Research

What Happens When Your Research Is Featured on ‘Fox & Friends’

June 29, 2016

Columbia U.
Derald Wing Sue's research has informed much of the public discussion about microaggressions.

If you’ve read one thing about microaggressions on college campuses, it might just be this tip sheet.

The document, "Racial Microaggressions in Every Day Life," lists examples of microaggressions, or subtle slights of marginalized groups. For example: "America is a melting pot" may be received by members of minority groups as code that they need to assimilate, the sheet says.

The tip sheet has appeared on the websites of the University of Missouri’s Diversity Office, the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, and the University of California system, which later removed it. That change came after widespread outrage on social media over what observers deemed political correctness run amok, and threats to free speech.

At the bottom of the sheet in small type is the name "D.W. Sue," among others. Derald Wing Sue is a psychology and education professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and the document draws heavily on the findings of a book he edited, Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestation, Dynamics, and Impact.

The popularity of the word "microaggression," a concept largely informed by Mr. Sue’s work, has coincided with calls for greater racial inclusivity on campuses — and competing attacks from conservative media outlets that allege students are being coddled by their colleges.

Those types of attacks have persisted more than a year after people began noticing the worksheet. Just this week, conservative blogs ripped the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for guidance on its Employee Forum website that said (among other things) telling a woman, "I love your shoes," constituted a microaggression. (The university has said the guidance does not represent official policy.)

Mr. Sue said he knew his research would catch on when the people he and his co-authors interviewed for the book said they needed a word to describe the slights they faced every day. But he did not expect it to catch on as quickly as it did. And he wasn’t aware the research had been repurposed by universities as tip sheets until he started getting calls from radio talk shows.

He said he’s glad colleges have found the research useful, but he is cautious about the institutions that are taking it as an absolute. Mr. Sue said his goal had always been to educate people, not punish or shame them, if they engage in microaggressions.

"I was concerned that people who use these examples would take them out of context and use them as a punitive rather than an exemplary way," Mr. Sue said.

While the notoriety means the research is reaching more people, there are also downsides, said Christina M. Capodilupo, an adjunct professor at Teachers College and a co-author cited on the "Racial Microaggressions in Every Day Life" sheet.

Now that the research has made its way into popular culture, Ms. Capodilupo said, some people use the word to shut down conversations instead of reflecting on the situation.

"It was never meant to give a vernacular that then makes it OK to stop talking," Ms. Capodilupo said. "It was to ask people to be flexible in their thinking and to be open-minded to the concept that we don’t all walk through the world in the same shoes."

It’s worth remembering, Mr. Sue said, that microaggressions don’t always indicate that a person is racist. In fact, he said, it’s often the opposite. "People who engage in microaggressions are oftentimes well-intentioned, decent individuals who aren’t aware that they are engaging in an offensive way toward someone else," Mr. Sue said.

Ms. Capodilupo said that although the work she was involved in did not coin the phrase — the Harvard University professor Chester M. Pierce did, in the 1970s — she’s humbled by the trajectory the research has taken. The conversations the research has sparked are important, she said, citing such examples as an MTV campaign to combat microaggressions and segments on Fox News Channel’s Fox & Friends that poke holes in the work.

Still, she said, when people get the research wrong, it’s an indicator that more work remains to be done.

Blogs and Twitter accounts have sprung up to chronicle and share examples of microaggressions. The fact that the term has become so ubiquitous, and even expanded in some instances beyond its technical definition, Ms. Capodilupo said, speaks to the influence of the work.

To combat lingering misunderstandings, Mr. Sue and Ms. Capodilupo are working on a book for a mainstream audience that expands on their original study.

Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz is a web writer. Follow her on Twitter @FernandaZamudio, or email her at fzamudiosuarez@chronicle.com.