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Racial micro aggressions are everyday slights with a racist subtext. However, don’t let the word “slights” fool you, micro-aggressions can slowly chip at your sanity, patience, and even self-worth. For instance, a colleague once asked me if I grew up with a father. When I responded, “uhhhhh, yeah", she seemed genuinely surprised by my response. As I reflected in the moment about the sting of this statement, I recognized quickly in this case that the slam was a subtle yet insidious way of saying, “you black folks don't have dads" and/or "black men are deadbeats." Micro-aggressions are notoriously difficult to prove, thus the name "micro." Some may even read the example I just gave and argue that there was no slight. But just because a micro-aggression isn't obvious or proven doesn't mean it’s not true, irksome or painful. Frankly, sometimes it’s the coded or subvert element of the micro aggression that is most maddening as the offended party is left thinking, "Am I crazy?!"
I bet this example just reminded you of the not so funny but thinks he is funny coworker that changes the way he speaks when you come around. "Whuzzz up?!?" Yup, things just got real.
I know I am not alone when I say I have experienced my fair share of racial micro-aggressions. For those unfamiliar with this social psychology jargon, the term is mostly connected to the work of scholar Derald Wing Sue.
The truth is most people don't respond directly to micro-aggressions, rather they chip away at you like a game of Jenga that’s one piece from collapsing. Often when that final Jenga piece is removed, our response is typically externally or even internally scathing. This results in the infamous "why are _____ people so sensitive?" Also, for the person of color this can be the signal to retreat and disengage. There are many things societally, systemically, and even spiritually that can be done to impact the thinking that creates micro-aggressions but there are also ways to respond that help to secure and affirm the person of colors' dignity. Below are a few ways to respond. In the comment section, feel free to list yours. While understandable, there is no need to write about the swift karate chop or other move you would like to do. Let’s keep it intellectual and focused on change for all parties. (Smile) When micro-aggressions occur, and unfortunately they will, we can decide if it is time to educate, defend, or ignore.
The first response is to Educate.
First of all shout out to all the former and present Sociology majors, die-hard readers, and listeners to stories of the elders. Being versed on race, culture, and injustice doesn’t not cause one to become immune to racial micro-aggressions but it does serve as a built in armor in which to quickly buffer absurd statements, contextualize, and place such words solely in the hands of the micro-aggression offender. In some cases, education can even cause you to better understand the offender by placing them in the appropriate stage of their racial identity development. Like you, I have read a few books in my day about injustice and bias, so sometimes when I experience micro aggressions, I want to immediately educate. Share context, history, and implications of racism in America. Connect the dots for the micro aggression offender about why this statement is harmful, disrespectful and or demeaning. In these cases, I use this technique most often when I have a relationship with the micro aggression offender or an educational platform. Most white Americans are woefully underdeveloped in understanding race dynamics in America and for many people of color their lived experience can be limited by an absence of a knowledge base to make sense of the experience and use it to move to a solution-focused response. While I am inclined to educate, (hence this blog and my teaching gig), I remind myself not cast my pearls before swine. Now that may sound pretty harsh but the last thing I want to engage in is a lofty debate with someone who does not have the skills or experience to hang. Know what I mean? It’s unhelpful for me and likely for the individual, if they don’t have ears to really hear me or rather the well documented history and present data about race. Instead, I would encourage them to explore some opportunities to learn and grow outside of our interactions.
The other option is to Defend.
Some micro-aggressions have to be swiftly dismantled because their subtle danger cannot be allowed to take root in the esteem of the hearer. For example, once when I was with one of my curly-kinky-haired daughters, an elderly white women quipped, "How do you get a comb through her hair?" My then 4 year old was close enough to hear these words and I was left to push back hard for my daughter's benefit. Frankly, as a "Naturalista" her statement would have had little effect on me since I take the stance that outside group individuals have little authority to speak into the experiences of inside group members. In other words, I am not open to getting advice about my hair from a naturally straight-haired elderly white women, especially if it’s demeaning. You just cannot let anybody tell you who you are, folks! But in this case, my precious daughter was there with a budding self-esteem in a world that over-sexualizes, morphs, and ignores black women. Likewise, there are probably other instances were defending or correcting swiftly are called for and most my examples frankly have to do with impressionable children. You must protect the truth about who you are, in this case my daughter is a beautiful image-bearer of God and that cost of her seeing herself any other way is too high.
Finally, the last option is to ignore.
From the tone of my essay, you can probably infer that I think knowledge is a gift, your identity and self-worth must be protected, and everybody and anybody does not get to tell you who you are. My advice to undergraduate students of color often rests on helping them to explore if they believe the micro aggression is true that they experienced. In other words, does this sting because you share this bias. That’s a bigger issue in my book. When we have an identity that is rooted, we can sometimes, allow micro aggressions to be ignored. There are few things as powerful in a conversation as the non-reactive, blank stare. I can hear my mother say (and the Bible), "don't answer a fool in his folly." It’s true. Some statements are so absurd and outrageous, that they get stored in the "that’s all about you and your ignorance" bucket.
I imagine you and I will get to test these out pretty soon. Remember, for people of color, addressing racial micro aggressions within a racialized system is essential to avoid collapsing like a Jenga game. For more information about how to handle micro aggressions and hear stories from white folks and people of color about navigating race in America, check out my free advice blog www.asktheculturequeens.com.
May you have grace for the journey and grace for others along the way….