The Existence of Microaggressions

I want to talk about microaggressions and why they’re real even if you a) don’t want them to be and b) refuse to believe they exist. I’m not asking you to eradicate them all in one go. I’m just asking you to accept that the experiences of others are valid and that these problems exist even if you’ve never experienced them personally. You with me so far? Great. Now, get ready to probably be offended.

Microaggressions are the CASUAL degradation of a marginalized group. To be specific, it is defined as a subtle but offensive comment or action directed at a minority or other non-dominant group that is often unintentional or unconsciously reinforces a stereotype.

Microaggressions are real. Now, it’s important to remember that we are acknowledging that these are UNINTENTIONAL biases. It’s important to remember that I am saying we are all guilty at some point. The chances of you having never done this are basically zero because they’re called micro for a reason. If you ask any member of an oppressed group, they’re bound to be able to give you several examples. You’re going to be tempted to say BUT is that REALLY what that is? Don’t do that. It’s frustrating to have to explain to people why something makes you feel a certain way and it’s frustrating to be told you’re being too sensitive. That, by the way, is a microaggression. Telling me I’m being too sensitive and just need to toughen up is a way of invalidating my feelings and experiences and contributes to the self-loathing and oppression of at-risk groups. Ask yourself why depression and suicide, addiction and mental illness, are so prevalent amongst groups at risk and groups being oppressed. These things are part of our daily lives but we are constantly told that we are too sensitive. We are constantly told that our experiences are invalid and that our pain is all in our heads.

Let me give you a personal example. For 2 years, I worked for one of America’s most beloved and simultaneously reviled, retail giants. I worked my ass off. My worth ethic got me carpal tunnel surgery at 23 and panic attacks from trying to basically run an entire half of the store as the only floor associate most days. All that aside, I had this female manager who refused to pronounce my name correctly. She called me Trish every shift for 2 years despite being corrected every day, multiple times, by myself, co-workers and upper management. I wouldn’t answer to that name. I even told her several times the reason I ignored her paging me was because she wasn’t using my name. Before I quit, I had started mispronouncing her name on purpose in retaliation, since escalating the situation to upper management hadn’t worked. I decided to at least have fun with it. I was the only person singled out this way. I don’t think I have to explain to you why I was singled out this way.

Now, “Tish”, you might say, “how is this a microaggression? Sure she’s an asshole but racism? Microaggressions? Come on. Maybe she’s just a terrible person.” Let me explain to you, my friends, the power in a name. Think about the things you refuse to name because a name gives the thing power. Excuse me for my nerd comparison but this is relevant. Wizards and Witches in Harry Potter refused to use Lord Voldemort’s name for fear of the person attached to it. For fear of giving power to the person. His entire identity was in the name he created for himself. Fear of the name, according to Dumbledore, increases fear of the thing itself. We refuse to name something to take it’s power away. Sometimes we name it to take its power. But refusing to use my name is a way of erasing my identity just as refusing to name Lord Voldemort is a way to remove his power. It isn’t just lazy. It’s a way of saying that I am not valid. I am not important enough for you to learn to properly address me. Taking the time to do so means that you SEE that person as a fellow human being and VALUE their existence. Disregarding my name is to disregard me.

Her behavior is so subtle that those outside my particular group would probably assume she’s just not a nice person. You’re right. She isn’t. But for different reasons than you think. She’s not a nice person because her actions are inherently racist. Just as renaming slaves was a way of removing their identity and forcing them into new lives of oppression, her removal of my name is a way to place herself above me. My name, shortened or full form, isn’t even a difficult name. Now, consider the pain those from other countries or those with more ethnic names face. Consider the pain and frustration during school roll calls. That hesitation from the instructor before giving it the old college try. Or the flat out dismissal, “I’m not even going to try to pronounce this.” As if the very thought of attempting to pronounce your name is a trying and difficult and exhausting. Imagine if they not only never try to say it but even GIVE YOU ANOTHER NAME. “Oh, I can’t say that. I’ll just call you, (insert “generic” name).”

Well, listen, my and my daddy didn’t name me (insert generic name) and it is not your right to rename me for your convenience.

This is one example. I have more. How often do you have a stranger touch your hair or skin without permission? Curiosity, though admirable, shouldn’t infringe upon my ownership of my body. It belongs to me and your admiration or quizzical nature does not bypass that ownership. If you have questions, I will answer. If you ask to touch me, I’m going to tell you no. That is my right. Assuming you have the right to touch me without permission is, you guessed it, microaggression. It says that you value your needs above my safety and do not care about my rights to my own body.

Another fabulous example your black girlfriends can tell you about is the question of if our hair is real. Black women aren’t the only people who wear wigs, weaves, or extensions but you don’t ask the white lady if her hair is real. You assume it is real because you assume she has good hair. People assume the black girl’s hair is fake because they assume she has nappy hair and because black women don’t fit the current beauty standards. It’s subtle. But it is a subtle, unintentional comment, that reinforces a stereotype that black women don’t have good hair. We have had eurocentric standards of beauty forced upon us and, as a result, resort to straightening our hair to better fit that. So, too, do we lighten our skin because dark skin isn’t seen as beautiful. If you think a black woman hasn’t heard, “You’d be so much prettier if your skin was lighter,” you’re wrong. Or “You’re pretty for a black girl.” This reinforces self-hatred. I am too dark or too nappy headed to be beautiful. Or so it feels.

Have you ever told someone where you were from only to be asked where you’re REALLY from? And all you can say is… no, really I’m from Ohio. “But where are your people from? Like I know they live in Ohio but like originally?” This would be that subtle unintentional reinforcement of a stereotype we’re talking about. Just because someone looks Asian doesn’t mean they or their parents have ever stepped foot in an Asian country.

Have you ever been at the grocery store with a parent and had people assume that your parent is not your parent? That you were either adopted OR, even worse, that you’re following this poor white lady because you intend to harm or rob her? Well, these things happen. All. The. Time. They are not rare or unique. They happen on the daily for some people.

Microaggressions are real. Perhaps you prefer another name. Call them what you’d like but you can’t erase these experiences. You cannot invalidate the experiences of every group in an effort to avoid discussing very real issues. I’m sure some will say I’m just a social justice snowflake but having uncomfortable conversations about problematic and hurtful behaviors is the only way we’re going to start to learn to accept each other and live peacefully together. Ignoring racism or ignoring differences does not do me a favor. Ignoring my color or being “color blind” does not HELP. It just erases part of my identity and glosses over the real issues instead of meeting them head on and learning about each other.