Microaggression…a theory that hypothesizes those specific interactions between folks of different races, cultures, genders or sexual orientation. The most important part of these exchanges are the small acts of mostly non-physical aggression that in many ways psychologically assault the victim of moments. The term was coined by Chester M. Pierce in 1970.
I begin this entry with a very brief glimpse into my thinking (I promise I will not expose you to too much of this). By trade and training I am an anthropological archaeologist. This means that I focus primarily on the excavating stuff from the ground to recover and interpret the found artifacts (both above and below ground), in other words use the material left behind by people of the past to tell a story. The one thing an archaeologist can usually do pretty well is to dig deeper (every pun intended), look beneath the surface, find the hidden meanings or even question what appears to simply be in front of you. So, this is where I begin my little story about how the reality of the age of microaggression has impacted my life (at the moment).
Moment went #1:
One morning I was brushing my 5 year old daughters hair. I really take the time (most of the time) to keep her loving her hair because she can wear it so many different ways. We braid it, ponytail it, twist it, cornrow it, and even blow dry and straighten it on rare occasions– it is a labor of love. So, on this day, I was going to do her hair the same way I had done it the day before, for when she left for school she was happy with her hair and thought it was really cute. Well, this day, she held her head down and asked if I was going to do her hair like I did yesterday. I said yes, and then she asked me not to. I asked why? And she said, “they made fun of my hair yesterday, they said it looked crazy.” She was hurt (really hurt), these are the moments that she does not tell her teacher, she does not know exactly how to. In many ways, she doesn’t know why it hurts so much. It’s just hair, right? I am just glad that she is able to tell me, to share with me, so I can use it as a moment of healing and learning and building trust with each other. The layers are there, it will take our life together to make sure she grows up an learns to navigate these seemingly innocent moments.
I think I may be directly impacted because of several factors in my current life are different. First, I am married and attached to an educated, nurturing man of African American/Haitian descent that is there for the family and doing things in the community. I say this because I have had those moments when people complimented me on marrying someone that is so incredible (why? Because it is rare for a Black man to hold all of these balls in the air?). My husband, as incredible as he is in not as rare to me, I have had many men in my life who fill these roles and many more and so does he. Second, I am a mother of three children. Two boys and one girl. We live in an environment that is very different from the one we grew up in. Pelham is not the Bronx and Pelham is not Brooklyn. Our children are often the only ones that look like them in their classrooms. I listen very closely to what my children bring home. The things that they may see as normal. We as a family talk about race – for our children to successfully navigate this country (and where we currently live), they have to have to skills to understand who they are and what is not okay. We do not have a choice in these matters. Third, I am a professor teaching at a Predominantly White Institution (PWI). I teach about slavery, race, gender and class (and sometimes all of these together) and I have to understand that the stuff I teach can be painful for some, shocking for others and even angering to some. My students have reacted in a variety of ways. I am getting used to not having every class I teach (mostly smaller classes with 30 or fewer) filled with folks that love what I do or what I am teaching. The honeymoon is over and now, I have come across students who are downright hostile and see me as scary, angry, racist and sexist. And let us not forget the often heard label of “making everything about race.” I have observed that the students are changing. They are more angry than when I arrived at UMass Amherst only 7 years ago. The subtle ways in which aggression is exercised is deep, much deeper than a surface analysis would reveal.
My son, who will soon be 8 years old on Friday, asked me why there are not more Black people in his class or school? He felt that things would be a little bit different if he was in school in a place like Ghana or Brooklyn (he thinks globally). My son is absorbent (in other words he soaks up everything around him). He is quite thoughtful and has had his experiences of being singled out and made to feel different. He is longing for less work, I think, by less work, I mean, it takes a lot for our sons and daughters to not see the difference, even if everyone around you is telling you they do not see color. We all see color, even as children, because of the houses we come from, the television we watch, the ads we are exposed to, the activities we participate in. Color is everywhere, and it is for this reason that I often feel sad for my son, because he is right, why aren’t there more people that look like him in his class. He too has come home with some really insensitive quotes from his classmates. Sigh.
I have been trying to keep my anger at bay. I have tried to curb the pure rage I feel on a regular basis. I know that at moments the work I do is difficult and the results will often have consequences. However, as I completed my first year as Undergraduate Program Director for my department, I reflect on the stories that I heard from anthropology majors of color that sat in my office, as if in therapy, to just share with me their experience at UMass, in our department, in Amherst, in Western Massachusetts. These talks ranged from angry seniors who could not wait to get out of here, struggling underclassmen asking for help to navigate to crying and painful testimonies that hurt me to my core. Many of these students had or have resigned themselves to just expect living with microaggressions in the classroom, it is a part of life, they just lived with it. How is this okay? And how is this okay that they are not telling too many people (or no one). This creates a pain that is not easy to explain, or fix quickly in counseling, or even tell your parents or friends. Our children are losing the ability to tell us what is happening, they are losing the vocabulary because the methods of these subtle aggressive acts impact the heart and the soul and makes you wonder if you are not crazy. Is it because they don’t have the vocabulary or we have neglected to continue to teach them how to talk about it out loud?
This is a reflection of that initial uncomfortable feeling of being a woman of color in a predominantly Euroamerican environment and never knowing where to get your hair done. Then when you finally take a chance because you are desperate, you realize as soon as you walk in the door that all the stylists in the salon are praying that you are not their next appointment. You are being shot looks of an interesting variety. The first instinct is to leave, but you stay. Someone is washing your hair and not knowing which, if any, of the products they use will work on your hair, so they just use what they can. Then you walk over with your hair ablaze and watch them just continue to touch your hair over and over again, moving their heads from side to side as if they are studying what lay before them, and you know they don’t exactly know what to do next. Then the stares and glances from the other women in the salon continue. They are trying to figure out why your hair looks that way. Then, ultimately, when it is blow dried, flat ironed and clipped at the end, laying flat down my back and a stylist (who also happened to be the owner) walks by and says, “Wow! Your hair is so long, I could not tell when you walked in. It actually looks nice.”
The final moment is about me. It is about coming into my own and being able to recognize these microaggressions when they are thrown directly at me. I have worked hard to be where I am and now, having just been awarded tenure, I feel as if my power (or at least my permanency) is a real thing. I have never been soft-spoken and have always contributed to most conversations and meetings I am a part of. However, on so many occasions, I get the distinct feeling that some of my colleagues still see me as either a child, someone who has just arrived on the scene (clueless), or someone who snuck in the room as a favor to someone else. Not anymore, I will begin to call these moments out, but also begin to develop my own language to navigate these moments, for they are now a part of my everyday. And in creating that language I will also be able to create a language at home to help my family and my children.
And to end with a few random last comments and moments (ad-lib):
Don’t be so passionate about things. Everyone is not as strong and opinionated as you are, they could take what you say in the wrong way.
People do not even try to say your children’s names correctly.
People are surprised when you are out and about (restaurant, meeting, lecture, conference presentation, cultural event) and your children are well-behaved.
People cannot believe you were awarded tenure.
Wow, you were really good at that program.
Oh, I didn’t know you were invited/I didn’t know you knew/surprisingly, I heard your name brought up at this or that meeting.
I have to admit, I am still learning. I am still trying to figure out how the shift is happening and how our lives are changed because of it. I do not have the immediate solutions, but the beginning is to know that these microaggressions exist and they do, they really do.