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The Truth about How Microaggressions Work

Microaggression as social control

What is a microaggression really? I looked up the definition because I wanted to be sure I was clear. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it is: a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority).

In thinking about it, I couldn’t come up with any extraordinary examples. And maybe that’s the point: the everyday nature of microaggressions. How they seep into conversation and under skin.

a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority).

Some of the ‘ordinary,’ ones — which I’m not even sure are worth mentioning, as I’m certain we’ve all heard similar stories before — are as follows:

Adventures in microaggression

When graduating undergrad I met with a college employment advisor to talk about job prospects and how to get ready for the world of work. My advisor, who happened to be white and middle-aged, advised that I not get my hopes up about getting a white collar job, predicting that quite likely I would have to settle for a job as a waitress or secretary, and that I should take it as it would be my first post-college job, and might pay better than low-level white collar work.

Hmm. And, well. I hadn’t gone to college advisors regularly, and this advice affirmed the wisdom of that choice. Outside, I shook my head and tight-smiled. Inwardly, I raged.

They are barbs that come wrapped in feathers and bows

I did not follow the advisor’s advice when job-hunting, and neither was my self-confidence, as they say, shaken. I just thought he was an ass whose expectations for his own life had been dimmed, so why not destroy a young kid’s hopes. Everything he said to me for the rest of the session had no impact.

If he’d sought to diminish me or lessen my hopes, the opposite had occurred. My desire to succeed intensified. I was determined to seek, and get, a job that I desired.

A question of intent

Microaggressions’ power lies in the subtlety and cleverness of their design. Their ability to have you second guessing not only the sender’s intent, but yourself and your own hypersensitivity.

For they are barbs that come wrapped in feathers and bows — You speak so well. My God, Sandra, you’re so articulate — and can leave you, the recipient, doubting your conclusions, or at least questioning whether the person ‘meant’ what you think they meant.

You speak so well. My God, Sandra, you’re so articulate.

As I revisited my conversation with the counselor, I questioned whether he’d simply been well-intentioned. I was graduating with a BA in psych and planned to go to grad school but would work for a year first. Perhaps he knew the difficulty of a recent graduate obtaining a job if her degree lacked evidence of hard skills. Perhaps, like a parent, he’d meant well and was simply preparing me for the worse.

Deftness is key

Successful microaggression is deft. The sender’s message knocks you for a loop or, at minimum, destabilizes you just a teense: like compliments that waver between insult and applause. Is it, is it not? Shade in its highest form.

Later, of course, I heard similar stories from other Blacks and Browns who’d attended other colleges but encountered the same manner of Jerk: different clothes and gender, but the message echoed similar.

Passive-aggressive fairy tales

I can remember at least two occasions when I wrote essays in middle and high school, and the teachers, both white, were so impressed they wondered if I’d lifted some of my paper from somewhere else. No, I hadn’t, I replied. Shaking my head; puzzled by why they’d think that. I was an excellent English student. They knew that. If you took an excerpt from somewhere else, you cited it. I knew that. ‘It was just so good; so well-written,’ they said. I vacillated between anger and confusion, consoling myself with the smug satisfaction that they thought I was that good a writer. Was it that they were so impressed with the quality of my work or that they simply didn’t think I had the ability to deliver such work?

Numbness as protection and preservation

With most microaggressions, you learn to develop the epidermis of an elephant or a snake — get tough or shed. Anything else. Is. Exhausting.

Beyond exhaustion, acknowledging every microaggression, would decimate one’s mental health. To preserve sanity we dismiss or disregard, let it fall like water off a black duck’s back.

Microaggressions that fray my nerves

Word is (not) bond — or, I don’t believe you

Working out in the community gym, putting my car and gym keys on the shelf. I’m the only one there. A woman comes in — turns out she’s from the management office — asks if the gym key is mine. I tell her it is. She asks if I’m sure. I tell her I am. She says that one of the residents called to say she’d lost her key. I smile and repeat that it is indeed mine, that’s why it’s right next to my car key and water bottle. She gets on the phone and repeats the conversation to someone on the other end, and says, loudly, ‘There’s a key that’s here, but this woman who’s in here, claims that it’s hers.’

Fun Fact: With microaggressions, you are always asking, and deeply suspecting, that had the body in your place been white, the interaction would have gone differently. There would be no doubting of you and your words. Your answer would have been accepted as truth and not under dispute.

