The role of microaggressions has gained increasing philosophical attention in recent years. However, microaggressions only tell part of the story. An often-overlooked component of inequality is the uneven and unjust distribution of microaffirmations. In this paper, I give a new definition of microaffirmations as signals that a recipient belongs to some valued or high-status class. Microaffirmations can—but need not—lead individuals to gain a sense of confidence, belonging, and merit. I then explain the harms of microaffirmations, arguing that when microaffirmations are distributed inequitably, they can have larger ramifications for injustice, harming some vulnerable groups more than others. In addition, microaffirmations can lead individual actors to make choices based on who gives them microaffirmations and where they receive them, and thus can have outsized influence over the direction of an individual’s life because individuals tend to migrate to where they feel valued, appreciated, and included. I then turn to solutions to the problems I raise. I argue we should attend to and attempt to rectify inequalities in microaffirmations because doing so can help ensure not just the absence of negative attention, but also that the presence of positive attention is flowing in a just and equitable way.
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Some take issue with the term “microaggression” and its surrounding literature (Campbell and Manning 2014; Lilienfeld 2017; Kendi 2019). For example, Kendi argues that the term “microaggressions” is a euphemism for racist abuse that both minimizes and detracts from the underlying problem (Kendi 2019, 47). Kendi’s criticism may also apply to other microinequities if they are a euphemism for racism and other injustices. However, microaffirmations cannot be categorized as racist abuse, and Lilienfeld’s criticism attributes some assumptions to the microaggression literature which do not apply to microaffirmations, such as that they are interpreted negatively by their recipients and require subjective reporting.
Note also (Wendt 1999, 147; Young 2005, 20). Because Sue’s definition focuses on the recipient and not the perpetrator, he leaves the door open for members of the same marginalized group to commit microaggressions against each other as well as members of one marginalized group to commit microaggressions against members of other marginalized groups. This possibility fits with an intersectional definition of oppression, in which, as Patricia Hill Collins argues, “Depending on the context, individuals and groups may be alternately oppressors in some settings, oppressed in others, or simultaneously oppressing and oppressed in still others” (Collins 2008, 20).
For example, Lauren Obermark discusses “material rhetoric” including color palette, lighting, noise, and objects as relevant to the rhetoric of museum design (Obermark 2019, 103).
Mark R. Leary and Cody B. Cox discuss “belongingness motivation” (Leary and Cox 2007) and the culturally specific ways praise and criticism may be interpreted (Morling and Kitayama 2007, 423–424). Diana Whitney and Amanda Trosten-Bloom discuss appreciation as including recognition, valuation, and gratitude (Whitney and Trosten-Bloom 2010, 2). Lisa Laskow Lahey and Robert Kegan discuss “ongoing regard” rather than praise and underline the importance of direct, specific, and nonattributive as successful features of it (Kegan and Lahey 2002, 102). However, their focus is primarily in verbal communication.
For a discussion of how privilege influences blame and praise, note (Ciurria 2020).
Each grouping applies to the wrongs of microaggressions as well. Acts of microaggression are wrong; omissions of microaggressions can influence our moral evaluation insofar as some people can navigate the world without contending with them; microaggressions have cumulative effects (Pierce 1970; Brennan 2013, 188; Evans and Mallon 2020); and the distribution of microaggressions matter morally insofar as they have differential impacts on communities.
In the next section, I argue that some microaffirmations rely on an unjust hierarchy. The lack of such microaffirmations would not similarly constitute a loss.
This feature of human behavior is, of course, not unique to microaffirmations. For reasons discussed below, however, microaffirmations and the social goods they convey are not distributed equally, are not random, are based on membership in social classes, and are based on membership in social classes that themselves constitute an unjust hierarchy.
Insofar as the distribution of microaffirmations is unequal, this feature of microaffirmations can have differential impacts on populations. I discuss this point below.
For example, Freeman and Stewart argue that there are at least three types of microaggressions: epistemic, emotional, and self-identity microaggressions each with an attendant harm (Freeman and Stewart 2018, 415). Each of these microaggression can have a converse microaffirmation: epistemic microaffirmations, in which expertise is respected or claims are given uptake; emotional microaffirmations, in which reactions are validated or mirrored; and self-identity microaffirmations, in which existential consequences of an individual’s sense of self is appreciated or esteemed (Schroer 2015, 104; Freeman and Stewart 2018, 427). In each case, the microaffirmation can and often does lead to positive affect for the recipient, or feelings of relief, comfort, connection, or understanding. As a result, systems that denied these microaffirmations to individuals would be a net loss.
Michelle Obama describes the “small but life-changing move” of being moved from a chaotic, disruptive classroom with an ineffective teacher to an orderly one with an effective teacher (Obama 2018, 22). She credited this seemingly small affirmation with a large impact on her life and education.
This point opens up the possibility that some absences of microaffirmations are justified, morally neutral, or are harms without being wrongs.
Still, some professors and institutions explicitly and energetically work to oppose this status differential in the classroom (Schwarz 2011).
For a related discussion, note (Mallon 2016, 80).
Misusing morally neutral hierarchies by aligning them with unjust hierarchies is a wrong that, while common, need not be an ineliminable feature of human nature. However, if it is, the goal here can be to reduce if not eradicate the relevant injustices.
The same concern attends universities and other places of education.
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Thank you especially to Jason Gardner for a great many excellent contributions to this article, in particular for his definition and metaphysics of microaggressions, which I applied to microaffirmations. Thank you also to Ramona Ilea, Krista Thomason, Lavender McKittrick-Sweitzer, Ron Mallon, Lauren Freeman, Jeanine Weekes Schroer, Wim Vandekerckhove, and two anonymous reviewers for very helpful comments on an earlier draft.
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Delston, J.B. The Ethics and Politics of Microaffirmations. Philosophy of Management (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40926-021-00169-x
- Acts and omissions
- Cumulative effects
- Distributive justice