According to Dictionary.com, a microaggression is “a subtle, but offensive comment or action directed at a minority or other non-dominant group that is often unintentional, or unconsciously reinforces a stereotype.” This isn’t actually a new idea. The term was created by the psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce in 1970. I have heard many people dismiss the idea or say that it is just another silly part of politically correct culture. My first response to that is, why is it such a terrible thing to be considerate of how your words might affect other people and refrain from using harmful language?
My second thought is to share some of the many examples of how these microaggressions show up in my life, so here is a list. I hope a pray that you have never experienced any of these, but if you are a women of color like me, you probably have.
- Pretty for a Black Girl.
This implies that black women are not normally considered pretty, and that you are the exception. I once had a dear friend say, “You look like an African Princess.” It was meant as a compliment, but I had to wonder if she would tell a white woman that she thought was beautiful a “European Princess.” Something tells me she wouldn’t. It seems like a small thing, but what was implied was that I wasn’t pretty in the way that meets the standard. Again, I was an expectation. Beautiful in spite of, not because of my blackness. I know a lot of plus size women who have similar things said to them. “You are pretty for a big girl” is not a compliment either, just for the record.
- Unwanted, and unsolicited hair touching.
I can’t tell you how many times people have invaded my personal space to touch my hair. Seriously stop and imagine someone doing that to you. How uncomfortable would you be if someone that you didn’t know very well just decided to reach out and grab your hair. Wouldn’t that upset you? What is implied here is that I am some sort of oddity, or curiosity. I have literally been compared to dogs and sheep by people who have shoved their fingers into my hair. I am not a dog, I am not an exhibit, this is not a petting zoo.
- “You are so articulate!”
Most times this is meant as a compliment. Here is the problem, when you say that too me in an incredulous tone what you are telling me is that you were not expecting me to speak well. You thought that because I am black that I do not speak English in the same way that you were taught to. Your compliment is a backhanded one that insults both me, and people who speak AAVE (African American Vernacular English). It is even more upsetting when people just straight up ask me why I sound white. Not cool people. Not cool. This is a problem well known to many people with distinctive accents as well. I have friends from Southwest Virginia and other places in Appalachia who are often assumed to be stupid because of the way they speak. We have got to stop this my friends.
- Assuming that I will know every black pop culture reference.
I have never seen Scandal. I have watched about 10 episodes of Oprah in my life. I can’t do (insert new dance craze here). No I do not know (insert hip hop song here). OK, yes I have seen How to Get Away with Murder, but the main character has my name, so you can’t fault me for that one. But seriously, just because I am black does not mean that I have an encyclopedic knowledge of all things happening in black pop culture. Don’t assume I know it just because I am black. Ask me, just like you would ask your white friends. The problem with this one is that you are lumping all black people into one category and assuming that we all like the same things. I love to support black artists and businesses, but I am also allowed to have personal preferences.
- Asking my opinion as a representative for the whole black race.
Once again, we are all different. Also, If you are asking this as a way to appease your white guilt, please take that somewhere else. Yes, slavery was that bad. No, you are not to blame for the actions of your ancestors. Yes, you are to blame if you do nothing about racism now. Ect. Ect. Ect….
- Assuming that I have children
Really? Because since I’m a black woman I must have like 5 kids by now right? And their various fathers are probably not around. Few things here. First, stop with the stereotyping. Second, stop judging women who are actually in this situation. Third, maybe start thinking about the reasons that women have families that look like this. Poverty, mass incarceration, lack of sex ed, the list goes on. Start there and leave your judgment behind. When you perpetuate the stereotype that black women are just promiscuous you deny the structural racism that creates the difference between black communities and family structures and white ones.
All of these things do damage. They do not allow me and others like me to be who we are. They tear down our self esteem. They ruin our self image and self worth. They cause shame and self loathing.
Why is this important for the Church to recognize and deal with? Part of being the church is hospitality. If we want our churches to reflect the expansive and inclusive love of God, then we have to take these issues seriously. I pray that every church would take the time to learn about microaggressions and change their language and behavior accordingly.