Last week I spent a wonderful week of vacation at my parents’ home in central Florida. Everyone from my immediate family was there, and I felt safe and secure and renewed. My parents’ house has always been and will always be my Camp David.
When it was time to leave, I grabbed my parents tightly and wailed, “It’s time to go back to my real life! I gotta go back to watching my own back and wearing my armor against oppression!”
A big part of what I was talking about was the constant stream of microaggressions that are a part of life as a person of a marginalized identity. Microaggressions are subtle insults or slights, verbal or nonverbal, intentional or not, that people enact against folks from marginalized backgrounds. It’s a way to perpetuate systemic oppression, rooted in stereotypes and underlying bias.
As a black people, every single one of my family members and I have been the victims of microaggressions on almost a daily basis. While these subtle incidents of oppression may seem like not so much to those with privilege, they add up and can have major effects on the health and well-being of marginalized people. To counteract these effects, it’s important to develop healthy and effective coping strategies. For my family, one of the things we do, though many of us live in different places, is to connect across the distances (usually via text messages or video chat) and share our experiences and frustrations.
Here’s a typical conversation from our Family Microaggressions Support Group:
Queen B: Hello, my beautiful family! How is everybody?
The Colonel: Pretty good, boss lady. The usual.
Baby Bro: Today at school, I was driving in the parking lot during rush hour looking for a space, and I started following this girl, hoping to get her space. When she saw me, though, she clutched her purse and darted between the rows. Later I saw her waving someone else toward her space.
Everybody Else: Hm, was she white?
Baby Bro: Yes. It was daytime and I wasn’t the only person in a car following people to a space!
Everybody Else: Was the other person who got the space from her white?
Baby Bro: Yep.
Queen B: Watch out, baby. It’s not fair, but people like that will call the campus police on you in a heartbeat, even if you’re not doing anything wrong or out of the ordinary. If you want a space, stick with one of our brothers or sisters. And be sure to leave early enough to give you the extra time you need to find a place.
Dr. Sis: Today at work, a dudebro med student mistook me for a nurse. Again. Even though he’s been working with me for a week AND I’m wearing a white coat like he is AND my white coat is embroidered with my name and the letters “M.D., M.P.H.”
Everybody Else: Was he white?
Dr. Sis: Yep. Still in his third year of med school. And I’m in my second year of fellowship. I graduated years ago!
Everybody Else: Groan. That’s so idiotic. What’d you say?
Dr. Sis: I told him he better get better at recognizing his superiors or he won’t last long in this profession.
Me: I guess being prejudiced makes it hard to recognize faces or read. Today at work, I had a faculty member mistake me for a student, even though I’d emailed and told her I was coming to meet with her at that time AND my email has my picture AND my name with the letters “J.D., L.L.M., M.L.I.S.” When she saw me in person, she just couldn’t believe that I could be a lawyerbrarian.
Everybody Else: Let us guess…
The Colonel: I was standing in the lobby of our office building, and this old man came up to me and asked if I’d take him up to the seventh floor. He then stood by the elevator and waited. I guess he thought I was the doorman, rather than an executive in one of the contracting firms with offices in the building.
Everybody Else: And of course, he was…
The Colonel: You know it.
Everybody Else: What did you say to him?
The Colonel: Nothing. I had important business to attend to and didn’t have time for his ignorance. I turned and walked away. If he was waiting for me to escort him up the elevator, he’d be waiting all day. Racist old fool.
Queen B: Well, I was at the gym, and this woman came up to me to tell me that one of the stalls was broken in the ladies’ changing room…
Everybody Else: Uh oh.
Queen B: And I turned to that little miss and said, “Excuse me? Now, please, help me understand, because I am so confused, despite being an incredibly intelligent woman with a graduate degree and a doctor, lawyer, and computer scientist for children. Please help me understand why in the WORLD you assumed that I work here? You walked past the assistant in the company t-shirt over there to tell me about the stall. Why do you think I CARE about the stall? Hm? Please help me to understand.”
Everybody Else: *rolling on floor, laughing* We don’t even have to guess.
Queen B: Oh, you know she was white. Well, at that point, she was red. And gone. I think she left; I didn’t see her for the rest of my workout.
The Colonel: Well, this has been a good meeting. Stay strong, everyone. Remember what we taught you. Remember who you are.
Everybody: We love you!
As you can see, our meetings center on what it means to be black in our respective spheres of school, work, and play. But microaggressions affect people across all intersections of oppression. And while they may seem minor, they are extremely harmful, particularly as they signal a deeper problem running through society.
*While this was a dramatization, it was by no means an exaggeration. These are real things that happen all the time. I actually had trouble picking from the multitude of possible examples. Please keep that in mind.