Over the past weeks and months, I’ve had many discussions with both BIPOC and non-BIPOC about microaggressions. I still feel the same about it as I did when I wrote this piece.
Paper Cuts Still Make You Bleed
I’ve been mulling over the term “microaggressions” — those racist interactions that most Black people endure, especially in countries where we’ve been “minoritized”. I get that we have to call them something, but in some ways the term minimizes the harm done.
There’s nothing “micro” about the way those aggressions make Black people feel. The people who are perpetrating them may not mean to hurt us, but the impact is what matters here, not their intention.
Someone else has called them “death by a thousand paper cuts”, but here’s the thing: paper cuts hurt as much as any other kind of cut, and paper cuts still make you bleed.
Want to see what I mean? Here’s a typical day in the life of a Black person.
You wake up. It’s a work day, so you get moving, and complete your ablutions.
How will you wear your hair? It kinds of depends on the hair policy at work. Twist outs, braids, or an exuberant fro? If the latter, it’s a sure bet some white colleague will have their hands in it before you can say no. Or will you play it safe and go for relaxed, short and natural, or just wear a wig? Decisions, decisions.
You switch on the news while you get breakfast. Another Black man has died at the hands of the police. It’s not a good start to the day.
You scan your cupboard. Cereal, pancakes with syrup, fruit? There’s nobody on the packaging who represents your reality. Aunt Jemima doesn’t count.
Time to get dressed — conservative is best. If you’re wearing stockings, you thank your lucky stars that at last you can get a nude that matches your skin and isn’t some sort of pale salmon color.
More decisions as you head to work. If you take your car, especially if it’s a nice one, and especially if you’re a man, you might be stopped, searched or questioned, as if you don’t also have the right to drive an expensive car. And if you’re a Black man, there’s the ever-present fear that the next police stop may be your last.
Maybe you decide to take public transport. As a woman, if you’re on the Tube or subway, you know you risk getting groped. That’s not exclusive to you as a Black woman, but your skin color means they grope with more entitlement.
At least if you take the train or bus, the seat next to you will be the last to be taken, giving you a much needed respite (I’ve seen people who were dead on their feet stand rather than sit next to me).
You arrive at the office, and a new security guard is on duty. That means that yet again, you have to prove you actually work here. Is this the day your white colleagues will support you, or will they whisper to you afterwards about how awful it was? Racism has to be challenged loudly in those circumstances for it to count.
There’s a meeting today, so there are some new faces in the office. One of them asks you to get the coffee. You pretend not to hear and head to your desk. You are early, as you know being even a minute late will damn you and all Black people forever.
Your white colleague breezes in 30 minutes late with no repercussions. And you know that she’ll probably get the next promotion going, even though you’re more accomplished and experienced. In spite of your excellent work, you’ve already been passed over twice, and you’ll have to leave if you want to progress in your career.
As you head into the meeting, and set up your stuff at the front, someone does a double-take when they realize you’re presenting. It’s not the first time you’ve seen it, and it won’t be the last.
It’s time for lunch. Most days, you’ll probably eat alone unless there’s a work thing. Those can be tough, because you have nothing in common but work, and you don’t want to have to deal with microaggressions at lunch, too.
You head to the store to check out some items you want to buy, but see the security guard clock you as a potential shoplifter, and decide you can’t be bothered. You enter a clothing store, only have the shop assistant imply you can’t afford to buy anything. Clearly, today is not a good shopping day.
Back to the office for an afternoon meeting. More new people, and someone decides to ask where you’re from, really? Sigh. Not again. In a casual pre-meeting chat with someone else, he expresses surprise at your post-grad qualifications.
The meeting continues. You contribute some ideas, which are ignored till one of your white colleagues says exactly the same thing. Honestly, you can’t wait for this day to be over.
You head home, and think about going for a jog. These days, that’s pretty dangerous, especially if you’re a Black man, so you hit the treadmill because you don’t feel like going to the gym.
Then you remember there was a loose board on one of your windows. You step outside to fix it. Next thing you know, the police are accusing you of trying to break into your own house. Turns out your white neighbor’s visiting auntie called them to say she’d seen a suspicious person. At least this time, you avoid having to go to the station.
You head inside for something to eat. You can’t face Uncle Ben tonight, so maybe you’ll just order a pizza. Time to relax with some TV. As you skim the channels, you see that another Black woman has died at the hands of the police. You can’t bear the minute examination of whether her past meant she deserved to die, so you keep skimming.
You try to find a program with people who look like you, but there’s not a lot to choose from if you don’t want to see thugs, criminals, mammies, or people who need white people to save them. You know plenty of professionals, so why is it so hard to find those people on TV?
Exhausted, you head to bed, knowing you’ll have to do this all over again tomorrow.
Not everything here will happen to a Black person all in one day, though they could. In a week, though, all of them could, and probably will. Multiply that by the number of days we’re out there, and you can see why Black people are tired, why our souls have been bleeding for centuries, and why racism has to end.
I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading,
© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2020. Cover photo courtesy of Canva.
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