My tween daughter was thrilled that her big day had finally arrived. The spring dance recital was attended by hundreds, each of us eager to watch our little star perform. We arrived at the venue, which was already warm and buzzing with energy and conversation. We navigated down the crowded hallway to find the designated dancer waiting area, when the woman in charge of directing dancers spotted my other tween, whose hair was in long blue and black box braids.
“Oh!” she squealed. “What gorgeous hair!” In a split second, she raised her arm and tried to touch my daughter’s braids. My daughter, who is introverted, looked at me in horror. I immediately piped up, “Don’t touch her hair.” The woman’s hand snapped back and she stumbled through an apology. She honestly looked like I hurt her feelings. (What really happened? I interrupted her white privilege). This was hardly the first time, nor will it be the last, that someone has violated my Black children with a microaggression.
A microaggression is “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group.” It doesn’t sound like a big deal when they throw words like “subtly,” “unconsciously,” and “unintentionally” into the definition, but the term, and the definition, are misleading. Microaggressions aren’t necessarily a less-harmful form of racism. Microaggressions also aren’t always less-painful or detrimental just because they aren’t overtly and intentionally racist.
Unfortunately, too many people believe that “little” forms of racism (if they even call it racism) aren’t a big deal. Everyone makes mistakes, right? And why are people so sensitive these days? We can’t say anything without someone getting offended, they say. It’s not like they’re as bad as someone who freely drops racial slurs and jokes, right? I’ve heard it all, and I’m not here for it.
The reality is that every “tidbit” of racism adds up to a huge, heaping pile of racism that can infiltrate a developing child’s self-esteem. So yes, every little thing does matter. Blowing off microaggressions, attempting to minimize their impact, doesn’t diminish racism. In fact, microaggressions only create more racism.
Imagine encountering racial microaggressions every single day. A day in the life of one of my older tweens would go something like this. Day one: one of her elective teachers stumbles over pronouncing their name. My child corrects the teacher, but the next day, the exact same thing happens. This happens multiple times over the course of the school year. After this, the teacher asks my daughter how she feels about that day’s social studies topic: the civil rights movement. Why did the teacher choose one of the few Black children in the class to render a verdict on the movement?
Day two: we stop at the store for a few groceries. A white woman compliments my daughter’s hair, which was recently braided with pink woven in. My daughter is polite and thanks the woman. This apparently isn’t enough. The woman proceeds to interrogate my daughter with rapid-fire questions about how long it took to do her hair and how she has no idea how my daughter could sit still for so long. Then she pets my daughter’s braids before either of us can stop her.
Day three: one of my daughter’s white peers asks her what type of dance class she takes. Before my daughter can answer, the peer says, “I bet it’s hip hop!” My daughter frowns and says no, that she’s in ballet, like one of her favorite celebrities, Misty Copeland.
Day four: my daughter is her gymnastics class, and the coach looks at her, but calls her by another student’s name. And not just any student, but the name of one of the other two Black girls in the class. The coach constantly mixes up the girls’ names, even though their names are not similar at all and the girls look nothing alike.
Day five: we’re running errands and spot another mom from the school. We chat for a few minutes before trying to part ways, but not before the woman changes her intonation, cocks her head to the side, purses her lips, and refers to my daughter as, “Girllll.” (I’m going to go ahead and assume that she’s also a Karen.)
Can you imagine how exhausting and hurtful this would be when my child faces microaggressions over and over, for days, weeks, months, and years on end? Everything about her Blackness is picked at by white people including her name, her appearance, her likes, her interests, and her culture. What message does this send to a child of color about her race?
Treating my daughter–or any person of color–as a token, as exotic, or as othered is appalling. Even though we work very hard within our family to affirm and celebrate our children, and even though our children have many racial role models in their lives, there’s still the sting of white people who just cannot keep their words and hands to themselves. The entitlement is off the charts. We are constantly having to undo the damage white people work to inflict on our kids.
Microaggressions perpetuate racism–period. As much as white people would like to believe that their “curiosity” is just that, they’re using their white privilege to demand that Black people—and other people of color—entertain the desires of the white person. It’s disturbing and steeped in supremacy. No matter the level or degree of racism, at the end of the day it’s still racism.
We have called white people on their nonsense many times. I’ve taught my kids to tell people, “Don’t touch my hair” and to understand that their bodies belong to them. We’ve prompted our kids to correct people who get their names wrong. However, we can only control our actions, not that of others. Though I hope that with the current movement, more and more white people come to understand the damage they cause when they choose to act on their impulses and commit a microaggression.
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