“You don’t act like a black person,” I was told in middle school.
“What’s your favorite food? Fried chicken?” I was asked in high school.
“You have good hair for a black person, what are you mixed with?” I heard in college.
I naively failed to understand or pay attention to racially-charged comments like these throughout my life, because growing up I went to schools where there were only four or five black people within the whole entire school. Being around that my whole life, I naturally went along with it because I thought that that was how it was supposed to be. I never thought about telling my parents about these racially-charged comments because it felt normal after hearing it so often. In my mind I thought it shouldn’t really matter what they said to me because they were my friends and friends only joke about that stuff, they aren’t serious.
It wasn’t until I got to middle school where I felt this sense of loneliness or not belonging. When everyone around you doesn’t look like you, it starts to make you feel insecure. So to escape those insecurities I began to cling to those who were like me. At lunch, people would refer to our table as the “black-girl table”, and would always ask why are all the black girls always sitting together? I didn’t expect others to understand that because to me it was my source of comfort, it was how I got away from everything. It was honestly so refreshing being around people who understood exactly how I was feeling.
But now I recognize these seemingly harmless observations for what they truly were: Microaggressions — or verbal, physical, or environmental offenses that can be either intentional or unintentional.
Take the comment “you don’t act like a black person,” for example. This statement makes the assumption that all black people are the same and all likely to adhere to the same stereotypical behavior: Namely being loud, “ghetto,” or behaving in an uneducated manner. So when I do not act according to these stereotypes, when I fail to match these racist assumptions, it often confuses people.
These microaggressions affect my friends and me in myriad, but seemingly constant, ways. When I walk down the street with one of my male friends who happens to be darker, I see women clutch their purses and avoid making eye contact. They have clearly bought into stereotypes that regard black men as threatening, yet this friend is one of the least harmful people I know. Once when I walked into Michael Kors with one of my girl friends, the cashier asked my friend, “are you sure you can afford that?” He clearly assumed that she couldn’t afford the purse she was buying because she is black.
And then there have been even more painful and troubling incidents. Once, while walking out of American Eagle with two of my friends, we realized a cop was following us throughout the mall because he thought we stole something. Not only was this a microaggression, but it was a form of racial profiling: We were unfairly scrutinized because the cop associated our race with criminal behavior. At that moment, we were no longer humans with freedom, but people equated with premeditated stereotypes that dictated that we deserved to be followed and watched by someone who had authority over us.
Microaggressions aren’t just harmful because they’re insulting in moments like these, though, but because they also cumulate into a daunting everyday reality. [[A couple lines describing this reality (racism)]] That experience of discrimination and second-class citizenship itself is then compounded by the fear that no other reality is available. Once you’ve faced microaggressions for so long in day-to-day interactions with friends, teachers, employers, etc., it feels like there’s no way out.
I eventually began to wonder if my lifestyle was wrong in some way, since I felt targeted for not acting like everyone else. I always felt like the “other” in my group of friends: Trying to fit in with my white friends felt inauthentic, and with some of my black friends, I wasn’t black enough. I would be called an oreo by some of my black friends because I listened to “white music” or because I talked a certain way. But with some of my white friends I always felt like I had to try really hard to not mess up, to be really proper and to not let my “ghetto side” come out because I knew I would probably never hear the end of it or I would just be that black friend they’d want to hang out with for entertainment.
I have had a hard time sharing these experiences with my white friends. In the past, many haven’t believed that I’ve experienced microaggressions or think that I am exaggerating these situations. I’ve had more trouble sharing these experiences since I’ve been in college. For instance, in one of my psychology classes, one that focused primarily on diversity in psychology, I was trying to explain how racism is still prevalent and the experiences that I’ve faced with it, and I was told that racism isn’t that overt and that a lot of times black people exaggerate racism and their experiences so they can be victims. I had never heard the victim card reply before, but it opened my eyes to how blind people can be and how they will stick to what they want to believe, even if it’s not true.
I used to wonder how or why the white people in my life couldn’t see what was happening to me and their other black friends. I internalized a lot of their doubt and have felt compelled to remain silent out of the fear that I wouldn’t be accepted. But now, as a senior in college, I understand: Their white privilege allowed them to never personally experience microaggressions, and therefore they could easily believe it didn’t exist. Many people don’t understand what those without their privilege experience until said privilege is taken away from them.
To be clear, I don’t inherently dislike people just because they have white privilege and black people don’t need saviors or spokespeople. But those who have privilege need to recognize it, talk about it, and use it to help others. What’s more, white privilege ultimately also harms white people: If their social lives and groups are homogeneous, they deny themselves the chance to learn about new experiences.
Ultimately, there is no shame in being uneducated about these dynamics. But when an opportunity to learn is presented, there is shame in refusing to be willing to understand. Willful ignorance is what’s dangerous. If there is a chance to learn about an issue, take that. Even if it doesn’t affect you personally it’s still vital to be educated on these subjects so that if you see someone being treated wrongfully, or being oppressed in any kind of way, you can help them. Someone will always be more advantaged than someone else and it’s important to use the advantages for more than just selfish gain. People can be helped in the smallest ways, all it takes is for someone to be attentive and to take action.