tone policing

Let’s Talk: Microaggression

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Source: haringtonskits.tumblr.com

This morning, I woke up and read an article I saw mentioned by @Chescaleigh on Twitter. It’s an article from the New York Times discussing the recent I Too…Am Harvard and the history surrounding the term “microagression” and what possible ramifications of its growth in usage means these days.

Here’s a link to the article so you can take a read.

Now as an African American man growing up in North Carolina, I encountered a lot of incredibly racist situations and remarks. In fact, I can make a laundry list of microaggressions of which I have been a subject. Enough to have to decide what “battle” am I going to fight today.

There are two sides to the argument:

1) Toughen up and stop taking offense to everything.

There have been plenty of times where I’ve listened to someone complain and my thoughts were, to quote Alyssa Edwards, “Get a grip, get a life, and get over it!”

It’s not because I don’t care or that I don’t understand the frustration. It’s that you’re wasting energy on something that in the long run doesn’t affect your future unless you let it.

The comments that I do my best to shake off are usually around non-serious issues.

If someone doesn’t believe I’m an Eagle Scout because of my race, that isn’t a microaggression for me.

If I’m asked where I’m from, I don’t take it is as a microaggression. I simply say that I’m from North Carolina. Perhaps if I was foreign born, this would sting more.

If someone is surprised that I listen to classical music or play the music, I don’t take any offense to it.

Again, these are a few examples that I try to shake off because I feel these types of comments are not intended to belittle me but merely an attempt at small talk.

2) Correct the tone deaf person because you’re offended.

The second argument means that I take the role as “spokesman” for all black people and try to teach and explain why things are this way and why what you said can hurt people. I’ve given up on being angry in how I discuss the issue because then I would be angry all the time.

Here are just a few examples:

I spent the past 2.5 years in public accounting. There is an internship program that takes African-American, Latino, and Native American freshmen and sophomores who meet the criteria for hire. I’ve worked closely with the program because I thought it was a fantastic opportunity for this group. I was asked by a coworker (in good faith) if I thought that this was fair to white or Asian students who wanted that opportunity. My initial thought was “hell yeah! Our team of 125 has 9 non-white team members including East and South Asians!” But I pointed out that these students meet the exact same criteria as their counterparts (high GPA, strong extracurricular activities, full interview process). This program simply increases the pipeline so that the firm can be more diverse, a stated goal of the company. He left the conversation saying that I had made a lot of sense and thanked me for helping him see the value in it.

But that’s just it. Until I took my time to clearly state why the program existed, he didn’t see any value in these kids and this program. I have
had co-workers dismiss my opinions and thoughts only to find out I was right. I have had clients straight up refuse to respond to me. It’s not that I automatically attribute this to my race, but I hope that it is clear that it can be hard not to when there truly are no other differences between me and anyone else.

Another example, I went to a PWI (predominantly white institution) for my undergraduate degree. I was a part of a Fellows program where 20 students were selected from 500 applicants to take advanced courses and be the face of this part of the university. Only 4 of those 20 received the scholarship. I was blessed enough to earn one of those scholarships. During the first few weeks of getting to know my fellow Fellows, (no pun intended) I felt completely out of place. I skipped events because I hated interacting with them. On one particular day, they all went around asking who “got the money.” Everyone was asked with the exception of me. For my money, it was no one’s business but this was a way to “rank” each of us. I remember being offended that no one thought I could have gotten the scholarship over them.

When someone finally did ask, it became “Do you think you got it because you were Black?”

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The thing about that situation is that I already felt excluded simply because I could not relate to the conversations. That sucks but there is no way to change that and they were not responsible for making me feel wanted. However, when the assumption was made that I won something over my counterparts due to my race, I took that to be offensive and it automatically pushed me to have my guard up at all times.

For me, the answer to dealing with these situations lie somewhere in between. That is why discussion around microaggressions are important. We do have to toughen up as a whole, but living your entire life with your armor on is exhausting. The more exhausted you are, the closer we get to snapping should a careless comment be thrown our way.

That means we have to ensure that what we say is what we mean. Advising someone to think before you speak is not “tone policing” and “reverse racism”. It simply is the mark of a mature adult who wants to connect with anyone.

With that said, I think some may confuse microaggressions with snide or insincere “compliments” that are, in fact, hurtful. People shouldn’t be called “exotic”. That’s a term for fruit and remote desert islands.

No one wants you touching their hair. NO ONE.

Asking an East Asian person, “What type of Chinese are you?” is out of line.

Remember, people are going to be offended at some point. No one is perfectly okay with every single thing that is said. But I think the ability to think critically and apologize for poor word choice are really what’s key. Learning about people who are different than we are is rewarding. I recently learned a lot more about Orthodox Judaism thanks to a car ride with a co-worker. It was fantastic and because we both asked questions in good faith, there was nothing impeding our exchange. add sentence…I’ve embedded Chescaleigh’s how to apologize video as a start.

So what are your thoughts? Do you think that everyone is looking for ways to be offended? Have you ever felt slighted? Let us know in the comments or over on Twitter at @ClassNTrashShow.