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Sunday, February 6, 2011

Microaggressions

Modern racism is more subtle than it used to be.  Although we don't sit in different parts of the movie theater anymore, we constantly breathe in a smog of racism in our environment. The foolish will get confused about the difference and think that racism doesn't exist anymore.

To be clear, flagrant racist hate crimes still happen all the time. But today, they allow the rest of us to be comfortable with our own levels of prejudice. "I'm not a racist! I'm not like those crazy guys!" "I am not a racist--my best friend is black" "I am not a racist--I don't even see a person's color!"

But we are never actually blind to people's color. We are instead a product of a racialized society steeped in biases that have given members of the majority power and privilege for hundreds of years. This system still exists and so do its consequences.

One of the characteristics of the post-jim crow era is that our 21st-century racism is subtle, insidious, and therefore terribly difficult to combat.  It is no longer about public shows of discrimination or of individual violent anomalies that have now (for the most part) become socially unacceptable. More pervasive now is the constant bombardment of exhausting microaggressions 
Racial microaggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group.
         (see Table 1 of that link for some examples)

It can be difficult for white folks to appreciate the magnitude, impact, and burden of the accumulated daily prejudices over a person's lifetime. How much extra energy do have in your life to deal with the sales clerk that follows you around the store as you shop for clothes, the taxi that passes you by for someone with lighter skin, the professor that assumes you came from a bad high school? Or the folks that use a description of  you as an insult to others, or the people that can't be bothered to remember how to pronounce your name, or the colleagues that deny that your own experiences were the products of racism? Furthermore, it is from the accumulation of microaggressions that larger cultural and systemic racism arises (wage disparity, housing discrimination, judicial prejudice. See post: I Am George Zimmerman). 

If you get a chance, check out http://microaggressions.tumblr.com/, a blog that compiles users' submissions of real-life microaggressions of all kinds. They say of themselves:
This project is a response to “it’s not a big deal” - “it” is a big deal. ”it” is in the everyday. ”it” is shoved in your face when you are least expecting it. "it” happens when you expect it the most. ”it” is a reminder of your difference. ”it” enforces difference. ”it” can be painful. ”it” can be laughed off. ”it” can slide unnoticed by either the speaker, listener or both. ”it” can silence people. ”it” reminds us of the ways in which we and people like us continue to be excluded and oppressed. ”it” matters because these relate to a bigger “it”: a society where social difference has systematic consequences for the “others.” But “it” can create or force moments of dialogue.
They continue...
...[microaggressions'] slow accumulation during a childhood and over a lifetime is in part what defines a marginalized experience, making explanation and communication with someone who does not share this identity particularly difficult. Social others are microaggressed hourly, daily, weekly, monthly.
White folks have the privilege of not having to deal with daily racial microaggressions. Let's use that extra energy, then, to ease the burdens of those that do have to encounter such things.

4 comments:

  1. So then the statement of "I'm not a racist, I don't think differently about people of different skin color" or "I'm not a racist, I don't treat others differently because of their skin color" are fallacies and never can be attained?

    Thus, no individual can ever aspire to such an ideal? So, as long as there are people that have a different skin tone, everyone is a racist?

    And all white people are privileged more than any person of a different color?

    I use hyperbole only because I don't see the same white-guilt scenario playing out as deeply in American DNA forever, I agree that racism exists just as pervasively although not as severe, but after years of understanding the problems of racial privilege, I know that there are people very close to living up to the statements you decried as empty platitudes.

    I don't buy it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Haha--I am not trying to be a pessimist, just trying to be honest with myself.

    I have problems with those types statements for a couple of reasons:
    1) I think it is dangerous to claim that we have no prejudices--it makes us more susceptible to them. These statements are easy to say, but hard to live out and so are often empty statements, even if they are said with good intentions (heh...what is that road to hell paved with?). We say these things and they make us feel better about ourselves, but often we don't examine our deeper sentiments or our daily behavior that may say otherwise. There may be people that are beyond prejudice, but I have yet to meet someone like that. In fact, the people in my life that are the furthest in their understanding of race relations, don't really try to claim that they've got it together. The first step to addressing our prejudices is to understand we have them. I think the more honest things to say is "I realize that I have biases and that they affect how I interact with others, but I am working on it and believe I am getting better." When I have heard statements like the ones you mention, they have most often been in the context of discussions that actually reveal a layer of prejudice under a veneer of 'colorblindness.'
    2) I don't believe God or POC actually want white folk to be colorblind. To ignore race misses out on a great richness of culture. The trick is to be loving and accepting, without seeing everyone as the same, ingoring what makes a culture unique, or 'WHITEwashing differences.' If you think about it "Oh, I don't see you as black...I see you as just like me" is actually a really hurtful statement.

