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Erwin de Leon Headshot

When a Pat on the Head Becomes Spit on the Face

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It's perfectly okay to pat a dog's head. It's fine to pat a very young child's head. It is not acceptable, however, to pat another adult's head.

Last Sunday, at church, a fellow parishioner walked by my pew during communion and patted me on the head. I felt violated, disrespected, and my anger grew by the second. At the end of the service, I told a friend in the next pew what happened and asked if I was overreacting. He assured me I was not. Others agreed. Indeed, as I recount the incident, the response has been universal: incredulity and anger on my behalf.

Rather than confront the man and make a scene, I chose to leave and walk off my fury in the winter cold. I sent him an email telling him never to do that again. His response was a flippant, "received, apologies." He didn't seem to realize the gravity of his offense until my husband called him out the next day. Even then, the offender was too swift and slick in feigning remorse.

How could he possibly think it was okay to pat a grown man on the head? Would he have done the same to any other adult? To another white man?

A Filipino-American friend mused, "I wonder if he was inclined to do that because you're a "little brown boy?" The thought also crossed my mind. As the smaller and darker spouse in a gay biracial marriage, some people readily assume that I am the younger, dependent and subservient exotic. Never mind that my husband and I are highly driven, middle-aged professionals who treat each other as equals and partners.

A gay Asian-American friend characterized the incident as a not so micro microaggression, one of the "everyday insults, indignities and demeaning messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of the hidden messages being sent to them."

The man told my spouse that he meant to tap me on my shoulder but somehow ended up patting me on the head.

"A touch on your shoulder would have been much more appropriate and probably would have conveyed a totally different meaning," an African-American friend pointed out. "The fact that he chose to pat you on the head says volumes about perceived and real power in this situation ... microaggressions are so draining."

Who knows for certain what spurred the man to treat me like a small child. I can't help but think, however, that my being brown had something to do with it. This man, after all, has a habit of flaunting his Southern bona fides and recently bragged about his family's Black help.

Yes, microaggressions are draining. And I sure am pretty damned tired of it all.