Discover more from Shiny Herd
From The New York Times to Colin Kaepernick’s Netflix Series: The Mainstreaming of Microaggressions
The DEI staple’s unlikely rise to pop culture ubiquity
Colin Kaepernick says his Netflix series focuses on “giving people references of what microaggressions might be.”
In a promotional video for Colin in Black and White, viewers learn that a microaggression can be “the slightest little comment [that] can affect one’s image of self.” The former NFL quarterback suggests that his family life—a black child adopted by white parents—subjected him to microaggressions.
Nick Offerman, best known as Ron Swanson from the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation, plays Kaepernick’s adoptive father. “It is strange to have jumped back to the Kaepernick’s dining table,” says Offerman, “and play these scenes where these benevolent parents had wisdom but also blind spots.”
A decade ago, you could binge Netflix for months and never come across the term “microaggression.” Today you’ll find microaggressions in a variety of Netflix shows, as well as in almost every corner of pop culture including Teen Vogue, People, and Etsy.
Of course, you’ll find them at nearly any DEI workshop, where microaggression training occupies a central position.
Almost every iteration makes big assumptions about microaggressions—for instance, that racial minorities find them offensive and that microaggression training benefits minorities of all kinds.
Support free expression and viewpoint diversity in entertainment and media — subscribe to Shiny Herd!
But what if most racial minorities aren’t offended by statements like, “American is the land of opportunity,” and many of other most common microaggressions?
What if microaggression training contradicts ancient wisdom, from Buddha to Jesus?
What if it undermines modern psychology and proven treatments like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?
Look at Kaepernick and Offerman in the publicity interview.
They’re not invoking a hotly contested term. They’re delivering an incontrovertible truth to the masses.
But what if they’re wrong?
These days a piece of academic jargon is regularly dropped by sitcom actors, pro athletes, and writers for Teen Vogue.
How did we get here? And how did we get here so fast?
In Part 1 of this piece, I chronicled the improbable rise of microaggression in academia.
A 2007 paper by Columbia University’s Derald Wing Sue popularized the term, and in just about eight years, it shot from obscurity to ubiquity. It quickly became hard to find a university that did not embrace microaggression training.
In the realm of pop culture, microagression’s popularizing moment arrived a bit later, but the jump to ubiquity might have been even faster.
Sue’s article ran in the spring of 2007, and on October 12, 2007 The New York Times published an article that mentioned the term in passing.
In the years that followed, a Google search for “microaggressions” didn't turn up much beyond links to university websites, government agencies, and the occasional TEDX talk or homemade stop-motion showcase of World Wrestling Entertainment action figures.
Take a fearsome wrestler, shrink him down, and you’ve got yourself a microaggression!
But pop culture’s “Sue moment” wouldn’t arrive until March 21, 2014.
That’s when The New York Times ran the article, “Students See Many Slights as Racial ‘Microaggressions.’”
The piece begins:
A tone-deaf inquiry into an Asian-American’s ethnic origin. Cringe-inducing praise for how articulate a black student is. An unwanted conversation about a Latino’s ability to speak English without an accent.
This is not exactly the language of traditional racism, but in an avalanche of blogs, student discourse, campus theater and academic papers, they all reflect the murky terrain of the social justice word du jour — microaggressions — used to describe the subtle ways that racial, ethnic, gender and other stereotypes can play out painfully in an increasingly diverse culture.
The article marks the first time The Times paid sustained attention to microaggressions.
The piece does acknowledge that the impact of the term is a matter of some dispute. Is it “a useful way of bringing to light often elusive slights in a world where overt prejudice is seldom tolerated, or a new form of divisive hypersensitivity”?
The piece goes on to give voice to some critics, but it ultimately presents a sympathetic view of the way universities and student activists have framed the issue.
In one fairly representative passage, a student perceives the constant threat of microaggressions: “It’s almost scary the way that this disguised racism can affect you, hindering your success and the very psyche of going to class.”
The Times’ progressive readership remained skeptical.
