Anti-Racism 101

28 Microaggressions


Smaller, everyday acts of unconscious racism.

“Because when I was five, my kindergarten classmate told me I couldn’t be the princess in the game we were playing because black girls couldn’t be princesses. Because I was in third grade the first time a teacher seemed shocked at how ‘well-spoken’ I was. Because in fourth grade I was told my crush didn’t like black girls. Because in sixth grade a different crush told me I was pretty — for a black girl. Because in 7th grade my predominantly black suburban neighborhood was nicknamed ‘Spring Ghettos’ instead of calling it its name (Spring Meadows). Because I was in 8th grade the first time I was called an Oreo and told that I ‘wasn’t really black’ like it was a compliment.”

–Dominique Matti

Excellent video–“Next time you think someone’s overreacting”:

“On the one hand [microaggressions] are a sign of progress in society. It is no longer okay to use racial slurs in everyday settings, we can’t throw chemicals on black people in swimming pools, we don’t force women out of the workplace the minute she gets married or has children, we don’t burn down religious buildings that aren’t mainstream Christian. We know discrimination is bad and will call out people who are blatantly racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.

However we have not addressed the deep-seated animosity against the ‘others’ of society. So our society has transformed our racism and discrimination into something that at face value seems polite and harmless. Our racism no longer involves vulgar profanities, just microaggressions. We call a person of color ‘articulate,’ which is just a compliment. We ask the black teens for their wristbands at the neighborhood pool, which is technically procedure even if we forgot to ask all the white kids. We tell the new immigrant that their English is so good, unaware that they are fluent in six languages. We call the woman Ms. and the man Dr. even though they have the same degrees.

People on the receiving end of microaggressions shake off hundreds and hundreds of these insulting little jabs, but watch out the minute they speak out or up for themselves. Because then the gaslighting begins. ‘We were just complimenting you, don’t you like compliments?’ ‘We were just following procedure, what do you have against following the rules.’ ‘We used the wrong title, it was just a simple mistake, why are you so angry?’

I am pretty sure some evil, loud and proud bigot decided that microaggressions were the way of the future. Then the rest of us slipped into microaggressions mode without even noticing. Now we can all sleep better at night knowing that we would never use a racial slur, so we must not be racist. And our unconscious biases and prejudices never need be examined or addressed.”

–Katie O’Dea

If you’re not racist in the classic sense–just, like so many of us, well-meaning but confused–and want to learn more about the somewhat subtler ways in which white privilege is the air we breathe, read this Black woman’s illuminating account of her recent conversation in a hospital cafeteria. She writes:

“Currently in ‘so that just happened’ news: I’m having a convo with a friend of mine in the hospital cafeteria talking about the upcoming black panther movie (if you know me you know im here for any and everything melanated). Nothing too serious just clowning about doing the most wardrobe wise once it hits theaters. *insert coming to America jokes here * when this white lady decides to join our conversation… ok cool.

No worries we weren’t exactly whispering and she was sitting alone looking like she needed a friend…and I’m friendly (to some degree). So as we were talking from across the tables I invite her to get her tray and just come sit with us. She accepts. So we continue our convo ha ha ha ke ke ke… and then it happened… Ms. Lady asked if we were this excited about all marvel movies or are we just excited because of the casting? Without any hesitation and in perfect unison we replied “the casting”.

My friend ask why do you ask…ms. lady’s face at this point is showing all the signs of a person trying to decide exactly how to say what she’s thinking with offending us…and she failed. She asked us if we thought the casting choices for the movie were such a good idea ‘given you know all that this country is going thru right now.’ My friend at this point is giving her a side eye sent straight from the GAWDZ and I’m trying to figure out what the hell just happened.

She notices our nonverbal reactions and ATTEMPTS to reassure us she means no disrespect. ‘It’s just that everything has so much racial tension right now maybe casting an all black superhero movie might alienate some people. And make them feel like they aren’t welcomed to see the movie. How am i supposed to explain that to my son?’ My friend regained her ability to speak before I did and asked explain what to your son? To which she replied ‘that’s it’s a black movie and it’s not for him’ and then like magic i could speak.

