In recent weeks people have been asking me what they can do about racial injustice. Here’s one thing: we (white people) can become aware of our microaggressions and avoid them. What are microaggressions? Take a look at these examples cited by Beverly Daniel Tatum, a psychologist and former Spelman College president, in a recent CNN article by Kristen Rogers:
“You’re so well spoken/articulate” or “You don’t sound black.” This remark sounds like a compliment, but it’s offensive to a lot of black people because they usually don’t have to be that articulate for someone to say that to them, Tatum said. When a white person says it, it usually implies they wouldn’t expect to hear coherence from a black person. The black person didn’t fit the white person’s offensive stereotype, so the white person complimented them for not fitting the mold.
“Don’t blame me. I never owned slaves.” This statement assumes that racism ended with the conclusion of the US Civil War, Tatum said, when really it has continued in new forms. Read “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stephenson or “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander to learn more about modern slavery, racism and how white people still benefit from discrimination.
“White privilege doesn’t exist.” Differences in racial privilege occur on a personal basis, too. White privilege also means not having to worry about whether your hairstyle will cost you a job or even an interview. It’s not having to worry if someone is following you around a store because they think you might steal something because of your skin color.
“All lives matter.” Yes, all lives matter, but in this context it’s black lives that are not being treated with respect, Tatum said. Hence the Black Lives Matter movement. Those who say “all lives matter” may be interpreting “only black lives matter,” which isn’t the case. The latter phrase means “black lives matter, too.” So when someone says “all lives matter” without acknowledging the movement, they’re ignoring the anti-black racism that there are so many examples of regarding police interactions, Tatum said.
“I’m not racist; I have a black friend.” People who say this might be equating racism with prejudice, Tatum said. Prejudice is an attitude based on stereotypes. Racism entails the policies and practices that perpetrate notions of white superiority and inferiority of people of color. You may not harbor racial prejudice or hate in your heart, but ties with black people don’t keep you from engaging in discriminatory behavior and/or failing to challenge racist practices.
“Can I touch your hair?” Curiosity is OK, but crossing boundaries is not. The question may not be intentionally offensive, but it can make a black person feel as if she’s an animal on display — since you likely wouldn’t ask that of any other race. It also continues the antiquated idea of black people as “other” or scientific novelty.
“We’re all one human race/big happy family.” This statement seeks to alleviate racism or complaints of it. The phrase is biologically correct given genetic similarities. But in terms of social interactions, we don’t behave as if we were all one race, Tatum said.
“I’m colorblind; I don’t care if you’re white, black, yellow, green or purple.” The intention is inclusive, but people of color are saying their color and identity matter and affect how they experience the world. Saying this is offensive because it could imply you aren’t listening to or don’t care about what other groups of people are telling you.
Clutching your purse or dodging while passing a black man. This behavior implies that black men are dangerous. It’s based on a fear that responds to a stereotype that categorizes black men as threats.
Reading this list of microaggressions, maybe you’ll think, “Aren’t they being oversensitive?” If they were isolated incidents, maybe. However, microaggressions are so common “that it’s like death by a thousand cuts,” Tatum said. “Research has shown that microaggressions do contribute to increased blood pressure, physical reactions [and] lower feelings of well-being.”
They wear people down, and they need to be taken seriously.
—Kristen Rogers, CNN, June 4, 2020