The Subtleties Of Racism: Understanding Racial Microaggressions
After the murder of George Floyd, a flood of support for the #BlackLivesMatter movement sparked a racial reckoning. All across the country, people have come to terms with the racism that pervades their home, school, workplace and social circles. While it’s easy to point out blatant examples of racism, others often go unnoticed because of their casual nature. These are called racial microaggressions.
What is a microaggression?
The term was first coined in 1970 by Dr. Chester Pierce, a Black man, psychiatrist and Harvard professor. A recent definition by Dr. Derald Wing Sue, a psychiatrist at Columbia University, describes them as “everyday insults, indignities and demeaning messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of the hidden messages being sent to them.” Different types of microaggressions include microassaults, microinvalidations and microinsults.
MICROASSAULT = conscious and intentional actions or slurs, such as using racial epithets, displaying swastikas or deliberately serving a white person before a person of color in a restaurant.
MICROINVALIDATION = verbal and nonverbal communications that subtly convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person’s racial heritage or identity.
MICROINSULT = gestures that subtly exclude, negate or nullify the thoughts, feelings or experiential reality of a person of color.
Racial microaggressions, though seemingly insignificant to some, have serious ramifications, although they may not be obvious to the untrained eye. Some BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) might react to microaggressions with retaliation, but others might respond with a dry laugh or shrug, or perhaps they diffuse the entire situation. As a Black woman, I can say that sometimes it’s easier to let it go in the moment and avoid conflict, especially in a scenario with power dynamics or close-minded people.
Growing up in predominantly white suburbs, I’ve experienced a plethora of these implicit comments and actions for years. People have told me that I don’t act Black. I’ve been called rude and hostile for merely speaking about racial injustice. I’ve been asked, “Where are you really from?” after I said my birthplace was New York. And if I had a dollar for every time someone touched my hair without permission, I’d be swimming in wealth. Many of our peers are frequently subjected to experiences like these, sometimes beginning as early as childhood.
Amber Quettan, a freshman at the U studying business, has dealt with her own share of implicit bias and racism over the years. Growing up in a school district where she was the only Black student in her classes, Quettan was used to being asked questions like, “Why is your hair like that?” and having to deal with comments like, “Straight noses are best.” On one occasion, a classmate even passed around a note that read: “Amber is Black. Kill her.”
“I remember feeling sad and distant from those around me,” she commented. “In a room full of people, I felt alone. The situation was dealt with, but the effects of it linger with me to this day.”
Individual experiences with racial microaggressions vary, but the outcome is almost always the same. On a personal level, experiencing racial microaggressions leaves Black people with layers of trauma that will follow them for eternity. On a social level, racial microaggressions allow racism to thrive in a system that preys on Black people, making opportunities for advancement much more difficult than for their white counterparts.
Because racial microaggressions often fly under the radar, it can be hard to keep them in check. Junior Landon Coles, president of United Black Students and Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion within student government, acknowledged the prevalence of microaggressions in society and the difficulty to address them.
“A new era has been ushered in where outward discrimination has been replaced by de facto implicit bias, discriminatory policies substituted by complacency and white robes substituted with plain clothes. One could argue that to diagnose an implicit culture of microaggressions and bias is more onerous than diagnosing discrimination in plain sight,” Coles said.
So how do we solve the problem?
We, meaning every human being, must do their part. The work cannot be left to Black people or people of color — All citizens, regardless of race, must do their part to educate and advocate. The most effective changes can happen on a small scale, in conversation with friends or at the dinner table with family.
“Our greatest tools to combat such challenges are education, community and remaining vigilant in the face of injustice.”— Landon Coles
If a Black person tells you that your comment is racist, then it is. Instead of getting defensive, you should apologize, thank them for pointing out your mistake then educate yourself so you don’t make the same mistake again. The first step in addressing racial microaggressions is bringing them out of obscurity to where they belong: right in front of our faces, no matter how uncomfortable.
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