Micro-aggression is considered a form of “unintended discrimination”. It is depicted by the use of known social norms of behavior and/or expression that, with or without intent by the user, still has the same effect as conscious, intended discrimination. A simple illustration of the meaning of micro-aggression can be seen by the use of pronoun “He” which, in its use is meant as a congregation of all, but which, by its inherent nature, actually segregates and demotes the feminine, “She”. Attempts to use opposite gender pronoun in the same situation as “He” has the unintended consequence of limiting the power implied in the original situation. It is our culturally conditioned response to accept that the masculine is assertive and that the feminine is passive; that “She” is a lesser part of the whole that is “He”. This is equally true where He and She are replaced with White and Black.
Racist micro-aggression is an aspect of racism that goes unnoticed or disregarded by most (white) people, even those who care about ending racism. Because it is not overt discrimination (as when derogatory words and particular acts of violence are used), its inclusion as an act of discrimination can be questioned, and thus, negated. It is the undercurrent, the bloodstream, the foundation upon which our entire society has evolved. It is the entire range of social behaviors, expression, values and beliefs that have developed, over time within a white-dominant culture, that excludes, separates, segregates, denigrates and harms people of color on a daily basis. It is invasive and evasive, and even the most socially aware, consciously deliberate, progressive-thinking white person can be swept back under it’s conforming control, at any given moment.
Generally speaking, micro-aggressive racism is usually only recognized by those who experience the recurring, dismissive acts of racism on a daily basis. Their awareness is due to a constant and acute awareness of the physical, social and/or cultural differences and barriers that precludes inclusion with the dominant social group (white, male, wealthy, etc). For example, a white kid comments to a group of her peers, one of whom is black, “hey, you know that black kid in my Algebra class? He proved the teacher wrong on a problem. I had no idea he was so smart!” The white girl may not intend to denigrate her black peer but, by indicating the race of the smart kid, the inference, as heard by the black kid in her group, might be “that black kid is more intelligent than me and most black kids; he is unusual because black kids don’t normally understand Algebra.”
Yeah, sure, the black kid in the group could be overly sensitive, but consider this: would the girl making the original comment have mentioned the race of the smart kid in her biology class if he had been white? It is not colloquially common for Caucasians to mention their race when describing someone who is also white, since it is far more the norm for people of color to mention the race of others, including whites, when describing other people. Even languages are structured to prize whiteness as the most valued class of humanity.
As another example of micro-aggression, given in a different context, let’s say there is a group of people telling “Fat” jokes, when there is an extremely overweight person in the group. Is it acceptable to make demeaning, degrading, and hurtful statements about an entire classification of people, without consideration of the hurt or humiliation being inflicted on anyone from that subgroup of people? How about inviting a newly sober friend to a gathering, only to open up the liquor cabinet and inviting everyone else to get drunk in front of the person trying to stay sober? Certainly, The sober person has a personal responsibility for willingly entering a situation where one may be subjected to callous human regard or danger, and could leave. But what of the greater number of situations, in which being perceived as a member of a less valued class of human being–ie, black–, cannot be escaped (schools, jobs, etc)? And should someone of a perceived lesser ranking be forced to resort to self-segregation and isolation to avoid such harm? If so, what does that say about about the nobility of those with the inherent traits ascribed as the top-tier of humanity? It says there an ugliness within… and that ugliness is micro-agression.
In a larger community settings, micro-aggression can be harder to discern…for whites, at least. Take the same group of school kids mentioned earlier and let them enter a store. Which of the kids is most likely to be watched as a potential thief by the store owner? How likely is it that a black guy and a white guy, if each commit the same crime, will be treated the same way by the US legal system? According to the details of the following report, not very likely: the report shows that while whites report using drugs at five times that of blacks, blacks are 10 times more likely to go to prison for the same drug charges (see the NAACP Criminal Justice Fact Sheet). Regardless of whether this is outright Racist discrimination, or micro-aggression, it is an outward expression of the minimization of a person’s status as a human being, with harsher rules and greater consequences placed on that lower tier, for no other reason than not being white.
If the concept behind micro-aggression is beginning to make sense, then it is time to introduce the flip-side of the same coin: white privilege.
Just mention “White Privilege” in a group of white people and the overwhelming groaning, harrumphs and “what a crock of bull”s, commences. And then…wait for it…”those whiny bunch of….”. That’s it! That’s when the real racist commentary begins, often complemented by “I’m not a racist, but…”. And forget about trying to frame the concept in terms of only your own, personal experiences with White Privilege. The response to a personal claim of White Privilege will be no difference than if a person, while dining with others, passes on a meat-laden dish, saying “No, thank you. I’m a vegetarian.” Invariably, someone will reply, “Well, you will never get me to stop eating meat.”–as if the mere statement that one is a vegetarian is actually a demand that everyone at the table also, and immediately, stop eating meat. Others will suddenly feel threatened by your personal experiences and choices, as if these things are making a demand to all to follow suit. Of course, it would be wonderful if just claiming your experience or beliefs meant your ideal would be followed by others but, ultimately, making changes on a grand scale must first start on the smallest scale.
Why is it so important to accept that White Privilege exists within anyone who is white? It must be accepted because it is what makes micro-aggressive racist behavior possible. Pause a moment to consider this: micro-aggression towards people of color is not possible without the presumption of privilege, assumed by a group that is based on skin color. How f–ked up is that??
Being white is a condition of birth but it is not an indicator of human decency. The problem, however, is that within our culture, certain human traits –such as being of Caucasian or African descent– are given degrees of status, or value and importance. Any trait not belonging exclusively to the classification of “white” is placed in a subcategory, and granted its subsequent rank, according to the degrees of whiteness, by those at the top. No one can really escape their classification; you’re either born white, or you’re not. But, so powerful is the assumption of privilege by whiteness that, if a white person discovers and admits to a familial connection to a lesser-deigned class, it could result in an automatic reclassification to a lower ranking class! A white person claiming a great, great, great, great grandparent –who in turn had a double-great grandparent with 1/4 black African heritage is now, potentially, “black passing as white” (ok, maybe that’s a little extreme, but I hope you get the point!).
Refusing to acknowledge White Privilege is the same as actively engaging in micro-aggression…
…just as refusal to take a stand against, or voice opposition to, any injustice is, therefore, an endorsement of injustice. But, deciding to combat the effects of micro-aggression requires an unrelenting willingness and vigilant awareness, by white people, to actively seek out and prevent the continued harm of racism. It is not a matter of prostrating oneself before the punishing whips of humiliation just for being born white, it is about discovering a shared value in being humbled, to seek out commonality and equality with the previously defined ranks, in order to co-exist peacefully. In other words, while recognizing the amazing diversity of external human factors, we must seek what is the same within us all, blending in a diverse kinship.
Exactly how does one actively acknowledge their White Privilege, and how does one participate in preventing the ongoing racist behaviors? Ah! …therein lies the rub. Quite simply, it can not be done alone, and it can not be a movement led by white people. It must be led by people of color, the very people who can see it when we white people can not. Until the leaders that appear can provide white people with guidance, however, there is a plethora of opportunities to get involved: in actions, organizations and activitie.s that will help you to see your own White, Privileged ass and the micro-aggression that you didn’t even know you were employing. Until then, keep an open mind when out in public. Consider, as you walk in to a store, how you might be treated if your skin was a few shades darker, and try to imagine what it must be like to walk around, feeling like that, every single inescapable day.
I hope it changes you. It is still changing me.
Your considerate comments are greatly appreciated.