So i said ‘My son has seen every single superhero movie ever released. Batman and optimus prime were two favorite heroes for the majority of his life. Never once has he shed a tear because the heroes don’t look like him. I’m not understanding your concern’ to which she replied ‘that’s different. Those casting decisions were less problematic. Because it’s easy to neutralize race with white superheroes because everybody can relate to them’…. we both snapped. Hard. And went in on a tag team that would have made Martin, Malcolm, Coretta, sista soulja, maya angelou, angela davis, tupac and his mama proud.

We asked if we should apologize for our skin being problematic. We asked why our sons have to relate to white superheroes but her son was so fragile that if he sees a person of color on the big screen he feels alienated. We asked why she felt telling us that an all black cast was problematic was ok. We asked if she realized that she alienated us by suggesting that our skin tone can be seen as problematic. We asked how exactly was putting ‘no disrespect’ in front of such derogatory words supposed to make it magically respectful. We asked her if she worried about the little black or browns boys not feeling welcomed to watch Superman or Spiderman. We asked if we were on a hidden camera show…

She sat there. Looking like she was about to cry and called us bullies for being so rude and intimidating her and stormed off. Now keep in mind this lady inserted herself into our conversation. We cordially invited her to join us at our table because she looked lonely. She’s the one that said our skin tone was problematic. But she was the victim. We were the bullies. We were rude. We intimidated her.

That folks is white privilege.” –Courtney Chylane

“Part of [the microaggression of touching Black women’s hair] has to do with the complicated history that Black women have with their hair, period. It’s not just about white women, it’s Black women’s own relationship to our hair. As we all know as women, our femininity and our ‘beauty’ and how we subscribe to beauty standards is directly correlated with what we have access to in the world: what we have access to with our privileges and how we are treated and respected. We live in a world where the beauty standard is that the closer you are to whiteness, the more beautiful you are.

And specifically Black people arguably have a hair texture that is most different than everyone else in the world. In terms of its texture, its coil, its height, its growth, its oiliness, everything that it’s doing, it’s different from everyone else’s in the world. And as a Black woman, and as with most Black women I know, we grew up with an extremely complicated relationship to our hair. Our hair is a large source of trauma to us in terms of physical pain–all the things that we’ve had to go through, particularly from a steel pressing comb that is heated on the stove, on fire, and then is pressed into your hair to make it closer to a white woman’s hair.

There are also chemical relaxers and perms, which are lye, which was originally used to clean engines. That was put on our hair to strip it of its natural coating and to make it straight so it could be like a white woman’s, which is so much trauma for Black women. It burns our scalp, it makes our hair short and brittle, it’s a very traumatic and damaging experience. And there are weaves and things, which were all made to make our hair appear closer to a white woman’s hair and appearance.

So for a Black woman to go out in the world with hair that is not trying to be like a white woman’s – it is an act of resistance, an act of revolution, an act of self-glorification and self-respect in a particular sort of way. And it is not something that you want the system that you are resisting, which is white femininity, white perfection, to then come and seem to pick apart, interrogate, and even trivialize and question what you are doing.

One of the key things that they did during the crimes of slavery was to force Black women to cover our hair. We couldn’t take care of it, we couldn’t braid it, we couldn’t wear it. If we did we had to wear a head rag or hair covering. In New Orleans, women were forced to cover their hair as a way to not “tempt” white men with our wild gorgeous hair. So our hair and the displaying of our hair is highly political.

It is not just as simple as ‘Oh, this is a cool thing that you did.’ A Black woman’s hair and her relationship to her hair, whether it’s curly, straight, braided, short–it is not a simple personal thing. It’s not just, ‘I went to Supercuts and got a little haircut today.’ Everything that we do with our hair is highly loaded. How we do our hair determines how we are respected in the world, what jobs we’re going to get, what partners we’re going to date. It’s so much of Black culture that is reacting to being so traumatized by white supremacy.

And the misogyny toward Black women is a lot oriented around our hair. Having nappy hair, having short hair, being a nappy-headed ho, being a bald-headed scallywag. So much of the specific misogyny that Black women experience in terms of physical appearance, is oriented around our hair.

