Microaggressions

A few months ago I went to see Daily Show correspondent Jessica Williams who spent half the time doing stand up and the second half talking about herself and her experiences with the daily show. It also happened to be Naked Week (which name is self-evident) and she had joked about how she did not join a social contract in which she agreed to have naked people in the audience, which there were none of thankfully. It was extremely timely that Jessica Williams, who has often provided witty comments on race and women in the United States, framed what she would be exposed to using a “social contract.” This brought to mind the comment, “I didn’t sign up for this” whenever I or a fellow minority discuss microaggressions on campus; encounters which White students didn’t have to experience despite being part of the same community, the same social contract.

Some are not bothered by being asked “where are you from, from?” or find nothing problematic with casual (explicit and implicit) racially charged comments (i.e. can I touch your hair?, were you born here? etc.) At first, I thought this was troubling. It has been my experience that I and most people I share my life with are often irritated by these situations. However, after reading people like Charles Mills, W.E.B. Du Bois, Cheryl Harris, it has contextualized immensely both were these microaggressions come from and why those receiving them may be OK with it. What is now find troubling, is how to explain these histories to people who won’t be attending prestigious liberal arts colleges any time soon. This is when I am immediately hit with my own privilege of being in such an institution- that they don’t need Mills to understand that whites supremacy is still the political structure in the United States.

Re-watch the Dear White People trailer. Discussions we’ve had in class about where the definition and classifications of race has come from legally. Socially, microaggressions are an extension of the “dilemma” of how race is perceived institutionally. For example, in terms of gender, saying “you throw like a girl” is not only a social construct but based on a system in which it was forbidden that women play certain sports. Even when women were and are now allowed to play almost all sports, it is still seen as less than by the sports industry. Now back to race. Since for decades, the only way to be granted citizenship is to be white- does this not have long lasting effects? It is evident that the tension between who and what being “American” entails play out strongly in microaggressions. (See this advertisement)

Another counter argument is that focusing on being “politically correct” stirs some people away from the “much-needed-conversation-on-race.” The question I ask here then is, who are these people who can’t have these discussions without knowing they have “get out of jail card”? Non-whites are so much more often made aware of their race (and sex/gender/sexuality). If we analyze the institutional roots of this and decide that the system rather than the individual is to blame, then why can the privileged individual “go the extra mile” to avoid microaggressions and have leveled, meaningful conversations?

Microaggressions are subtle but still an unnecessary burden. I do not believe they are blown out of proportion regardless of how well the intentions of the perpetrators are. What do you think?

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2 thoughts on “Microaggressions

  1. As a person who is neither white nor black I have received my fair share of microagressions, and in doing so have learned that while they can be frustrating, that some things are just inevitable. In my opinion, microaggressions can be difficult to avoid, because the label ‘microagression’ is at the discretion of the individual[s] that the rhetoric applies to. It is in their hands how to interpret what was said and how to receive it. With that being said, I am not justifying the use of ‘microaggressions’, because some legitimately imply racial, gender etc. based discrimination and are extremely inappropriate, but others that some may deem as ‘microaggressions’ are ultimately petty. People ask me all the time, “where are you from from” and yeah I could choose to be offended by this, but I know that most of the time when this is asked it is out of a genuine interest by the person who is asking me it. In my environment where white people compose the majority I realize that I’m different and I know that, but I am by no means ashamed of my differences I and never will be. I’m of Indian and Greek descent and I accept that I stand out in my environment because I am a minority, and I am okay with this fact. Because when it comes down to it, ‘microaggressions’ such as those like, ‘Where are you from from?, will continue to be asked. Me and my descendants will continue to stand out in American society because of our skin color, and this will be a fact until society has become racially integrated to the extent that race can no longer be designated as a unitary distinction. In other words, to the point where people are no longer defined as just white or just black or just Asian, but a mix of everything. And this may actually never happen, so we should take steps to realize that when people ask questions like “where are you from from”, it is (tyically) out of benign and genuine interest. And honestly, there is nothing wrong with that, with that being said, is there a better to maybe ask such a question? Yes, but in my opinion, to take this as an offense serves one purpose: it adds to the hypersensitivity that already exists around discussions of race. In other words, it fosters the ‘color-blind’ perception of society, where people don’t discuss/talk about race because they are hesistant to be perceived as racist and they don’t want to risk offending other people. While some are definitely more explicit and inappropriate and people should be careful not to say them, others such as the question, ‘where are you from from’ are innocuous—we can’t afford to engage in such a heavy and thick debate in political correctness in this sense; this only discourages people from not only talking about race but recognizing race related issues that currently present in society. No matter what race one is, we should take pride in our identity and in doing so, realize that we will encounter situations where we may stand out and may be perceived as different and this is inevitable, so we shouldn’t spend time trying to avoid what can’t be avoided. Instead, we should live our lives with our head up high, and enlighten our peers when they ask such questions, tell them our ethnic roots and in doing so raise racial awareness, not foster hypersensitivity that only discourages discussion and exacerbates problems of racial inequality and other such issues.

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    1. Thanks for your insightful comment! I agree that as you say overemphasizing political correctness doesn’t necessarily serve a good purpose but I disagree that we should accept the inevitability of microaggressions. Probably I was unable to make this clear but what I intended on clarifying is that I do not mind the questions themselves and more often than not indulge in answering them in the hopes that the “micro-agressor” if you will really as you say does have a genuine curiosity. What I’ve found both in my personal life (as a person who is also both non-white and non-black) and from class (particularly the legal history of the definition of race), is that there is a background and origin of such comments based in valuing whiteness both legally and socially. Legally, “where are you from, from” determined your fate, whether you had access to governmental resources, were able to own property, vote and most importantly, be free. Socially, the frustration with being “ethnically ambiguous” could mean the difference between life and death as white supremacists reigned much more visibly and directly (rather than structurally) violent today. Here, I challenge you to question the inevitability of microaggressions- must white people- who have grown up in our same neighborhoods and schools- also be subject to these comments in order for it to be just? I don’t believe that stopping microaggressions means upholding colorblindness- as we’ve learned and experienced, (honestly) discussing race in the United States is the first step in tackling big problems. Instead, if people embraced race-consciousness, we can have these same discussions/comments without the exclusion of privilege. By including privilege in the conversation, rather than microaggressions being comments that single out people of color, they can actually be deemed “genuine curiosity,” attempts to comprehend the experiences of all races without making one feel like an outsider or intruder on the other. Rather that the non-white community simply accepting that certain comments are bound to happen, in my opinion, we all need to accept that we live in a diverse society in which it is our duty to be respectful, inclusive and flexible. This way (I think) maybe we can have these honest and enlightening conversations that serve a higher purpose. (p.s. check out this campaign! http://www.slu.edu/housing-and-residence-life/inslusive-language-campaign )

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