility; in particular that they are inconsistent with attractive versions of standpoint epistemology. I argue that Rini’s arguments presuppose her project—assessing moral responsibility—and her discussion artificially forecloses empirical possibilities because of epistemic constraints that apply to individuals, but not to research programs. It is possible that when we better understand the mechanisms that cause outcome gaps, we may decide that they are so diverse that they do not merit being grouped under a common label. That is, my account may eventually be self-eliminating. But I do not recommend the wholesale elimination of the term “microaggression,” since the term can still function as a tool outside of the explanatory project, e.g. in phenomenological or moral accounts.
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Associate Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science
Texas Christian University

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