And you’d be surprised by what people can say
Long before the term microaggressions came into common discourse, black and brown people have been navigating the emotional distress and hurt that these aggressions cause on a daily basis.
According to Wikipedia: Microaggressions are defined as brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative attitudes toward stigmatized or culturally marginalized groups.
Here are some of the worst ones I’ve heard and the context in which they were said:
- “You are not like other black people, you’re intelligent, you’re more articulate”.
I’ve heard this one often. I think that the white people that say this think that they are paying me a compliment. If you think about it, it really isn’t. It’s a microaggression alright because it implies that other black people are not intelligent and articulate. There’s something fundamentally wrong with saying these words. It’s as if I say to a white person: “You’re the most intelligent white person I know”. Doesn’t really sound nice, does it?
2. “I know that that bright color matches your skin but it hurts my eyes”.
Several of my white female bosses have said this to me and it’s made me really self-conscious. Apparently, bright, vibrant colors that heighten the beauty of my black skin give them a headache. It’s as if I said to them: “These neutral tones that you wear make me feel seasick”. Doesn’t that sound like an insensitive comment to make to someone?
3. “You’re a black girl so you must be good in bed”.
This I’ve heard from white men who have tried to chat me up. It’s basically, I don’t care about you in any other way — I just want to try out a black girl. In all manner of ways, this fetishist obsession with going out of your way to try a black woman is truly offensive. It’s as if I said: “I want to try a white guy, I heard they were good in bed”. This just sounds demeaning.
4. Black women are so maternal, I bet you don’t want us to take the baby for the night.
This was after I’d given birth to my son. To allow new mothers to sleep, newborns were placed in the nursery for a few hours a night. On more than one occasion, the night nurse would not ask me if I needed that service. When I asked her why, that was the response she gave me. I was stunned. It’s as if I said: “White women are too emotionally attached to their babies and that’s not a good thing”. It’s a generalization that doesn’t apply to all white women, and as such, it should not be pronounced as fact.
5. “We don’t have makeup that matches your skin color”.
I used to hear this at a lot of makeup counters before MAC cosmetics and other makeup brands started making lipsticks, blush, foundation, and eye shadow for black and brown people. At the time, I was almost always shooed away from the counters whenever I tried to make a simple inquiry. Luckily things have changed. But it sounds like saying to a white person: “Sorry the multi-billion-dollar makeup industry doesn’t think that white people are relevant enough to develop make-up for”. This would surely make you feel excluded.
So there’s a taste of some of the worst racial microaggressions I have encountered in my life. If you add to this some of the gender microaggressions, you’d be surprised at how insensitive and unaware people can be. Indeed, most of the people who’ve made these comments have no idea just how hurtful they were.
Some microaggressions are repeated over and over — for example, the one about my choice of vibrant colored clothing or how I am unlike other black people. With repetition, these comments build micro-traumas that prevent me from being my true self in numerous situations.
By their very name, microaggressions seem small, but in reality, they have major repercussions on people’s lives. To test whether or not a particular comment is a microaggression, one must say it to oneself and see how it makes one feel. If it sounds right, then chances are it is okay to say it. As a general rule, however, be empathetic and kind.
Thank you for reading my perspective.