Microaggressions and White Privileges
I was talking to a colleague yesterday and a word that has driven me crazy since its entrance into the lexicon in the last 20 years came up, ‘microaggression.’ The word bothers me because it carries with it a minimization of racism that soothes the oppressive nature of white privilege. Bumping me on a subway car is a microaggression, spilling a drink in my lap is a microaggression. Not recognizing my inherent rights to humanity is not a microaggression, it is discrimination. Until we stop advancing the use of euphemisms to ease the conscience of the offenders we will remain stuck in the whirlwind of the merry-go-round of endless discussions, band-aids, and slogans.
I have told the story of a so-called microaggression early in my life before, but I will repeat it to make the point. When I was six years old, living in Washington, DC, my great-grandmother took me shopping for school clothes. I was fascinated by my undulating shape in the tall mirrors and the smell of perfumes and colognes from behind the glass-encased counters. Then, I was not aware that it was understood that black patrons were not to try on clothing that touched our skin. Black women bought hats by hovering them above their heads, black men stretched out pants at the waist in hopes of making a good guess.
I was excited about my turn to go into the quiet, sweet-smelling dressing rooms with the big mirrors to try on my clothing as the little white boys did for their parents. They preened in their stocking feet, while their Moms made a fuss, and brushed the hair away from their eyes, and tucked their shirts into their new trousers; my turn never came. I excitedly grabbed my great-granny’s hand to lead her to the dressing room, she remained rooted in her spot, “c’mon Ma, c’mon” I said, as tears welled in her eyes. Later I understood she was not crying for herself, she cried because she was thinking how I could tell the flesh of my flesh that some thought he was not good enough, or clean enough to be considered equal.
My friends later told me that was just the way it was, a microaggression of its time. That store no longer exists in downtown Washington, DC but the memory still stings. So when a black woman’s hair is petted because a white woman or man cannot resist feeling its texture, or a black man is followed in a store—just because… those things sting. They go into our memory storage vault of insults and virtual slaps in the face. That is when the term microaggression is turned on both races, it says to people like me, that is just the way it is, and it says to whites you are not privileged just misunderstood.
In 1817 the first permanent school for the deaf was established the American School for the Deaf (ASD). Out of that founding came American Sign Language (ASL) which revolutionized communication for and with deaf Americans. What is not talked about is that it was after 1952 that the ASD, originally known as The American Asylum, At Hartford, For The Education And Instruction Of The Deaf And Dumb, integrated. As we always have, black people came up with an alternative, the Black [dialect] American Sign Language. Of course, speaking a language within a language for the deaf was another hurdle to jump. It was not until 1952 when the Kendall School at Gallaudet was forced to integrate by law, that blacks and whites were signing the same way. White America saw this sort of inequitable treatment as a minor microaggression, black people were again reduced to ‘that is just the way it is.’ Try not to end up on the wrong side of history, today’s microaggression is tomorrow's atrocity.
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