In the United States we tend to think of racism as overt, intentional, hateful acts carried out by evil people. Many students of sociology are quick to claim they are colorblind or that they “don’t have a racist bone in their body.” In this post Nathan Palmer asks each of us to reimagine racism and rethink how our words and actions may impact others.
“Hey, I’m going upstairs for a few minutes, but my husband’s coming to pick me up for lunch any minute. If he shows up will you have him sit at my desk till I get back?” my officemate Laura asked me as she was walking out of the closet sized room that was our office. “Yeah, sure. I have to wait for the IT guy to come fix my computer anyways.” Laura and I worked for a small company the summer before I started graduate school. Laura was a tall white girl from Maryland. We were fast friends and we spent many lunch breaks talking about all the places she traveled. She taught me how to make Massaman Curry at home.
I was pissed. My computer had blue-screen-of-death’ed me for the third time that week and I had a big project due. I had called the IT help desk nearly an hour ago and was pacing back and forth in my tiny office (I could take a full 2 steps before having to turn back around). With each minute that passed I became more unnerved. I stopped, ran my hands through my hair to release the tension and took a deep breath. “Knock, knock.” I turned around making eye contact with an Asian American man standing in the door frame. Not recognizing his face, I squinted slightly and cocked my head to the side, “Can I help you?” His smile melted away, “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m here to-” I cut him off before he could finish. “Fix my computer, right? You must be from IT,” I said with certainty. “No, I’m here to pick up my wife, Laura.”
Stuff Students Say About Racism
I know you’re not a racist, right? I’m just going to guess that you are a kind, honest, well-intentioned person who would never discriminate or be prejudiced. I’m also going to guess that you know someone who’s racist; maybe even like OMG! racist.
I’ve been teaching about racial prejudice and discrimination for years and you know what I’ve learned? Students say surprisingly similar things when the topic comes up. For instance, I’d be a rich man if I had a nickel for every time a student said, “I know that racism was a huge problem in the past, but I just don’t think it is for people of my generation.” Students are also keen on saying, “I know that racism is a problem for people who didn’t grow up in a diverse community, but my parents always made sure I was in a very diverse environment. I mean some of my best friends are [fill in racial group]” But, far and away the most popular thing brought up when we talk about racism is something along the lines of, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body. I don’t even see race.”
I have taught race to thousands of students and not one of them has said anything remotely close to the following: “I struggle with racism.” It would seem that all of my students have no bias, no unnoticed prejudice, and heaven’s to Betsy they sure as heck haven’t discriminated against another person!
Far too often we tend to think of racial prejudice and discrimination as being aggressive acts committed by mean people intent on hurting people of color. It’s as if you are not a racist unless you’ve attended a KKK meeting. By this metric almost no one struggles with racism. Racism from this point of view is seen as out of the ordinary and rare.
Microaggressions: A New Way of Thinking About Racism
The concept of microaggressions redefines racism and makes room for racism, prejudice, and discrimination that is unintentional and/or subtle. “Microaggressions are subtle verbal and non-verbal insults directed at non-whites, often done automatically or unconsciously” (Solórzano et al. 2002, p. 17). We might think of microaggressions as everyday-racism. When someone locks their car door as a black man walks by the crosswalk in front of their car, that’s a microagression. When someone tells a Hispanic person, “You are so well spoken for a Mexican”, that’s a microagression.
Microaggressions are a new way of thinking about race and racism. Instead of seeing racism as something overt and intentional people do to harm other racial groups, microaggressions allow space for good, well intentioned people to say or do something hurtful that’s out of character.
Back At The Office
“I’m so sorry,” I said turning my face toward the floor to hide my shame. After what felt like the longest 5 seconds of my life I said, “Laura told me to ask you to sit at her desk and wait for her to come back from the main office.” He sat and I felt the adrenaline subsiding. “I can’t believe I said that. I, uh. I assumed because you are an Asian American you… uh. The stereotype about-” He cut me off, “I know the stereotype.” I nodded, “what I’m trying to say is, I’m sorry. I have no reason to expect you want to know me any better, but if we did get to know one another I know you’d find that I am not usually like this.” “You mean racist?” he asked. “Yes. But that probably rings hollow right now. I’m just so-”
His hand jutted toward me, “Mark.” I grasped his hand, “Nate.” We made eye contact as we shook hands and Mark said, “Why don’t we try this again?”
I learned a lot about myself that day. I better understood what I was capable of and how, despite my intent, my words and actions could negatively impact others. My biased worldview and the prejudices I have acquired throughout my life were laid bare before me. They call them blind spots precisely because you can’t see them.
Dealing with prejudice, discrimination, and racism has to start from within yourself. When students tell me they, “aren’t racist,” I tell them the story of Mark and I and ask them how they cured themselves? I’ve spent nearly a decade studying sociology and race, I’ve read boatloads of books and written countless papers on race, taught Race & Ethnicity as a class to hundreds of students, and yet somehow I’m not cured of racism, prejudice, and discrimination. So I ask anyone who says they’re colorblind, how on earth have you cured yourself of racism without putting in nearly the same level of effort?
Microaggressions allow room for good people to make mistakes. They also draw attention to the death by a thousand cuts that at least partially epitomizes modern individual-level racism. If we don’t draw microaggressions out into the light, there can be no healing. If we don’t acknowledge how we can personally perpetuate stereotypes, discrimination, and racism, how can we expect anyone else to?
- Have you been the target of a microaggression? At whatever level you feel comfortable, describe the experience and how it made you feel.
- Have you ever carried out a microaggression on another person? At whatever level you feel comfortable, describe the experience and how it made you feel.
- Go to the website www.Microaggressions.com. This site collects stories of microaggressions from around the world. Find three submissions that you think best illustrate the microaggression concept. Analyze them and explain what makes them good examples.
- Some would argue that if you didn’t intend to hurt another person with your words or actions it shouldn’t matter if they are, “too sensitive”. Others would argue that if your words and actions negatively impact another person(s), then it doesn’t matter if you intended to do so or not. Furthermore, these folks would argue that who gets to define when people are, “too sensitive”. What are your thoughts about this debate? How do you think your social location (i.e. race, class, gender, etc.) affect how you answer this question?
The names and places of these events have been changed to protect privacy of those involved. ↩
I was inclined to believe this one at first, but in my years of teaching I’ve heard it from an 18 year-old and a 60 year-old. ↩
It should be noted that the concept of microaggressions has been expanded to include aggressions toward people based on their gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, etc. ↩
Solórzano, Daniel G. and Delgado Bernal, Dolores 2001 ‘Examining
transformational resistance through a Critical Race and LatCrit Theory Framework: Chicana and Chicano students in an urban context’, Urban Education, vol. 36, no. 3. pp. 308–42 ↩
Another example is when people use the word Mexican as a synonym for Latinos. Around a third of all Latinos in the United States have no family origin in Mexico. ↩