Use of the term "microaggression" has also been met with significant criticism. Some scholars argue that while it may be true that subtler forms of prejudice exist, the field has a long way to go in gathering robust evidence to support the theories proposed by Sue and others. Until then, they say it's premature for anyone to use the term microaggression, let alone claim they have already developed effective interventions.
"If Minority Group Member A interprets an ambiguous statement directed toward her—such as 'I realize that you didn't have the same educational opportunities as most Whites, so I can understand why the first year of college has been challenging for you' — as patronizing or indirectly hostile, whereas Minority Group Member B interprets it as supportive or helpful, should it be classified as a microaggression? The MRP [microaggression research program] literature offers scant guidance in this regard," writes psychologist Scott O. Lilienfield of Emory University.
Other critics take issue with the idea that such small acts cause serious harm, especially when they are not ill-intended. They argue that some racial and ethnic minorities are being overly sensitive. But a study published in March 2019 found strong evidence that ethnic minorities are not any more sensitive to slights than white people. Both groups experienced the same decrease in happiness and life satisfaction after microaggressions. It's just that minorities experience microaggressions more often.
Lai of the Diversity Science Lab agrees with critics who say that the term is a bit fuzzy. It's nearly impossible to prove someone's intentions, and a lot depends on the context. What's reasonable, Lai says, is thinking about your local context and then doing research. For example, if you're a white doctor who primarily works in an African-American community, then you should educate yourself so that you can provide culturally competent service.
"You might not be acting out of implicit bias, you may just be ignorant," Lai says.
Yet, having a vocabulary to describe awkward situations is useful says Agnes An, an advertising professional who lives in New York City. She's Korean American and says she has experienced microaggressions in a variety of contexts — from the workplace to the dating scene.
"People will ask where I'm from and don't ask me anything else, that's it," she says. "Or when I respond, that's the remainder of the conversation, 'Oh I like K-Pop and kimchee,' when there are so many other aspects of me."
She says this happened a lot when she was growing up, but the term "microaggression" hadn't gone mainstream. She just ended up walking away from these interactions feeling bad. Now, An feels empowered to speak up.
"I appreciate that people have coined something because it's a recognition that it actually happened. It makes it real, and allows people to talk about it with each other," she says.