My Sunken Place: How I Learned to Deal with Microaggressions

 
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I’m in the sunken place. Yes, I know that reference is a little dated, but it is extremely relevant to the things I have to say.  Most of my life, I’ve lived a general chill existence, racially speaking that is. I grew up mostly around black people and I went to a school for 12 years where a majority of the students and faculty were black. A Black church, black neighborhood, black-ish city. Are you seeing a trend yet?

I say all this to say, that because of my immediate surroundings, racial issues were never at the forefront of my mind.

Toronto

I love my city, let’s be clear. But over the years I’ve noticed that collectively there’s this level of comfort Canadians are afforded. Racial injustices are rarely discussed frequently as we have lived and adopted the “Canadians aren’t really racist” mentality, which is in fact so far from the truth because racism and the after-effects of colonialism are still very much alive and well. In a way, it’s like we are proud to not be like America when really we are in the same boat. Just know that from my experience Canadians generally tend to approach race relations from an extremely oblivious perspective. The nuances of race in Canada are not the easiest to address since no one wants to call it what it is.

California

Moving out to California I wasn’t sure what to expect. Most of my exposure to the west coast was only through media from TV shows like the Hills, Laguna Beach, Baldwin Hills and every other picturesque movie set in sunny southern California. I didn’t think there was much more than what initially met the eye, and when was preparing to move here I honestly expected it to be just like any other US city I lived in or visited.

I ended up residing in Orange County, and within my first two weeks of living there I noticed something very odd; barely any black people in sight. This was the ultimate culture shock for me. Never had I experienced something like that. I know that we don’t exist in large numbers in every space, but my opinion of southern California was of a more diverse nature.  Another thing that just never sat well with me was the vibe. It was weird. It’s hard to describe, but the best way to explain it is that the few black people I did encounter, they almost gave off the impression that they did not know they were black. This was an eerie sense of unfamiliarity that I was not accustomed to when meeting a fellow Negro. Stuff like the “head nod,” wasn’t a thing here. The “eye” of acknowledgment, that “I see you fellow black person, I see you” look was nonexistent. As the only black intern in my group, and sometimes in the entire work environment, at times I felt extremely isolated and misunderstood.

 

 

My first instance of microaggression I recalled was while I was an intern working at a health fair. I had already met the other members of our presentation group, except for this one white woman. She seemed to be engaging with other individuals in the group but avoiding me. I wanted to at least introduce myself since I knew I’d likely encounter her in the near future during my internship. I introduced myself to her and she condescendingly replied, “I was reading your name tag and I wasn’t sure how to pronounce your name.” I was confused since the spelling of my name though not the most common, is also not uncommon at all. Caught off guard I nervously replied, “Hah the extra ‘A’ throws some people off.” She walked away and as I left the event thinking many thoughts, immediately the first that came to mind was, “Did she think my name was hard to pronounce because I’m black?” I began to think maybe I’m being too sensitive, but the combination of her attitude prior to the introduction, her body language and tone and had me second-guessing the entire exchange.

I later relayed the experience to a friend and my suspicions were confirmed. That was the first time I was fully aware of experiencing what was called a “microaggression.” Unfortunately, now that I was aware of it, it was the first of many experiences I noted that were too slick to be considered overt gestures of prejudice, bias, or racism but too annoying to fully ignore.

Most of these types of experiences happened in Orange County, an area that for the most part was racially monolithic city by city. It was for this reason, it was a relief to visit Riverside on the weekends. Not only was I among friends and familiar faces, but also more black people populated the area. Though it was nice to see people I could relate to, there’s always the exception.

In all my 2 years out here I’ve met two dietitians who are black. Two. One of which I kinda knew from my undergrad already so it just shows how small that networking pool is in the first place. Nevertheless, I was super excited to be introduced to a church member’s wife who is a dietitian. After our initial introduction, we talked about the current job market, career options, and of course options for continuing education.  I expressed my interest in eventually completing a master’s degree in something that would allow me to focus on health and nutrition-related disparities in the black community. I followed up with expressing how it was so nice to finally meet a dietitian of color in a place like this, but I was met with a strange response. She grew really quiet and stared at me vacantly as if the last sentence I uttered was in a foreign language.

I was EXTREMELY confused.

No confirmation, affirmation or agreement on her part, just a weird non-acknowledgment that resembled this interaction in “Get Out”.  

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I quickly changed the subject to avoid further awkwardness and finessed my way out of the conversation.

Not more than 3 weeks later, I had an almost as equally awkward but more so annoying experience. I was leaving work, and as I was passing through the lobby a black woman stopped me. She complimented me on my hair, and she wanted to know how to get her daughter’s hair to do the same thing (a coil out). Happy to help a fellow young woman on her natural hair journey, I started giving her tips, recommending products, and directing her to YouTube for tutorials on how to execute different styles.

As we continued to talk, I eventually discovered that she too had ties to Oakwood University, a historically black Seventh-day Adventist institution and though she never attended the school, she’s visited it several times, has friends that live in Huntsville, AL, and just has a general strong admiration for my school. 

Clearly, I just don’t learn or maybe I was caught up in my HBCU pride, but I said to her, “I think it’s amazing that the school was literally a former slave plantation and now it’s being used to educate black professionals!”

She looked at me like what I said made not one drop of sense.

I was again met with silence, and it was so weird because the expression on her face looked like she was trying to process the information but it just wasn’t registering. I quickly followed up with an “ANNNNYWAYS, Oakwood is a great school!” She then snapped out of her brief daze, reengaged, and strongly agreed with the latter statement.

 

 

In a way, I think I needed these experiences. They really helped remind me of the way things are in the world. I’m no longer in, nor am I going to be around my safety blanket of familiar cultural experiences and just because someone looks like you, it does not mean they have a clue. As it’s said, “Not all skin folk, are kinfolk.”

 

Here are some ways I’ve learned through experience how to handle the sometimes day-to-day racial tensions I may encounter:

1. Pick Your Battles

I know, sometimes these experiences make you want to question your ability of self-restraint, but fortunately for you not every battle has to be fought. Be strategic and weigh your options by evaluating all your potential responses. What are my options realistically? What is the cost vs. benefit here? Think about it, and then decide whether or not you’ll pass or play.

2. Address Things Head On

Be bold and ask questions. It’s uncomfortable especially for my non-confrontational comrades in the struggle, but it’s for your own health to do so, trust me. A simple,

“When you said X, Y, Z what did you mean by that?”

or

“Why would you say something like X, Y, Z? Can you please explain to me where that came from?”

This forces the person to actually process what they said and 9 out of 10 times they’ll realize without you having to say anything else, that what they said was extremely stupid.

3. Educate vs. Annihilate

Giving people the benefit of the doubt is a good thing, and as I’m learning not everyone has bad intentions and not everyone needs a good cussing. Depending on the type of comment or the way it’s worded you can use this opportunity to explain to someone why it’s not okay to say certain things. This, in my humble opinion, tends to work better with more overt situations. Assess their level of ignorance and also who they are in your life, (i.e. co-worker, friend, stranger) then decide on the best course of action.

 

What are some of your experiences in dealing with microaggressions? Comment below, we want to hear your thoughts!

Rachael J.

Artwork by: LaMae Nembhard