The most recommended reader comments advise students to “cut each other some slack,” and resist the temptation to be ever-vigilant for problematic words:
This article appears very one-sided to me, and this is coming from an African-American gay male … Maybe we should not waste so much time being offended.
The author of the top-rated comment, a 48 year old woman, offers advice to “entitled young minds.”
“Toughen up,” she writes. “Stop being victims and use the energy you expend tracking each offense to be the change you seek to impose on others. Treat others better than you've been treated.”
Given its massive reach and influence, The New York Times March 2014 piece was probably America’s most important introduction to microaggressions.
Soon after, the paper’s coverage of the term shot up dramatically. A Times search for “microaggression” yields four results prior to the March 2014 piece and 378 after.
Suddenly, The Times grew very interested in microaggressions. Yet the paper paid remarkably little attention to the work of the man who was probably the most qualified critic of the quickly-emerging pop culture consensus.
The Times’ coverage didn’t seem to be influenced by Scott Lilienfeld’s cautionary 2017 literature review, “Microaggressions: Strong Claims, Inadequate Evidence.”
In it he calls for a moratorium on microaggression training because, according to him, claims by university boosters were not supported by the evidence.
And Lilienfeld wasn’t some inconsequential gadfly.
The Times tapped the Emory University psychology professor to deliver expertise on a wide range of issues. In 2020, it published his obituary after Lilienfeld succumbed to pancreatic cancer at age 59.
The Times remembered Lilienfeld as a careful, easygoing academic who was respected by his peers and devoted to improving clinical psychology. The obituary notes that he aimed to “shake it free of empty theorizing, softheadedness and bad practice.”
“Many practitioners, because they don’t keep up with the scientific literature, may be using suboptimal and, in some cases, even dangerous treatments,” Lilienfeld told The Times in 2004.
His obituary is the only time the paper mentions his work on microaggressions:
In 2017, he published a critique of the scientific basis for microaggressions, described as subtle and often unwitting snubs of marginalized groups. (For instance, a white teacher might say to a student of color, “My, this essay is so articulate!”) Dr. Lilienfeld argued that the concept of microaggressions was subjective by nature, difficult to define precisely, and did not take into account the motives of the presumed offender, or the perceptions of the purported victim. What one recipient of the feedback might consider injustice, another might regard as a compliment.
The nasty mail rolled in, from many corners of academia, Dr. Lilienfeld told colleagues.
Sometimes The Times makes room for criticism of microaggression training. The most recent example is a January 2023 guest essay by Jesse Signal titled, “What if Diversity Training is Doing More Harm Than Good?”
But too often it exhibits the same kind of credulity displayed by university deans and Netflix stars.
The n-gram above shows a jump in the cultural penetration of “microaggression” around 2007 (coinciding with Sue’s article), and an even bigger jump around 2014, which coincides with The Times’ 2014 piece and its suddenly enthusiastic ongoing coverage.
Media and entertainment outlets around the world often take their cues from The Times, so it’s probably safe to assume that its impact on the steepness of the n-gram’s slope is much greater than the hundreds of times it referenced “microagression” in recent years.
I estimate that in academia microaggressions shot from obscurity to dogma in roughly eight years. If anything, the pop culture transformation happened even faster—six years separate The Times’ 2014 piece and Netflix’s announcement of Colin in Black and White.
“Black and white” is also a fitting description of how academia, the media, and pop culture responded to a complex issue.
When it comes to determining if microaggression training does more harm than good, we would have been better off paying more attention to Professor Lilienfeld and New York Times commenters.
We would have been better off with a slower, more thoughtful debate.
We would have been better off with more gray.
Support free expression, open inquiry, and viewpoint diversity. Consider subscribing to Shiny Herd!
Ted Balaker is a filmmaker, and former network newser and think tanker. His recent work includes “Little Pink House”starring Catherine Keener and Jeanne Tripplehorn, “Can We Take a Joke?” featuring Gilbert Gottfried and Penn Jillette, and a forthcoming feature documentary based on the bestselling book, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt.