Microaggressions aren’t just innocent blunders – research links them with racial bias

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A white man shares publicly that a group of Black Harvard graduates “look like gang members to me” and claims he would have said the same of white people dressed similarly. A white physician mistakes a Black physician for a janitor and says it was an honest mistake. A white woman asks to touch a Black classmate’s hair, is scolded for doing so and sulks, “I was just curious.”

It’s a pattern that recurs countless times, in myriad interactions and contexts, across American society. A white person says something that is experienced as racially biased, is called on it and reacts defensively.

These comments and other such subtle snubs, insults and offenses are known as microaggressions. The concept, introduced in the 1970s by Black psychiatrist Chester Pierce, is now the focus of a fierce debate.

Until recently, the majority of research on microaggressions has focused on asking people targeted by microaggressions about their experiences and perspectives, rather than researching the offenders. This previous research is crucial. But with respect to understanding white defensiveness and underlying racial bias, it’s akin to researching why baseball pitchers keep hitting batters with pitches by only interviewing batters about how it feels to get hit.

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