For at the heart of microaggression is suspicion: suspicion of your words, your truth, your right to be where you are, your validity, your right to occupy space.

There’s an old Eddie Murphy Saturday Night Live skit about a Black man getting off a bus filled with white people and as soon as he leaves, the party begins — life, as white people know it; with different rules. None of the whites pay when boarding the bus, there’s champagne, that sort of thing. Microaggression and the two-tiered rules by which Blacks/Browns and Whites live, sometimes feels eerily like that. Though we laugh at the Murphy skit, it zings because those outside the bubble head-nod, suspecting America’s rules may indeed operate that way.

Keeping the neighborhood safe

Walking outside in my gated community with my 9-year old niece at about 9 pm. It’s summer. The stars are out, the evening soft. It is the ideal night for a walk, to tell stories and laugh. We journey, holding hands, laughing and chatting while looking up at the stars.

Within minutes, a security SUV pulls up behind, shining the light on us, even as we turn. We see that its driven past one or two others — who are white — to reach us. The security guard pulls up, steps out of the vehicle, then sees that it’s me. He knows me. I ask him what’s wrong. He says that someone called in a report. About what I ask: ‘A woman out with a child for a walk?’ He smiles, then informs me that since he knows me, I don’t have to show him ID.

I ask if he does this all the time, requests identification of residents out for a walk. He shrugs and laughs; says we were headed towards the exit gate. ‘A gate that is locked,’ I say, ‘and whose entrance and exit are only accessible by vehicles.’ What about the other people he’d just driven past? Had he stopped them, requested IDs? More shrugs and smiles offered. My niece, head cocked, watches.

Always a second-class citizen, never a first

Living life in the Black lane, store clerks routinely ignore you or follow you around on the low, watching for suspicious, a.k.a. criminal, activity. When entering shops:

Rule No. 1: Ensure that you look like you’re shopping with purpose at all times. Don’t dawdle or appear aimless.

Rule No. 2: Consciously hold your bag and any item you pick up in a visible and uncompromising manner. Display the item for all to see so there can be no confusion that you are about to sneak it into your bag.

I find myself doing this regularly. Holding things out, away from my body in an obvious manner — Look, look! See, I’m not stealing! — and whenever I do take overlong while shopping, lapsing into a browsing binge, I feel prickles come over my face and body. A warm heat flushes me and I am aware that an anxious clamminess pervades my being; a kind of disquiet that perhaps some store clerk will think I’m up to no good; that quite likely I am being watched and that to the spy I appear suspect.

Look, look! See, I’m not stealing!

For the power of microaggression is in its mind control; how it seeps into your thinking, making you conscious of your behavior, and aware that you are not a first-class citizen of the world.

Part two in this scenario is, watching store clerks rush over to ask other customers if they need assistance — do near cartwheels to help them out — but ignore or eye you with suspicion. Some, to their credit, give you a wan smile and try not to act as though they’re eyeing you. You see them battling with themselves, trying not to look, and feeling guilty because they have been instructed to do so, or because, despite their progressive proclamations, they felt compelled to watch you . . . because, well . . . just because.

One game, different rules

My nephew, while attending one of the top private high schools on Long Island, New York, and later, as a Duke college student, driving home on break, was constantly being pulled over by the police, though he wasn’t exceeding the speed limit or breaking the law. When asked for his license and registration, after handing them over and being told to keep his hands on the wheel where they could be seen, being asked, ‘What am I going to find when I run this?’ When told ‘Nothing,’ being asked again, aggressively, ‘You sure? You not wanted for anything?’

His very neat and nonthreatening appearance did not stop him from being pulled over. My nephew’s mom (my sister) is an attorney and his father, at the time, was in law enforcement. He’d been drilled with ‘the talk’: ‘Be courteous and compliant. Make no fast moves. Keep your hands where they can be seen. Don’t challenge a cop. Just make it home safely and everything can be dealt with after.’

His very neat and nonthreatening appearance did not stop him from being pulled over.

Neither did his courteous manner and ‘well-spokenness’ prevent him from being treated like someone who was guilty of something.