Another thing I want to say is that even if a white woman got consent to touch our hair, all consent is not consent. If you coerce somebody into saying yes, that’s not a yes. And Black women, especially when it comes to white women, are constantly on a rope as to how the way we’re interacting with them is going to affect the rest of our lives. If you are too mean to a white woman and she cries, that can be the end of your job or the end of certain relationships. You cannot in this world upset a white woman, you cannot make a white woman cry. You cannot deny a white woman anything, really.

So, when you’ve been in the position to ask a Black woman if you could touch her hair and she says yes….what were the repercussions of her saying no? If it’s in a grocery store and everybody’s standing around, if she says no she’s being rude. She’s being this, she’s being that. If you’re in college and it’s a situation with a roommate–does she want to now have a hostile or uncomfortable living situation from this point on because she denied access to something that a white girl wants? So she’ll say yes. If the woman asking is her boss or her co-worker, she doesn’t want to get labeled as hostile or unapproachable or unfriendly. So she will say yes in those situations.

But, there are circumstances where a Black woman can feel comfortable enough where she knows you’re not objectifying or fetishizing or exoticizing her, and she may give you access to explore something new. But I can tell you as a Black woman, the likelihood of that being the case is slim, compared to other things.

This is a long connection to make, but to me something about this goes all the way back to Manifest Destiny—to the assumption that everything new, I should experience, everything new, I should learn about, everything new, I should explore, because there’s a whole world and I should be gaining as much knowledge and information as possible. But that’s not really the case. The first time I saw a South Asian person, I didn’t ask to touch their hair. I see different types of things all day, like white people with spiky Mohawk punk hair, but I don’t ask to touch their hair. I look at it and enjoy it. I don’t say, “Yo, that’s some cool-ass hair.” And I mind my business, because I don’t necessarily feel like the world is mine to experience, to investigate, to explore.

So many [white women in the group] listed ‘innocent curiosity’ as a reason why it’s okay to ask or touch or to explore. For me it goes all the way back to colonialism, to feeling like the entire world, and what it is you don’t know, needs to be yours. And that you have to know, and that you have to experience and you have to touch it first hand in order to know that it’s real.

If you see a Black woman and her braids and if you like them that much and you want to know more about it, go home and Google it. Don’t interrupt her day for your curiosity, for you wanting to know what her hair is like, what the process is. It’s not her job to do. It has nothing to do with you. She could have just had a hard day of work. She could be figuring out how to pay her bills. Or, she could be in a shitty relationship. Or she could be having a great day, and she is wearing her hair for her.

It was interesting to me the number who said they have ‘never’ touched a Black woman’s hair; they were the ones more likely to respond. To me that correlates to, ‘Yeah, well, this is not really that big a deal. I’ve never done it. I don’t know anybody who’s ever done it. And I’ve never heard of it.’ And that feels very demeaning about this obviously large phenomenon that’s happening in the Black community. So to me it demeans our experiences and the specific sort and set of traumas around this when 20 or 30 white ladies in the group respond like that.

That’s like being in a group where you’re trying to teach men about misogyny and saying ‘I’ve been sexually assaulted,’ and some guys say, ‘I’ve never sexually assaulted a woman, I don’t know any guy who sexually assaults women, and I don’t know why any guy would do that.’ Can you see how that would be infuriating and invalidating of what you’re trying to bring awareness to?” –excerpted from Imani Inami

“I asked them to share instances that really made them feel insignificant as humans. It was frustrating just how often we, as black women, have to encounter offensive words or behavior, and when we stand up for ourselves, we’re met with resistance. It’s incredibly paralyzing.

I was taking more notice than ever of the backhanded compliments, and all the racism that seeps through in everyday conversation.”

“While serving myself potatoes, one of the women working came from behind the counter and called her friend over without even acknowledging me. She yelled, ‘I think she has the same hair as your mixed daughter!’

All I wanted to do was eat my food, but then the questions started. The woman behind the counter, who was white, asked about what I did to keep my hair looking like mine, so I explained that you have to keep kinky hair hydrated.

Was it time to go home yet?”

“Handling these microaggressions had become second nature to me — so much so that prior to this experience, I just brushed them off, ignored them, and acted as if they didn’t bother me.

But while doing this experiment, I really paid attention to what was said to me and how it made me feel. At its end, I was reminded of how deep words can cut.” –Margaret E. Jacobson