Microaggressions and Implicit Bias

In two previous posts (here and here), I consider the tactics of force relations that have come to be referred to as “microaggressions”. In the first post, I discuss ableist language and ableist exceptionism as examples of microaggressions. In the second post, I discuss microaggressions as “intentional and nonsubjective” practices (tactics). I point out in the latter post that the argument according to which microaggressions are intentional and nonsubjective tactics or practices does not take recourse in contestable claims about implicit biases. I expand on this argument below. This post and the two earlier posts on BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY, draws upon a forthcoming chapter, as well as upon my recent book, Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability.


Many authors who write about microaggressions trace a causal relation between microaggressions and “implicit biases,” arguing that perpetrators of microaggressions unintentionally produce these subtle slings and arrows because they, like most, if not all people, harbor implicit biases that interfere with one’s reasoned judgements (for instance, Sue 2010; Burns 2014). For authors who argue in this way, implicit biases are at the heart of modern forms of interpersonal discrimination and injustice, are the precursors of microaggressions.

In recent years, therefore, philosophers, especially some feminist philosophers, have increasingly attended to the influence of implicit biases on the composition of the profession and discipline of philosophy, producing a substantial body of literature that, they argue, shows that these biases can have demonstrable effects upon hiring practices, student evaluation, journal refereeing, promotion, and so on (for instance, see Brownstein and Saul 2016). Implicit biases are generally defined in this literature as nonconscious, reflexive attitudes that detrimentally affect the ways in which people perceive, evaluate, and interact with members of stigmatized social groups (see Gendler 2011). Thus, the causal connection that is drawn between implicit biases and microaggressions, which are claimed to be performed often inadvertently, seems straightforward. 

Contributions to the literature on implicit biases usually take as their starting point or rely upon data derived from the Implicit Association Test (IAT), a research tool that psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald (n.d.) introduced in 1998, claiming that the test facilitates the identification of nonconscious discriminatory attitudes. Closely associated with the philosophical literature on implicit bias is a growing body of work in philosophy that draws attention to the phenomenon of stereotype threat, an idea said to account for the fact that people’s (usually nonconscious) awareness of their membership in a stigmatized social group can negatively impact their performance in certain situations, such as job interviews.

Discussions within philosophical circles about how psychological phenomena condition the perceptions and assessments (including self-perceptions and self-assessments) of members of marked groups have played a significant role in endeavors to understand the phenomena of oppression and to overcome the power relations that condition the homogeneity of professional philosophy in particular, leading to a variety of successful outcomes. Notwithstanding these outcomes, however, the notions of implicit bias and stereotype threat, as well as prior discussions about implicit bias and stereotype threat in philosophy, warrant more critical consideration

First, claims about implicit bias and the IAT itself—that is, the validity and reliability of the IAT—have been sharply criticized by some philosophers of science, while claims about stereotype threat have been at the heart of a replication crisis in social psychology (for instance, see Machery 2016; Bartlett 2017; Spencer and Tremain 2017). Second, virtually all the heretofore discussions about implicit bias and stereotype threat in the profession have—like virtually all of the discussions of microaggressions—concentrated exclusively on how these phenomena affect subjects marked by gender, or by race, or by gender and race, with these categories conceived as mutually exclusive of each other and of other categories of subjection. Thus, even if concerns with respect to the methodological and theoretical nature of philosophical work on implicit bias were assuaged, the ways in which philosophers have put the IAT and the notion of implicit bias into practice and have associated the latter with microaggressions would be very disconcerting.

None of the studies of implicit bias in hiring, promotion, and publication to which philosophers routinely refer reports on empirical inquiry and analyses of the biases and prejudices that disabled philosophers confront. Some philosophers who refer to the studies on gender and race biases speculate that the findings of these studies likely apply in the same ways to the situations and circumstances of disabled philosophers (as well as working-class philosophers, lesbian and gay philosophers, and other marginalized philosophers). However, this speculation implies that sexism and racism are paradigmatic forms of marginalization and exclusion that other forms of marginalization and exclusion from the discipline and profession replicate.

This assumption—that is, the assumption that ableism and the exclusion of disabled philosophers from the profession are produced through the same techniques and mechanisms as the exclusion of nondisabled philosophers (however gendered and racialized)—obscures the distinct forms of discrimination that disabled philosophers confront and is, in effect, another means by which the relative homogeneity of the discipline and profession is enabled to persist. Indeed, the routine exclusion of substantive consideration of disability from the research on bias in philosophy is a political decision with detrimental consequences for disabled philosophers (however gendered and racialized).

I want to argue that feminist philosophers (and others) who produce work on implicit bias and microaggressions in philosophy should enlarge the purview of their studies in ways that encompass the biases that disabled philosophers confront; nevertheless, I also want to point out that the preoccupation with psychological factors in discussions about the homogeneity of philosophy and the exclusion of considerations of ableism from these discussions has entailed that the structural, institutional, and discursive mechanisms and apparatuses that contribute to the production in philosophy of a hostile environment for disabled philosophers remain largely obfuscated.

To be sure, a growing number of feminist philosophers (and others) argue that institutional and structural mechanisms of power must be given primacy in accounts of social power, including accounts of how power circulates within philosophy. Other philosophers argue, furthermore, that structural and individual factors cannot be analytically separated and ranked according to the priority that they should be given in such accounts (see Madva 2016). In other words, the preoccupation with implicit biases and psychological explanations of power imbalances in the profession and elsewhere seems to be on the decline. Nevertheless, this recent shift in emphasis of philosophical work on the operations of power both within the profession and beyond seems thus far as limited in scope as the earlier explanations with respect to implicit biases, that is, limited to analyses of macropolitical factors that produce sexism and racism alone (see Tremain 2017). 


Banaji, Mahzarin, and Anthony Greenwald. N.d. “Implicit Association Test.” Project Implicit.

Bartlett, Tom. 2017. “Can We Really Measure Implicit Bias? Maybe Not.” Chronicle of Higher Education. January 5. 7

Brownstein, Michael, and Jennifer Saul, eds. 2016. Implicit Bias and Philosophy. Vols. 1 and 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Burns, Kelly A. 2014. Minimizing and Managing Microaggressions in the Philosophy Classroom. Teaching Philosophy 37 (2): 131-152.

Gendler, Tamar. 2011. “On the Epistemic Costs of Implicit Bias.” Philosophical Studies 156:33–63.

Machery, Edouard. 2016. “What Is an Attitude?The Brains Blog (blog).

Madva, Alex. 2016. “A Plea for Anti-Anti-Individualism: How Oversimple Psychology Misleads Social Policy.” Ergo: An Open Access Journal of Philosophy 3 (27).

Spencer, Quayshawn (with Shelley Tremain). 2017. “Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Quayshawn Spencer.Discrimination and Disadvantage (blog).

Sue, Derald Wing. 2010. Microaggressions in Everyday Life. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley and Sons.

Tremain, Shelley L. 2017. Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

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