Let me start by talking about micro aggression. I’m sure a bunch of you are way smarter than me, and have been familiar with this terminology for a long time. It’s new to me, and it’s made me think a lot about racism. So I want to talk with you about it, and that starts with me defining the term as I understand it.
(The ground covered in this blog could probably apply fairly equally to misogyny. I don’t think it applies as much to LGBTQIA, as there is still a lot of overt bigotry aimed at that community.)
Micro aggressions, in short, are the tiny little informally bigoted actions we experience (and yes, enact) on a daily basis.
A white woman watches the elevator door open, thinking the elevator is empty. When she sees a black man inside she unconsciously clutches her purse. She isn’t trying to deny him the right to vote. She isn’t attempting to keep him from marrying a white person. She isn’t engaging in the formal and overt racism that plagued our society up until the middle of the last century.* But it was a racist act, and act that was most likely seen and felt by the man on the elevator. Racially based micro aggression.
Waiters handing me the check, even though my wife asked him to bring it. Gender based micro aggression.
I could go on. All these little things. And it’s not like any of us are shocked, because almost all of us have an intersectionallity of our own, that has at some point been effected and influenced by these actions.
I want to point out that we are discussing actions that are mostly unconscious. I think it’s important.
I personally believe that many or most of the everyday actions that cause emotional and mental harm happen on this unconscious level. Addressing and redressing these actions is difficult because one must first convince the aggressor in any given situation that they have done something wrong, that they are capable of bigoted action. Only if the aggressor is capable of admitting that they could do something wrong is any movement forward possible.
As a society we make that admission nearly impossible due to the particular way in which we stigmatize bigoted actions.
Now, don’t go get your torches just yet. Bigotry is wrong. We shouldn’t say it’s right. But we have created a false dichotomy in our society where each person either IS or ISN’T bigoted, and if the person is bigoted, they are evil, wrong, bad, and stupid.
So anytime we try to discuss a racial motivation for someone’s actions, we are in effect calling them a whole bunch of really awful names. We are telling them they are a bad person. Not surprisingly, they react poorly. They don’t want to admit to a racial motivation, because to do so is to admit that they are a bad person, and they do not see themselves that way. To see their actions in a racial perspective they must fundamentally realign their view of themselves as a human being, a task that is almost impossible, and at the very least takes years of introspection, or a truly undefinable life changing experience.
Now if we apply this on an institutional level, the possibility for change goes form unlikely to impossible. Is the prison system racist? Is the justice system racist? The educational system?
For thousands if not millions of people working in those systems, their personal answer has to be “No.” For the answer to be “yes” these people have to accept their own implicit racism and bigotry. So instead of working to change those systems, they support their harmful and destructive aspects.** For change in those systems to occur in a large enough way for it to be societally meaningful, each and every person involved in that system would need to simultaneously accomplish an incredibly difficult personal realignment.
Or, we could change the way we look at racism.
Walking to buy bananas yesterday contemplating race and micro aggression, I thought “what if we treated racism like a medical problem?”
The thought bounced around my head all day. (and yes blonde lady with too much perfume, that’s why your latte wasn’t made with skim milk, I was solving racism.) I’m not gonna lie, the thought felt huge.
What if bigotry was treated like cancer?
What causes cancer? We’re still not absolutely sure, but doctors think it’s a combination of environmental and genetic factors. Dangerous, yes. Treatable? Yes, especially if you catch it early, and stay vigilant for signs of recurrence.
What causes racism? We’re not exactly sure, but probably a combination of environmental, historical, economic and (the hotly debated) genetic factors. Is it dangerous? Hell yes. It’s a killer. Is it treatable? Yes. Especially if you catch it early and stay vigilant for signs of recurrence.
But we don’t yell at people with cancer. We don’t tell them with a thousand movies and books and images that having cancer is evil. If you noticed a scary looking mole on a friend, and pointed it out, they’d thank you. We encourage people to self check, and many people do. It saves lives. We outlaw institutional use of substances that are shown to be carcinogenic. We label other products as possibly dangerous. We make people smoke outside, so that their carcinogens don’t harm the rest of us. We outlaw the sale of carcinogenic substances to minors.
Of course treating racism like cancer won’t always be love and puppy dogs. Try going up to a smoker while they are freezing their ass off on their fifteen minute break, and mention to them they might be giving themselves cancer. It’s probably not going to be a fun conversation. But still, they probably won’t deny that it’s a risky behavior.
Now I’m talking about micro aggression, and the more subtle forms of racism. If you are burning crosses in people’s yards, or talking about how no black person is smart enough to be president, you don’t have cancer, you have the plague. It’s dangerous, and highly contagious. Stay away from children.
But I don’t think it’s crazy to suggest that our inability to talk in a non divisive way about smaller scale racism creates an environment where the big violent racism or bigotry can thrive. The small bigotries can simmer until they explode, and change into stunning and violent acts that leave our nation mourning, leaving us more entrenched in our ideological lines, and ever more ready to point the finger and cry “Racist!”
Often, micro aggression remains untreated because we can’t talk about it in a non stigmatizing way, but it creates a huge well of pent up emotion that can explode. George Zimmerman might not be an overtly racist guy.*** He may well honestly and deeply believe that African Americans deserve every right and privilege that white people have. But I bet you dollars to doughnuts he has probably also perpetrated many acts of micro aggression. If we lived in a society where his friends and coworkers could comfortably say “hey dude, check that micro ag,” without risking a friendship or a stable working relationship, maybe he would have known he had a little racism. Maybe knowing that, he would have waited two extra seconds before he opened fire. Maybe Trayvon would be alive.
Of course, the more violent and vitriolic examples of Racism (and just how loathsome they are) are part of the reason why all of us casual everyday bigots have a hard time admitting it to ourselves.
Let me clarify this cancer metaphor for a second. I’m not saying racism should be treated by doctors. I’m saying our attitudes should shift so that they are treated socially in a similar matter.
Also, I realize that this metaphor may be deeply offensive to cancer survivors. Please understand that I’m not trying to stigmatize your struggles, and I absolutely realize that there is a world of difference between racism and cancer. I also realize that my saying “Cancer has no stigma” probably doesn’t jive with a lot of your experiences. The sad truth is that there is still a lot wrong with the way our society talks to about about survivors.
But I believe creating a healthier social context for discussing micro aggression would be greatly beneficial to our countries ongoing and terrifying racial issues.
* Or later. Depending on how you define it.
**Of course I have to recognize that many people in these institutions do recognize the systems existent bigotry, and they are working hard from within those systems to change them. Keep up the good work people.
*** He also may be a frothing scumbag. I don’t know. When a media firestorm hits a circumstance that like it becomes very hard to ascertain truth. My thoughts and feelings go out to Trayvon’s family, and every other person who has suffered because of racially motivated violence, which still happens in our country on a daily basis.