Sunday, March 1, 2015

Article review on racial color-blindness and "microinvalidations"

I had to review a modern scholarly article on race for one of my classes, and this is what I came up with. The first few paragraphs are just summary, and kind of dry, but the last three paragraphs get into my personal opinions on the concept of "microinvalidation" as the authors describe it, and are slightly more interesting and debatable.

Journal: Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, Vol 20(4), Oct, 2014. Special Section: Race and Ethnicity in the Workplace.
See no evil: Color blindness and perceptions of subtle racial discrimination in the workplace. pp. 499-507.
Authors: Lynn R. Offerman, Tessa E. Basford, Raluca Graebner, Salman Jaffer, Sumona Basu De Graaf, and Samuel E. Kaminsky, George Washington University Department of Organizational Sciences and Communication

The article “See no evil: Color blindness and perceptions of subtle racial discrimination in the workplace” by Offerman, et al analyzed to what extent the perception of racial discrimination in a work environment was influenced by the “color-blindness” of an individual’s attitude towards race. An individual’s level of “color-blindness” – defined by the authors as a belief “that race does not and should not matter” – was measured according to their relative ignorance of racial privilege, institutional discrimination, and overt racial issues, as articulated by Neville, Lily, Duran, Lee and Brown (2000) in their well-known Color Blind Racial Attitudes Scale (CoBRAS). The racially discriminatory interactions which the individuals were made to perceive were a series written vignettes describing microaggressions, which the researchers placed into the three categories defined by Sue, et al in 2007: microinvalidations, microinsults, and microassaults.

The authors give a brief head nod to the idea that color-blindness is often interpreted by members of the general public to mean “seeing people as fundamentally similar and treating all individuals equally,” which many consider “fair and not discriminatory.” However, the authors adopt a different position, which they say is more popular among academics in the field: that color-blindness is truly dangerous and undesirable, because it allows racism to go undetected by “denying the racially discriminatory experiences that many members of ethnic minority groups continue to encounter, and reducing sensitivity to potentially important racial differences.” Citing prior empirical work that has linked color-blind attitudes with implicit and explicit racial bias (Richeson and Nussbaum, 2004), an increased likelihood of condoning racially derogatory party images on social network sites (Tynes and Markoe, 2010) and legitimizing ongoing racial disparities (Knowles, Lowery, Hogan and Cho, 2009), the authors hypothesized that color-blindness would also be associated with decreased likelihood of detecting microaggressions. They further hypothesized that color-blindness (which is much more common among whites than non-whites) would be a better predictor of an individual’s likelihood of noticing a microaggression than race alone. Finally, they hypothesized that the relationship between color-blind attitudes and microaggression perception would be stronger among the most subtle and ambiguous category of microaggression (microinvalidation) than in the relatively more obvious sorts (microinsult and microassault, respectively).

Their methodology involved presenting a group of predominantly (77.5%) female student volunteers from a mid-Atlantic university with a series of written vignettes, which the raters had previously classified as either a microinvalidation, microinsult, microassault or a non-discriminatory distractor. The respondents were then told to rate the events on a 13-item scale developed by Graebner et al in 2009 which captured the degree to which a microaggression was perceived, as well as the degree to which it was thought to be “intentionally discriminatory” by an actor who as “aware of the racial undertones of his actions.” These answers were then compared to the respondent’s answers on a separate, online test measuring the presence of color-blind attitudes administered two weeks later, without notifying the respondents that the two tests were being used for the same study. The results confirmed or partially confirmed most of the researchers’ initial hypothesis...

Overall I found the study intriguing and informative, but I did have a few objections to their definition and method of measuring so-called “microinvalidations”. First, the definition they employed (originally fashioned by Sue et al., 2007) was said to include any behaviors which “convey the myth of societal meritocracy.” But what they refer to as a “myth” is in reality a long-running debate about the extent to which the outcomes of our lives are determined by our environment, fate, or treatment at the hands of others, versus the extent to which those outcomes are determined by personal characteristics like intelligence, work ethic, or other traits usually seen as “merit.” I can understand how claiming we have a complete meritocracy would invalidate the experiences of racial minorities facing sizable oppression. But in truth, very few people are absolutists on either side of this debate: unless the authors contend that our natural talents and abilities have no bearing whatsoever on the success we experience in life, they too believe in at least some small degree of meritocracy. Precisely how much meritocracy is present in our society today is not a matter of objective truth or disprovable “myth”, but of great and ongoing dispute among philosophers and social scientists alike. The researchers appear to consider any disagreement with a nonwhite employee regarding this matter as a form of racial discrimination, which strikes me as an extremely broad definition.

Similarly, on the 20-item CoBRAS test they borrowed from Neville, et al, the way they sought to ascertain an individual’s knowledge or ignorance of “institutional discrimination” was through the respondent’s agreement or disagreement with the statement “social policies, such as affirmative action, discriminate unfairly against White people.” I do not consider this question a sound measure of someone’s blindness to institutional discrimination. Fairness is an inherently subjective value, and affirmative action is a complex and controversial matter on which sympathetic, educated, multicultural and racially-aware people can and do disagree. It is reasonable for the authors to argue that the people who think affirmative action is unfair to White people are wrong, and to do so forcefully. It is another thing entirely for them to say believing it is unfair denotes factual ignorance of institutional discrimination, and thus implies the “color-blind” attitude they denigrate throughout the piece. Such assumptions undercut the authors’ claims of empirical objectivity, making their research less useful to those who don’t already agree with them on those matters.

Finally, one of the vignettes they presented as an illustrative example of a “microinvalidation” was “A Black employee is told he’s overreacting to comments made by a peer that the employee thinks may be racially motivated.” I agree that this meets Sue’s 2007 definition of a microinvalidation as an action which excludes, negates or nullifies the thoughts, feelings or experiences of people of color. Furthermore, I understand why people of color must be given broad deference to adjudicate which comments are and are not racially motivated, and ample opportunity to voice their underrepresented and historically marginalized viewpoints without being silenced by those who lack such perspective. Even so, I can’t help but thinking the actual content of the comments themselves is relevant to how “aggressive” this particular microaggression would be in context. What if they use the word “niggardly” in a sentence about fiscal restraint, for example? Many people mistake this word as a derivative of the racial epithet, when in reality it has entirely separate etymological origins and meaning that long predate the actual slur. A tendency towards trusting minority experiences is not the same as absolute deference to everything they allege on racial matters, and genuine misinterpretations happen all the time. So I’m not sure if enough information was provided here for the respondent to determine whether a “racially motivated” microinvalidation occurred.

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