“Oh my God, this is so ghetto.”
The words came from a white, college-aged woman who was back-to-school shopping in Target. She stood inches in front of me holding up a perfectly fine spiral notebook that, for some reason, wasn’t up to her standards. Though she was looking at her friends, who were also white, it felt as though the young woman were talking to me, the way buckshot scatters around its target and hits its surroundings, too. I walked past her before I could hear some other race-tinged nonsense, my stomach in a knot and my face hot and red.
This scene is an example of what we typically call microaggressions: “small” acts of prejudice that serve as constant reminders of your perceived inferiority in society.
It looks like this:
Being asked where you’re from—No, I mean, where you’re really from; I mean, where your parents are from—and receiving a disappointed and confused look when you say that you are descended from plain old regular Black people from the Black South in Black America.
It looks like having a salesperson become your shadow, and not because they want to help you. It looks like seeing a white acquaintance in a different context than you normally see them, and watching their face change from confusion and wariness to recognition and friendliness when they realize they know you and that you are not the Black stranger they usually fear.
It looks like giving your professional opinion and being put in your place—“your place” being one that is submissive to and in lockstep with the white person who considers themselves in charge, whether they are actually in charge or not. It means, as comedian Amanda Seales has said, being called “condescending” when you speak to another professional as an equal.
It looks like having a client not pay you for months and then slow down your work when you insist that you have a right to be paid. It looks like having to casually mention your bachelor’s degree from a top-tier university in order to validate your seat at the table. It looks like being tokenized and having your contributions minimized or ignored.
Racial microaggressions are not minor annoyances. Author Ibram X. Kendi, in fact, calls them racist abuse. That’s because over time, microaggressions have been shown to cause stress, anxiety, and physical illnesses. In this way, they add to the systemic burdens that people of color already face, like having worse access to medical resources and receiving poorer medical and psychological care than their white counterparts.
Being on the receiving end of microaggressions means having your experiences constantly questioned and undermined. Did you really experience that? Do you really belong here? Did you really go to that school and did you really get in based on merit? Were you really hired because of your qualifications or was it only because the company is fulfilling diversity goals? Workplace microaggressions are thought to be the reasons so many Black women have preferred virtual work to in-person work. That’s because at work, we often feel pressured to either code switch or be ourselves and risk the discomfort of white bosses and colleagues who hold the power to advance or sink our careers. At home, we tend to be more insulated from these daily fault lines.
Microaggressions don’t just send a message to people of color. They send a message to white people, too: that white people are more important. That white people are the norm against whom all others are measured. That white people get to decide whether someone’s experience is valid. That white people are the gatekeepers deciding who does and doesn’t belong. (For more on this topic, I highly suggest reading Caste, Isabel Wilkerson’s insightful examination of the U.S. race-based caste system.)
I’ve been thinking of microaggressions as I follow the story of James Whitfield, the Black principal in Colleyville, Texas who was recently put on paid administrative leave. Though the district has stayed mum about exactly why Whitfield—the high school’s first Black principal—was put on leave, some parents in the town have vocally accused him of teaching Critical Race Theory (CRT) and have vociferously demanded his ousting.
While Whitfield’s experience may seem like a case of community politics, it feels to me like a case of microaggressions and entitlement that has snowballed into overt aggression. It also feels like a group of parents who are angry that a Black man in a position of authority has refused to be put in his place. This was the case when a Colleyville community member raised anonymous concerns two years ago about Whitfield’s personal Facebook photos, which show him kissing his own wife, who is white. The ire continued with parents getting swept up in the CRT hysteria that has overtaken the state. And it probably worsened when Whitfield did the opposite of backing down by saying he is not “the CRT Boogeyman”, by lamenting the death of George Floyd, and by insisting that systemic racism is a very real thing.
It is a path all too familiar to people of color and people from marginalized identities. We can see, easily, how a series of small steps lead from microaggressions about a Facebook photo to outright aggression about CRT to advocating for the firing of someone who is unapologetically Black, unflinchingly authoritative, and unreservedly committed to the truth. We can see it because, in some shape or form, we’ve lived it. And many of us fear it daily.
So, we pick our battles. We code switch. We place our diplomas prominently in our offices. We mention our advanced degrees or training. We waste time reiterating our credentials to doubtful colleagues or clients and then we triple-check our emails for typos. We decide if or when or how to speak up and speak out.
And we brace ourselves for the backlash.
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