Confronting Racism

 Glenn Bigonet, M.A.

Social Activist for Racial Equity

Facilitating Discussions about Racism

 

617-462-6642

gbigonet@icloud.com

           

 

Microagressions

 

"One doesn't have to operate with great malice to do great harm.

The absence of empathy and understanding are sufficient."

Charles M Blow

 

Microagressions are small racially charged actions that most people of color experience on a daily basis. They are called "micro"aggressions because they are small, indirect, often unintended and when experienced individually out of the context of all the others seem relatively harmless. The cumulative effect of these microagressions are dramatic however. I've heard them described as death by a thousand paper cuts. I also like the analogy of paper. If you pick up a piece of paper it seems weightless and insignificant, if on the other hand you pick up a ream or a case of paper it is hard, solid, and heavy. The longterm effects of microagressions are traumatic and can lead to doubting one's own experience of themself, depression, anxiety, toxic shame and low self-esteem.

 

Microagressions are particularly hard because they come from a multitude of people, are random and are rarely predictable. 

 

Microagressions can be both verbal and nonverbal. Nonverbal microagressions can look like someone clutching their purse tightly as they pass a person of color, a store clerk following a person of color around the store, crossing the street when you see a person of color coming toward you, etc. Ijeoma Oluo provides a long list of verbal microaggressions in her book. Here are some of them:(p170-171)

  • "Are you the first person in your family to go to college?"
  • "Are you an affirmative action hire?"
  • "Wow, you speak english really well!"
  • "You aren't like other black people"
  • "I thought Asian people ate a lot of rice."
  • "That's so ghetto"
  • "Is that your real hair? Can I touch it?"
  • "Wow, you're so articulate."
  • "Is the baby-daddy in the picture?"
  • "You have really big eyes for and Asian person"
  • "Do your kids all have the same dad?"
  • "You don't sound black"
  • "Are you the maid?"
  • "You're so exotic"
  • "That fiery Latin blood"
  • "Are you visiting this neighborhood?"
  • "Your accent is adorable" 

It is often hard to identify microaggressions in the moment and challenging them is even more difficult as the offending party will often say things like "I didn't mean to offend you,""Come on, it's just a little thing, stop making a big deal out of it," "Stop being so sensitive," etc.

 

On top of causing people of color regular discomfort with long-term effects the assumptions behind microagressions reinforce and maintain white supremacy. When unacknowledged and unchallenged they repeat and reinforce the racial stereotypes that oppress people of color. Ijeoma Oluo states that "they normalize racism.  They make racist assumptions a part of everyday life. The assumption that a black father isn't in the picture reinforces an image of irresponsible black men that keeps them from being hired for jobs. The assumption that a Latinx woman doesn't speak english good keeps her from a promotion. The assumption that a child's of color parents wouldn't have a college degree encourages guidance counselors to set lower goals for that child. The assumption that black people are 'angry' prevents black people from being taken seriously when airing legitimage greivances."(p.172) Clearly the indiviual and systemic effects of microagressions run deep and can be profound. Becoming aware of and adressing microagressions are essential for elimionating racial harm and racism in general. 

 

Becoming aware of when we are committing a microagression is essential and hearing feedback from others that something we said is problematic is often very difficult. Oluo provides a helpful process to go through when confronted by someone about a microagression: (p.175-177)

  1. "Pause" - take a breath, give yourself a moment to process it and remember this person is most likely communicating it to you because you are important to them in someway and you understanding it will help your relationship
  2. "Ask yourself: Do I really know why I said/did that?"
  3. "Ask yourself: Would I have said that to somebody of my race? Is it something I say to people of my race?"
  4. "Ask yourself if you were feeling threatened or uncomfortable in the situation, and then ask yourself why. Often, microaggressions are a defensive mechanism when people are feeling racial tension."
  5. "Don't force people to acknowledge your good intentions. What matters is that someone was hurt."
  6. Remember: it's not just one incident. This incident is the continuation of a long history of microagressions for people of color."
  7. "Research further on your own time." It's not their job to educate you.
  8. "Apologize. You've done something to hurt another human being. Even if you don't understand why or how you should apologize." 

My Personal Reflections on Microagressions

 

Of all the aspects of racism I feel microagressions are the one I feel most familiar with. As a couples counselor I would regularly see the harm that microagressions have in many relationships. I experienced these myself in my first marriage as my exwife would regularly hit me with random attacks and comments. When I would try to confront her she would minimize what she said did and give me some type of message that I was overreacting. In these moments I would be feeling hurt and upset but when I'd try to express it by just describing the current event my upset didn't make sense to me either so I'd withdraw and question myself and my own reactions. I had no understanding at the time of the cumulative effects of her actions and that it was the cumulative effect that caused me to have such a strong reaction. This lack of understanding left me feeling confused and broken.

 

I know my experience was deep and profound but I only experienced it from one person in my life for a period of 11 years of my life and I was able to leave the relationship.  I can't imagine how much worse it must be for people of color who endure these agressions for their entire lives by associates and strangers with no hope to escape and no way to avoid these types of hurtful behavior. 

Copyright © 2020   Glenn Bigonet, M.A.