Microaggressors Say the Darndest Things
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because words matter. Especially the ones that hurt.
Microaggression. You feel like you should know what it means. Popular in social activist circles and woke culture, it’s more likely than not that you first heard this word outside the scholarly community, although that’s where it began.
Coined by Harvard professor emeritus of education and psychiatry Dr. Chester M. Pierce, in a 1970 summary of his paper on “offensive mechanisms,” he describes microaggressions as small acts of insult or indignity directed against marginalized people. The concept was largely derived from Pierce’s own experience as a Black professor of psychiatry at Harvard in the 1960s, but microaggressions, he said, aren’t limited to race.
Microaggressions are systemic. They happen to the same groups of people — people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, and others — again and again, in predictable patterns.
“Unless you fix the source, those repeated drops of water are going to build up to serious harm,” says Regina Rini, Canada research chair in philosophy of moral and social cognition and an assistant professor of philosophy at Toronto’s York University, explaining why it’s bad advice to tell people to simply ignore microaggressions. “The really difficult challenge lies in finding ways to hold each other accountable for gradually improving our society without getting sidetracked into pointless fights about individual guilt or innocence.”
So instead of ignoring, we’re addressing. In fact, not only are we addressing, we’re also laying out some of the darnedest things that have come out of the mouths of microaggressors. So read, learn and feel perfectly OK laughing at how just ridiculous they can (sometimes) be.
An Excuse to Use the N-Word
David Crosby, dressed in nostalgic, retired-hippie-esque gear, stood in front of a Harvard music class. “The Trump administration makes me feel just as angry as the Vietnam War did,” he said. This was a statement I could get behind. Crosby looked around. “You know, Trump is a racist.” Another statement I could agree with. “He hates niggers.” Crosby pointed at me, the only Black woman in a class of 100 students. “I mean, you’re not a person.” This was not how I expected my Tuesday morning to start out. To be honest, I wanted to shout at him for using the word so flippantly and also for using me as an example, but I could feel the other students staring at me, and suddenly I felt stunned into silence. I decided to go right to the top, and I sent a long email to the dean of Harvard, who immediately changed the policy about inviting speakers to campus. — Joy Nesbitt
I Didn’t Know Mexicans Can Be Pretty
With my dark features, light skin and curly hair, I get mixed opinions about what ethnicity I look like. I’ve learned not to take these comments personally. There’s one particular incident that has always stuck with me, though. I was taking an Uber to work, and the driver was pretty chatty. We were conversing and he asked me, “So, where are you from?”
“No, what’s your ethnicity?”
“Wow, I would have never guessed. You’re too beautiful.”
I was so taken aback that I’m sure my expression went straight to confused and shocked. Comments like that just give me more pride to represent Mexican women. — Evelyn Aranda
It was my freshman year at the predominately white Christian Lee University. Call it willful ignorance, but I assumed everyone saw me as they saw themselves — you know, as a child of God. Well, one day in algebra class, my innocence had its day of reckoning. I forget what we were going over, but I do remember not quite grasping it. After politely raising my hand and waiting to be called upon, I posed my question to the older, white professor.
“I don’t know how to explain this in a way your people would understand,” he replied.
He then reluctantly proceeded to explain. I sat there in shock and disbelief. White classmates approached me after class, asking if I was all right, equally shocked at what had happened. That’s when it dawned on me that the professor had assumed I hadn’t yet learned this apparently secret language. Either that or he was just flat-out racist. — Joshua Eferighe
I Actually Go Here
I pulled into a freshman-year party at Stanford with my roommate and another friend. We were sizing up the scene when a tall gentleman wearing a suit approached us.
“Hi,” he said to me.
“Heya,” I replied.
“This is a freshmen party, you know.”
“You have to be a freshman to be here.”
“So I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
“On what grounds?” I was from Brooklyn and had been in California for only three days, so I wasn’t accustomed to the California habit of being nice, polite or in any way reasonable.
“You have to be an enrolled freshman to be at this party.”
“I heard you the first time. My two friends, who happen to be white, I don’t think they heard you. Or were you not talking to them?”
“If they’re enrolled and they’re freshmen they can be here.”
“Thanks for your valuable input. And unless you’re going to remove me yourself, I suggest you run along and make yourself useful in some other way … prick.”
Flustered, he walked off. A good time was then had by all.
Punchline: The tall gentleman in a suit was an African American professor and an expert in East Africa and African American cultural history. — Eugene S. Robinson
That Time My Personal Space Did Not Matter
I was on the subway, shortly after the morning rush. There were no seats available, but there was plenty of space to stand. I chose to stand by the doors, the widest area as there’s a glass partition that you can lean against to make balancing easier and it’s usually less crowded there. A guy in a suit who looked just a few years older than me, late 20s or so, got on. At this point, the train had become a little more crowded. When this guy got on, he turned to face me, putting his arms on either side of my head and using the partition for balance.
His laptop bag was pressed against my leg and he proceeded to look through his notes just 2 inches from my face, glancing at me now and then. I was pinned against the partition with no way to move. I was too scared to say anything; physically I knew that he had complete power in the moment. I felt somewhat comforted that there were other people around us, but most of them were focused on their commute.
I spent the ride trying to twist a bit to make the guy uncomfortable and debating whether I should say something, especially as he didn’t move even when the car began to empty out. Around the time I had finally worked up the courage to say something, he got off the train. I decided that, moving forward, I would always speak up immediately. I hated the way his physical intimidation had silenced me. — Camille Cote
When My White Father Called Me the N-Word
I was adopted into a white family as a baby. I never really understood that I was different from them, because as a child you don’t view things that way. Your parents are your parents, your siblings are your siblings, and it’s not like there was some crazy reveal later, because, obviously, I was a different color.
Living in a white family, growing up in an all-white town and being home-schooled, I didn’t experience people of my culture or color until my early adolescence. It was then that I began to ask questions, that I wanted to learn more about not only my past but also my people’s past, to be around more people of color.
It was around that time that I began to grow conscious that certain things my father would say set off small alarms in me. He was raised in a very old-fashioned, backward family where there was a lot of alcoholism, abuse and infidelity. That had made him a relatively hard and somewhat uneducated person. He would refer to things as “ghetto” or “nigger-rigged,” which as a very young child seemed to me like something everyone would say.
But the more I learned about who I was, the more uncomfortable it made me. One day, I was getting ready for school. My father was incensed about something that didn’t involve him at all — my mother and I had had a misunderstanding — yet he chose to involve himself in an explosive way.
I tried to explain that the issue had been resolved, but that didn’t stop the screaming, flying spit and waving arms. I began to cry.
My father looked me and said, “Oh, look at the poor little nigger cry,” in the most condescending tone possible. Later, he would try to backtrack and make all kinds of excuses about what he was really trying to say and how that wasn’t what he really meant, but it didn’t matter.
Amazingly, that comment didn’t change my love for him. But it did make me rethink everything I thought I knew about white people who loved me. I knew then that even though I was part of their family, I was not one of them. — Elisa Fenty