    I do believe that white people inevitably experience privilege in this country because of their skin color. Now, whether that privledge in an individual out weighs other dissadvantages she may have is hard to say. Discussions about what kinds of discrimination are the most detrimental (race vs. gender vs. sexuality vs. poverty vs. mental illness vs. nationality etc)happen all the time and we can quickly devolve into a battle of who has it the worst and who is the biggest victim, which is beside the point.

    Will we reach a state where we are beyond racism and prejudice? I don't know, maybe. (Can there be world peace? Yes. Will it actually happen? Not as likely.) Deffinetly worth trying though! I just know I am a long way off and have many things to work out in myself. And at the moment, most people in this country are in a similar situation. Kudos to the rare few that have it figured out!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Haha--I am not trying to be a pessimist, just trying to be honest with myself.

    I have problems with those types statements for a couple of reasons:
    1) I think it is dangerous to claim that we have no prejudices--it makes us more susceptible to them. These statements are easy to say, but hard to live out and so are often empty statements, even if they are said with good intentions (heh...what is that road to hell paved with?). We say these things and they make us feel better about ourselves, but often we don't examine our deeper sentiments or our daily behavior that may say otherwise. There may be people that are beyond prejudice, but I have yet to meet someone like that. In fact, the people in my life that are the furthest in their understanding of race relations, don't really try to claim that they've got it together. The first step to addressing our prejudices is to understand we have them. I think the more honest things to say is "I realize that I have biases and that they affect how I interact with others, but I am working on it and believe I am getting better." When I have heard statements like the ones you mention, they have most often been in the context of discussions that actually reveal a layer of prejudice under a veneer of 'colorblindness.'
    2) I don't believe God or POC actually want white folk to be colorblind. To ignore race misses out on a great richness of culture. The trick is to be loving and accepting, without seeing everyone as the same, ingoring what makes a culture unique, or 'WHITEwashing differences.' If you think about it "Oh, I don't see you as black...I see you as just like me" is actually a really hurtful statement.

    I do believe that white people inevitably experience privilege in this country because of their skin color. Now, whether that privledge in an individual out weighs other dissadvantages she may have is hard to say. Discussions about what kinds of discrimination are the most detrimental (race vs. gender vs. sexuality vs. poverty vs. mental illness vs. nationality etc)happen all the time and we can quickly devolve into a battle of who has it the worst and who is the biggest victim, which is beside the point.

    Will we reach a state where we are beyond racism and prejudice? I don't know, maybe. (Can there be world peace? Yes. Will it actually happen? Not as likely.) Deffinetly worth trying though! I just know I am a long way off and have many things to work out in myself. And at the moment, most people in this country are in a similar situation. Kudos to the rare few that have it figured out!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Haha--I am not trying to be a pessimist, just trying to be honest with myself.

    I have problems with those types statements for a couple of reasons:
    1) I think it is dangerous to claim that we have no prejudices--it makes us more susceptible to them. These statements are easy to say, but hard to live out and so are often empty statements, even if they are said with good intentions (heh...what is that road to hell paved with?). We say these things and they make us feel better about ourselves, but often we don't examine our deeper sentiments or our daily behavior that may say otherwise. There may be people that are beyond prejudice, but I have yet to meet someone like that. In fact, the people in my life that are the furthest in their understanding of race relations, don't really try to claim that they've got it together. The first step to addressing our prejudices is to understand we have them. I think the more honest things to say is "I realize that I have biases and that they affect how I interact with others, but I am working on it and believe I am getting better." When I have heard statements like the ones you mention, they have most often been in the context of discussions that actually reveal a layer of prejudice under a veneer of 'colorblindness.'
    2) I don't believe God or POC actually want white folk to be colorblind. To ignore race misses out on a great richness of culture. The trick is to be loving and accepting, without seeing everyone as the same, ingoring what makes a culture unique, or 'WHITEwashing differences.' If you think about it "Oh, I don't see you as black...I see you as just like me" is actually a really hurtful statement.

    I do believe that white people inevitably experience privilege in this country because of their skin color. Now, whether that privledge in an individual out weighs other dissadvantages she may have is hard to say. Discussions about what kinds of discrimination are the most detrimental (race vs. gender vs. sexuality vs. poverty vs. mental illness vs. nationality etc)happen all the time and we can quickly devolve into a battle of who has it the worst and who is the biggest victim, which is beside the point.

    Will we reach a state where we are beyond racism and prejudice? I don't know, maybe. (Can there be world peace? Yes. Will it actually happen? Not as likely.) Deffinetly worth trying though! I just know I am a long way off and have many things to work out in myself. And at the moment, most people in this country are in a similar situation. Kudos to the rare few that have it figured out!

    ReplyDelete

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