Everyday Blackness

My other brother-in-law, who is a management professional, is 6 feet 4 inches. He notes that if he’s in an elevator alone and the door opens to a woman who is white, chances are that as soon as she sees him she either won’t get on, or if she does she’ll pull her pocketbook closer to her body. My brother-in-law is clean-cut and fastidious about his appearance. His fastidiousness means nothing in those situations.

He notes that, as management, given his race and size, he is extra-vigilant about how he communicates to his subordinates and to people in general. He modulates his voice and communicates in a specific manner in order not to be perceived as threatening or aggressive.

Where another manager may be able to raise his or her voice or speak firmly, he has to ensure that his tone remains even, without any inflection that could be perceived as outright aggression. Likewise, he is conscious of his body in relation to others, being careful not to tower over someone when speaking to them but to be seated across from them during a discussion. The flip side of all of this is he is always being asked if he’s a basketball player — ‘You’re somebody, aren’t you? Don’t I know you from somewhere?’ — as is his son, who is 6' 6", a college student and more of a gamer than anything else. That is a generic list. The standard microaggressions that irritate but seldom surprise.

Microaggressions that do more than offend

The ugliness of microaggression

But the microaggressions that matter to me, are all the unstated occurrences that we witness and experience. Microaggressions that operate like a toxic gas, odorless and invisible, yet deadly: fanning out into the ether; seeping into our systems; poisoning us where we stand.

The endless assault on one’s psyche when one witnesses what happened to 46-year old George Floyd, 27-year-old Breonna Taylor, 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, 12-year-old Tamir Rice, 28-year old Sandra Bland, 37-year-old Alton Sterling, 32-year-old Philando Castile, 20-year old college student Danroy “DJ” Henry . . . and on and on and on . . . and now, in Atlanta at the drive-thru, 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks.

When I speak those names, I underscore not only the damage and the hurt caused by witnessing the abuse inflicted on these individuals, but the unstated power behind what happened to them; the knowledge of the entitlement of those who acted against them.

A prime example of that entitlement, and how it expresses itself: Amy Cooper, the woman/finance exec in Central Park, who called the police on Christian Cooper, the African-American bird watcher (Harvard grad, former Marvel comics writer and editor, and LGBTQ activist). Cooper weaponized her whiteness, claiming that ‘an African-American man is threatening my life,’ when nothing of the sort was going on; when in fact, she was the one threatening Cooper’s life, by virtue of her call.

Cooper was acutely aware of the power that resided in her voice, in her race, in the position assigned her by society, and of the precarious and powerless position assigned to Christian Cooper and countless faceless others like him, and me and mine.

Same last name, different outcomes.

That is the true microaggression, the most dangerous kind, that bleeds into the mind: watching and knowing that there was nothing that George Floyd could do, that his voice was muted before he opened his mouth, as were the voices of the many others like him watching, observing, filming, screaming out. That is the microaggression that destroys.

Praying and parenting while Black

Microaggression’s impact on Black parents is akin to one’s getting neutered. It is Black and Brown mothers and fathers knowing they are powerless to protect their child when he or she walks out the door. (Or even when they are inside their homes.) It demands constantly bent knees even when one is standing, ongoing declarations and protestations to the heavens; asking GOD, begging please, to protect my husband, son . . .

It is knowing they have no armor which can shield their young. They may have armed them with decency, Ivy League educations, neat clothes, polished voices, trimmed hair; yet they know that whether they are light-skinned or dark, have shorn hair or locs, are urban or suburban, rural or metropolitan, educated or not, law-abider or breaker, a kid from Brownsville, Brooklyn or Easton, Massachusetts, the odds are it all plays out the same.

It’s the pregnancy of those moments that invades, infects, infests, imprisons the mind. The knowing that that moment and its possibility always exists: is just a gunshot away.

End note

Black you are always aware of how you look and where you are going and of your presentation’s possible impact on those around you; how that perception might matter acutely in some circumstances when they would have negligible import for other folks in similar circumstances.

The thinking, rethinking, watching the world and your movements in it; not just through our own eyes but the eyes of others. Adjusting, adjusting, adjusting some more. And even when you are consciously not adjusting, even when you decide that you will not react to others’ perceptions but that you are going to move about freely, as freely as you can, as freely as any other human in the majority would — and does — even then that decisionis a reaction, a resistance to what you’ve been told is your place in the world.

And that my friend, is how microaggression works.


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