Origin: Microaggression was coined by psychiatrist and Harvard University professor Chester M. Pierce in 1970 to describe insults and dismissals he regularly witnessed non-black Americans inflict on African Americans.
Definition: A microaggression is a subtle but offensive comment, or action, directed at a minority, or other non-dominant group, that is often unintentional or unconsciously reinforces a stereotype. For example, “I don’t see you as black.” (Source: Dictionary.com)
Most people of color experience microaggression, sometimes on a daily basis. Some of you may relate to these statements (or have your own to add). If not, try to put yourself in my shoes and feel how these comments or experiences would make you feel. I was thinking about how this has affected my life and I wanted to share some of my experiences, and as usual, hopefully bring light to this shameful practice. I’m going to highlight some of the major areas in my life.
Things I’ve heard or experienced because…
- “You are a credit to your race”/ “You are so articulate”
- This statement inherently assigns my intelligence based on my race? Do you really think people of color are generally less intelligent than White people, or that it’s unusual for someone of my race to be intelligent?
- “I believe the most qualified person should get the job”/“Everyone can succeed in this society, if they work hard enough”
- Saying this assumes that race does not play a role in life successes and that you ACTUALLY believe that people of color are given extra, and unfair, benefits because of their race. Or that people of color are lazy and/or incompetent and just need to work harder.
- Being mistaken for a service worker.
- By assuming I’m a here to serve you, conveys a message that all people of color are servants to all White people. They couldn’t possibly occupy high-status positions. Um…hello!
I’m a woman
- “As a woman, I know what you go through as a racial minority.”
- By saying this, you’re assuming racial oppression is no different than your gender oppression, and you can’t be a racist. You’re just like me. (Please see intersectionality.)
- Being mistaken for a secretary, or being ignored, or talked over, in professional conversation.
- By behaving this way, assumes that women, and particularly women of color, are servants to White people/Males. They couldn’t possibly occupy high-status positions. (What could I have been thinking?)
- “You’re not one of those feminists are you?”
- Saying this assumes that women’s rights/concerns are not equal to men.
I was a teen mom
- “Where was your mother”
- This assumes that my mother did not take an active role in my life, as if it was her fault, that I became pregnant as a teenager.
- “So you got your GED?”
- Saying this assumes that I am not intelligent/determined enough to finish high school and go on to college. (Hello, do you know me?)
- “Isn’t that normal in your culture?”
- This question implies that teen pregnancy is an affliction to a culture, or that it is an accepted practice to have children at a young age.
I’ve found that these types of microaggressions get worse the more successful you become professionally, and can be situationally dependent.
I recently took a position at a well known museum in my state. As you’re probably aware, museums can draw a very affluent crowd. In the short period of time that I have worked there, I’ve attended several events. The microaggressions I’ve experienced during these events via verbal and or non-verbal cues have astonished me. People that know me know that I am not one to typically bite my tongue, however, I’ve found myself doing this more than usual lately (my tongue is practically raw!). I guess you could attribute this to me being the new kid on the block and not wanting to ruffle feathers. Fair enough — I actually feel internal pressure not to be that person. The consequence, though, is that I’ve been feeling a bit drained, and I am struggling with being my authentic self, and knowing when to pick and choose my battles.
If you’re not a person of color, you may not understand that when we experience these kinds of things in public (or work, or school, or from our friends mouths) how hard it is to to keep the peace, not get upset, and make sure everyone’s still having a good time. It is a lot coming at us in so many situations, especially when we don’t see it coming and can’t do anything to avoid it. (Worse if we live life expecting it.)
Am I being selfish? Is it okay for me to be selfish? When does my dignity matter, and what do my feelings amount to, when by speaking up, I could embarrass the (white) people who I care about, and who care about me? When my white relatives, or friends, or colleagues might experience a moment’s discomfort, anxiety, or guilt? And actually isn’t this how you make the change you want to see in the world? Isn’t there almost always discomfort in learning and growth?
It’s part of my disposition to think about others and to put them first. This is why, at times, the things I would like to say go unspoken. It’s always those unspoken “better” responses that linger in my thoughts after an microaggression-filled encounter. I had the opportunity to stand up for myself, my people (really, all people); to feel something apart from anger, embarrassment and loneliness—something more like satisfaction. When I miss the opportunity to educate I become agitated and angry with myself. Everyone likes to believe they would be the one to stand up for someone or call out racism in a crowd. Not only am I not always that person, you wouldn’t be, either.
Even when we’re hit with “casual” racism in a space we once thought safe, we can and do make some sort of choice every time. To inform or to ignore? To confront or absolve? The down side to every option on the table, for the person of color facing that decision, is that any fallout is perceived as our responsibility. When did the conversation stop being fun for everyone? When we got mouthy.
There is no real way for us to win. Whether we choose to cling to some notion of “the high road,” or attempt to call out the racism we experience in order to sleep better that night, it’s our responsibility and there will be some kind of reaction to our action or inaction. So, I choose to be more alert in these new spaces that I am navigating. I choose to teach, inform, and challenge if needed, because I don’t want the next person that looks like me to experience this same oppression.
But say you’re not in my shoes…what do you choose to do?
If you consider yourself an accomplice please step in:
- Don’t leave us out there alone, if you “see or hear something…say something”
- If the conversation stops being “fun” due to an educational moment (this educational moment brought to you by Microaggressions—the gift that keeps on giving), be willing to redirect from the perceived negative statement to the original topic or the underlying issue. Give confirmation to the group and or the individual that they did the right thing.
- Try to identify these microaggressions in your own speech/actions and aggressively eliminate them.