The BLTs and I were having dinner one night. Our waiter was a nice enough white guy, but midway through dinner, one of my friends asked: why is he talking to us like that?
We knew exactly what she meant – we’d all noticed it of course. When speaking to the three of us (all black women) he was using his “sassy black woman voice”, dropping his “g’s” and throwing out slang talk. “Ain’t nobody got time for that, amirite?” Though we didn’t eavesdrop on his conversations with other tables, we were certain that he wasn’t talking to any other customers like that.
This type of thing happens frequently and the word “mircroaggression” is used to name these incidents. Columbia professor Derald Sue defines microaggressions as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.”
Microaggressions are “micro” because they often happen in small, private situations, yet their effects often impact us in massive and dangerous ways.
Over time, being on the receiving end of these everyday (yet often unrecognizable) attacks can lead to depression, social isolation, and lowered confidence. Because we’ve been conditioned to question ourselves and not the perpetrators or the situations, we begin to wonder if our own feelings and experiences are legitimate.
The way I think of microaggressions is that someone is trying to remind you where you belong or put you in your place– perhaps without even realizing that this is what they’re doing. You see, everyone has a role to play in a white supremacist society and so people often act in ways (even unconsciously) to fix or locate you within the structured (and rigid) hierarchy. Hence, the white waiter who speaks to his black customers in AAVE (though none of us were speaking that way) reminds us that we are black and that this is the way that black people speak.
The name of my blog comes from a microagression that I used to experience quite frequently. Someone would stare at my face for quite some time and then say (with a smile and sometimes a touch to my arm): you know, you are really pretty for a black girl. Most people thought that they were paying me a compliment because they didn’t get the underlying implication of their statement: that black girls aren’t supposed to be pretty.
Microaggressions are a daily part of life for most POC: you’re a black student at a predominantly white institution (PWI) and when you go to a party, everyone expects you to be able to dance (even thought you have no rhythm). Or you’re the same student and your white classmates constantly allude to Affirmative Action in your presence. Or you’re singing along to the Carrie Underwood song playing over the speaker system in a clothing store when the salesperson remarks (in complete surprise): “you like country music?” You’re black in this scenario and aren’t supposed to like country music.
That’s the thing. Microagressions treat you as if you aren’t an individual but a monolith (in this case one known as Black People) that acts the same, likes the same things, eats the same things, looks exactly alike, and thinks the same way. Basically, like you’re part of a hive.
You know how people tell you: I don’t even see color. Well that’s legitimately how brown-skinned people try to live our lives– like our skin color doesn’t matter. You walk about doing life stuff – things that are in no way raced- like walking your dog, getting your kids off to the school bus, meeting up with your besties for a ride on the wine train, or delivering the mail. But everyone you encounter wants to remind you that you are raced – that you have a specific place in society — and that your black body is, above all things, a threat. And that is the point where microaggressions quickly escalate to aggresion: don’t laugh too loudly, don’t do the job that you get paid for, and don’t play with toy guns in a store in an open-carry state.
In my day-to-day life, dealing with microaggressions (and racism in general) is a lot like balancing a tray full of heavy glassware. The tray of glassware is ever present with you (a la institutional racism) and so you’re always aware of the tension that radiates from this balancing act and there’s really no comfortable way to carry all of those snifters and Pilsners and highball glasses, but carry it you must. And so when the guy (who’s really a nice person in general) tells you in front of the entire class that “you’re not really black. You’re an oreo,” you have to figure out if you can manage the weight of that glass that he just set down on your feet. Because if you pick that glass up — if you choose to say or do something about the microaggression — you’re most likely going to drop one of those hurricane glasses at the edge of your tray.
And you know what it’s like when someone drops a glass in a restaurant or a bar — all eyes go to the person with the clumsy fingers. You become the focal point — the person who is disturbing the peace for everyone else, the one making everyone else uncomfortable . And so there you stand still trying to recover your equilibrium while balancing that heavy ass tray. But now there is broken glass to contend with and folks who are likely to cut themselves open on the sharp edges.
Like I said dealing with microaggressions is a balancing act.