STORY OF RACISM

Today might be a stretch for some people to understand, and it speaks more to bias than blatant racism. I’ll do my best to describe and explain, but I’m counting on you to ask questions to clarify what I mean or whatever you need to help you get your head around it. I know this one is subtler and therefore easier to deny.

Wondering what I’m referring to yet? Microaggressions. My device prompts me to correct the spelling as if it’s not a word, so that might tell you a little about the struggle to get folks to understand this. So let me start with a working definition:

Microaggressions are one outgrowth of implicit bias. Columbia University defines it as “prejudices that leak out in many interpersonal situations and decision points; experienced as “slights, insults, indignities, and denigrating messages.”

Just the language alone reveals a lot about why this is hard to grasp. One person’s perception of an indignity, for example, may vary greatly from another person’s. So,I’m going to just list out some of the things I’ve witnessed, with a little explanation for each in case it isn’t clear.

  1. Asking my biracial kids, “What are you??” Or asking me, “what are they?” This is a microaggression because the implication is that they aren’t human; they’re a “what” before they’re a “who.” I’ll tell you, most often, when directed at me, this comes from a random stranger. That kills me. Why a random stranger thinks they can ask something like that is beyond me. My kids’ ethnic make-up is not any of that person’s business. Ever. Being asked so rudely is an indignity to my kids. It strips them of their inherent dignity as human beings. They are not “whats” and it’s none of your business anyway, is what I want to shout.
  2. Asking me, “where did you get her?” Yes, this did happen. More than once, when they were little. Again, always a random stranger. Of course. I wanted just once to snap back, “on the side of the road” or “at the grocery store” or something ridiculous just to see their reaction. Because it’s a ridiculous question. And the aggression is twofold here, in my opinion: 1) the assumption that I didn’t birth those babies myself because they don’t look like me (again, not any of that person’s business!), and 2) that I “got” them like I “got” a case of strep throat or I “got” a couple of steaks for the grill. That question subtly stripped my kids of their humanity.
  3. Touching Rebekah’s hair. GET YOUR GERMY HANDS OFF MY BABY! (as you can tell, even remembering this stuff pushes me to the edge of my temper…) I never did yell that at anyone, no matter how satisfying it would have been. Unfortunately, I’m not even convinced I did a good job of addressing that issue head on at all. I never knew exactly what to do, always felt caught off-guard, and never felt like I could react in a way that wouldn’t cause a scene (49 year old me is much less concerned about making a scene, but 24 year old me had massive anxiety about it). Mostly I maneuvered her out of their reach and then touched her hair with my own hand to silently communicate to her that I loved her and her hair, and would do my best to wipe the stranger’s germs off. I still feel like I let her down. This happened only to Rebekah because her hair is the most textured of my three. EDITED TO ADD: I’ve had several private messages about this one so I want to explain a little better. This violates personal, physical boundaries. Touching anyone without their permission does, so we really all should be teaching our kids — especially our girls — that they have agency and can set their own boundaries about those things. When they’re little, it’s up to us to set those boundaries. Another issue with even asking to touch a black person’s hair is simply that it implies a level of “otherness,” that they are so different than you that you have to touch to see what it’s like. To be blunt, it’s feels like being a farm animal at a petting zoo. (I hope this helps)
  4. Venders talk to me, make eye contact with me, instead of Jacques. One of the most blatant ways this happened was with a realtor once. Every question or comment she had she directed at me, smiled condescendingly at Jacques when he asked something or commented, and never once did she say his name. It happened just before COVID19 at a fancy restaurant with friends. The waitress looked past him to me every time she came to the table. She almost “forgot” to ask him what he wanted to drink until he said teasingly, “what about me? Do I have to share with my wife?” Sometimes this one is hard because he has a thick Haitian accent and so it’s easy to write it off since some people have a hard time understanding him. But that waitress, she hadn’t even heard him speak yet. As his wife, it feels horrible to see how people demean and devalue him that way, putting me ahead of him as if he has no opinion or input of any value. It’s also horrible to know that he has to use humor to combat it in order to avoid being seen as an angry black man for confronting a person — even in a gentle, non-combative way — for refusing to acknowledge him. Humor defuses the situation, and for better or for worse, he wins people over that way. But he shouldn’t have to.

Phew. I think that’s enough for now. I wish I could say I don’t have a million more examples. I will include some links if you want to read more about what sociologists have found about microaggressions in classrooms, and what psychologists have to say about the devastating physical and emotional impact microaggressions have. I strongly encourage you to do that and make yourselves aware of how you might be unwittingly doing some of the things people describe.

For now, I’m going to tell you about one of my own violations.

MY OWN WHITE PRIVILEGE

Years ago, Jacques and I were working to start our nonprofit to build libraries in the developing world, starting with Haiti. We were at the point that we needed a professional logo and had hired a designer. The idea the designer had suggested was to sort of combine a globe with a child’s facial silhouette. He sent us several options but they all looked like Peter Pan to me. So we sent them back and told him that most of the populations we were working with were black and brown folks. His next set had a silhouette that was more representative of the population we planned to work with and we happily chose the logo from that set. As we were looking at it, I said, “I like this one a lot, even though the child is more ethnic.”

As I type that, I want to vomit and I’m consumed with shame. Jacques looked at me and said quietly, “really?”

What do you say to that?? What do you say when you’ve said something so incredibly stupid and careless and heartless, something that you didn’t mean in the least?? I still don’t know the answer to that. Because sorry sounded so pathetic and tears felt so manipulative. I couldn’t ask him to forgive me, at least not at that moment. And fortunately for me, he knows me and he loves me anyway. I certainly don’t always deserve him.

As a friend, if you were to tell me you screwed up that badly, I would encourage you to make every attempt to dismantle whatever it is inside you that caused you to do or say that thing, that biased thing, and to vow never to do it again. I would tell you to apologize only after you’ve committed to that work and can wholeheartedly promise you will do better. As a friend, I would tell you not to hide because of your shame. I would also tell you to be gentle in your approach when asking for forgiveness, and be prepared to accept the consequences if the relationship was too badly damaged to be repaired. Sometimes that happens. But I have hope you’ll do your work in authentic and meaningful ways that will allow you to be transformed and to rebuild bridges. I have, and continue to do so, and I can tell you that admitting your failures and doing the self-examination is more worth it than I would ever have predicted. It’s transformative in every way.

Recommended reading:

https://www.edutopia.org/article/look-implicit-bias-and-microaggressions

https://www.pcom.edu/about/departments/marketing-and-communications/digest-magazine/digest-featured-stories/theres-nothing-micro-about-the-impact-of-microaggressions.html

Photo: Jacques and me in Pilate, Haiti 2013, at the first of three Universal Learning Centre libraries

Originally posted June 2020 on https://medium.com/@invisibleleftovers