The phrase “I’d totally date you if you were white,” seemed to be a recurring theme of my high school love life. Across the south, people of color grow up to believe that they are second class citizens. Subtle racist remarks and actions called microaggressions could be to blame.
The racism one encounters in the American south isn’t always blatant and direct. Often it comes neatly dressed and tied up with a bow in the true “well bless your heart” form the region is known for.
I’d much rather have the obvious racist than the undercover one. Microaggressions expose undercovers and illuminate the discriminatory ways of thinking they try to hide. Sadly, most of the undercovers are people I once respected.
One of these incidents remains etched deeply in my memory. It was pre-church small talk that unexpectedly took a twisted turn. Someone whom I had thought to be a fundamentally good person told me I “ought not to be a liberal like the rest of them.”
Every part of his words stung. What was wrong with having my own thoughts and opinions? More importantly, what was wrong with “them?” Yet another Sunday in The Bible Belt had left me feeling odd and out of place.
Psychiatrist Chester Pierce defines microaggressions as “manifestations of prejudice and hatred that are brief and/or subtle but great in the power or magnitude of their consequences.”
In my own personal experiences, a large portion of these racial microaggressions were meant to be compliments. A pale-skinned boy with bright blonde hair telling me that I didn’t ‘look like other black girls’ and that I was ‘more pretty’ was supposed to be a high compliment.
Only, it wasn’t. I was sitting beside other girls of color in the high school gym that day. I remember wondering how it must have made them feel.
A compliment isn’t a compliment if it simultaneously insults and stereotypes an entire group of people. Microaggressions aren’t just words either they’re also actions.
It’s a father not allowing his daughter to bring a brown-skinned boy home. It’s a woman immediately refusing help from a person of color for fear they might rob or hurt her. When negative stereotypes like these are subconsciously reinforced, entire groups of people are being done an injustice.
Understanding Racial Microaggressions
An excerpt from a Psychology Today article suggests that there are three identifiable types of microaggressions.
Microassaults are defined as ‘conscious and intentional discriminatory actions.’ An example would be a confederate flag peppered with phrases about the south rising again someday.
Microinsults are thought to be ‘verbal and nonverbal communications that subtly convey rudeness and insensitivity that demean a person’s racial heritage or identity.’ For this example, think of questions being raised about a person of color’s admittance into a prestigious university. Often, there are insinuations that the college may have accepted them due to their skin color as opposed to academic merit.
Finally, there are microinvalidations which are ‘communications that subtly exclude, negate, or nullify the thoughts, feelings, and realities of a person of color.’ This is illustrated when a tan-skinned man moves into a high-end community and is presumed to be a drug dealer or athlete. The insinuation is that unlike their white counterparts, it is the only way they could afford the increased cost of living.
These threads of microaggressions are deeply intertwined into the fabric that cloaks the south and actively contribute to revived racial tensions.
These frequent attacks are a deep river, flowing constantly and carving a canyon of insecurities, frustration, shame, and helplessness into their victims.
In a study conducted by The Voices of Diversity Project microaggressions were even linked to a student’s ability to perform on standardized tests. Ironically, this contributes to further subtle attacks because the white majority then assumes that students of color are admitted to college under affirmative action pretenses.
This guide determined that microaggressions can have adverse effects on one’s physical health as well. Victims are likely to binge-drink as a coping mechanism.
The microaggressions don’t cease to exist after packing your bags and heading off to college. For example, The University of Georgia failed to properly handle or acknowledge the remains of slaves that were found on campus. Years after the situation continues to develop, and once again people of color are, perhaps inadvertently, made to feel less than.
A publication local to The University of Georgia published this article detailing a report released by faculty members alleging that scare tactics were used to encourage faculty not to speak about the university’s history of slavery.
Weeks before this report, The University of Georgia made national headlines after a Snapchat video surfaced depicting students uttering racial slurs, insensitive phrases, and what seems to be reenacting a slave beating.
Perhaps what is most alarming is that these are only two recent events occurring at one single university. Microaggressions aren’t contained to Georgia or the south for that matter. They’re all around us and contribute to deeply rooted divisions and disparities between demographics.
They’re the root of growing resentment and tension. Each racial microaggression is another brick added to a wall that sharply divides the victims and the perpetrators.
What Happens Next?
Can these subtle and sharp microaggressions be overcome? That’s a question only time can answer. However, there are positive actions that can be taken to combat negative ones.
It’s normal for people of color to downplay their microaggression experiences. Often they’re encouraged to simply laugh it off by their perpetrators because they were ‘only joking.’
Often it’s easier to suppress this discomfort and wonder if it’s worthy of any response at all. The aforementioned guide details three ways in which one can respond to microaggressions.
Victims may respond passively, with an eye-roll for instance. They may also respond proactively or assertively by addressing the situation head-on.
For those who find themselves at the giving end of microaggressions rather than receiving, knowledge is a powerful tool. It can be used to combat confirmation bias which reinforces preconceived stereotypes. Additionally, perpetrators can continue to seek information regarding microaggressions thus forth encouraging themselves more cautious with their words and actions.