March 06, 2017

Micro-aggression and the bigger picture

Micro-aggression and the bigger picture
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By The West View

By Gabriella Huggins

“Wow, you’re so articulate,” notes a pleasantly surprised classmate, implying that I am somehow special for speaking the way I do. “Is that your real hair?” a stranger asks as they reach out to feel a kinky-coiled lock, assuming I will not mind being touched and questioned by someone I’ve never met at the grocery store. “You don’t need sunscreen,” insisted a co-worker in a previous workplace, the suggestion being I am immune to cancer because of the melanin in my skin. Well-intended comments and seemingly harmless exchanges like these are examples of the micro-aggressions I experience almost daily.

Micro-aggressions are subtle, casual and sometimes unintended slights leveraged against marginalized people: the differently-abled, queer people, the poor, people of color, to name a few examples. The term, originally coined by the late professor Chester M. Pierce in the 1970s, has become one of those words spoken so regularly and out of context that it inspires eye rolls and irritated accusations of fragility.

I hesitate to write about micro-aggression because I do not want to be misconstrued as starting petty arguments in a time where our social-political conversations are focused on age-old tensions. Many people I interact with day-to-day seem surprised by the resurgence of these tensions and are praying them away. The prayer is to focus on our similarities, not our differences, to put the unfortunate injustices of the past behind us and move forward “as one.” Others are filled with outrage and drawn to righteous protest, when as recently as several months ago the impulse was to minimize and deflect.

In his 1974 essay, “Psychiatric Problems of the Black Minority,” Pierce argues that micro-aggression, like any assault, can have lasting mental and physical impacts on one’s health. Micro-aggressive behaviors like those I mentioned signal that I am not “normal,” that black people are not normal. Micro-aggression keeps me constantly aware of how I stand out in a room, struggling to reconcile who I am as an individual with misconceptions about a group I belong to, weighing my personal boundaries against accommodating the good-intentions of a stranger.

In Salt Lake City, our lack of diversity creates blind spots at a community level and often means we are largely unwilling to protect and support people in meaningful ways because we would rather believe in “good-intentions.” When I question the suggestion I am not normal, when I draw personal boundaries, when I deconstruct strange assumptions about black people as a whole, my concern is often dismissed as dramatic and divisive as opposed to met with an honest reflection on the bigotry at the root of those assumptions.

As a result, I find myself incapable of surprise at the criminally misogynistic behavior of my president, land protectors hosed down in freezing temperatures, images of dead black bodies in the street. We are incapable of becoming a more accountable community when we dismiss the experiences of marginalized people and refuse to draw connections between local interactions and global tensions.

We all have blind spots – areas of another’s experience outside our immediate understanding. I have many blind spots. I am imperfect and I do not understand everything. Sometimes I say things that reinforce hurtful and prejudiced ideas.

For example, a good friend of mine expressed frustration in dealing with unwanted advances from a man in one of her classes. We texted about the issue back and forth for a week or so, and I made a joke of the situation; it was beyond me why she felt uncomfortable simply turning him down. She reluctantly explained that her anxiety was rooted in the fact that turning a man down might reveal she is a lesbian. Outing herself could result in a negative reaction that I as a woman can understand, but as a straight person was missing a layer of.

My actions, even if they are well meaning, can have negative consequences. Accepting these shortcomings has been liberating and challenges me to act in ways that embrace and protect the beauty in our diversity, dismantling what it means to be normal. I hope, moving forward in this tense time, we look inward as individuals and choose to be better in defense of each other.

Gabriella Huggins currently works as the Community Programs Mentor at Spy Hop Productions and is an undergraduate student at the University of Utah. A Salt Lake City native, Gabriella hopes to apply her education to working on issues of food justice and environmental racism. Gabriella enjoys long naps, cold beers, and working with young people in her community.