Racism…Moving Beyond Micro-aggression

Rosetta Peters: Editor Creative Writing

Photo by Graham Wessberg
Photo by Graham Wessberg

Throughout my life I have encountered many different forms of racism. It began with the redheaded boy on the playground with freckles on his nose, back in fourth grade, that made a forever home in my psyche with his daily taunts. He and the other kids would all gather around me, pointing their fingers, as they yelled, “Hey cat-eater, tomato-picker…why don’t you just go home! We don’t want you here!”

Children can be cruel.

When I got home I told my great-grandmother about what had happened on the playground and asked her why (because I didn’t know that I was different) she said, “They’re sayin’ that ‘cause they think you’re Mexican, but you’re not Mexican.”

“What am I?” I asked.

“You’re a dirty little Injun. You get it from your dad,” she replied. Get it? Get what? I was so confused and it wasn’t until much later in the public school system did we start to discuss Indians. I realized within the five minutes we spent on studying Native Americans that I was Indian, not Injun! Geez!

Family can be cruel.

I currently bartend in Stillwater where I had a gentleman approach the bar and say, “Hey Pocahontas, can I get a shot?” I have had folks comment on my hair and ask to touch it. As they were stroking my hair I felt the words hammering the back of my teeth, No! Get your hands off of me! I am not a dog! You can’t pet me! I choked them down where they began rioting in my stomach, but still I smiled.

I have had a group of mean girls show me a picture on one of their phones, “Is this you? She looks like you.” And when I leaned across the bar to look, they all laughed as I read the screen: “Lonely Alaskans, looking for love!” And what did I do? How did I respond? I laughed it off and avoided them the rest of their visit. And the list goes on and on…

People can be cruel.

I have grown accustomed (or numb) to that blatant form of racism. It is what it is and I smile and go on, with my head bowed, just doing what I need to do to survive and take care of my family. Never making a fuss or rocking the boat.

Recently, however, I experienced a different form of racism that has changed my whole perspective.

I bartended a private gathering for an acquaintance of mine. If you were to ask me, I would consider this individual to be a friend, but at this gathering I had a moment of clarity. Realization. Looking around the room I noticed that all of the guests were affluent and Caucasian.

The rest of us (myself and four other workers) were separated by both race and class. Poverty leaves a mark on you. Those of us who have lived in poverty can read it in the lines on another’s face.

I realized that what I was witnessing in the room was a deep-seeded, inherent form of racism and separation, and it was ugly. The room was imploding and was suffocating. I wanted to run away. I felt enraged, wounded, and confused. I felt; so othered—so less than. This hurt far worse than the above examples of blatant, and the only coherent thought that ran through my mind was Zora Hurston’s, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”

The system can be cruel. 

I cried the whole way home as well as the next morning when I attempted to articulate to my partner the complexity of what I had felt in that moment. He said, “I think that it’s all in your head…you’re imagining things.” This infuriated me. He, being middle-class Caucasian, could not understand or relate. How could he, really? And how could I be angry towards him? How could I be angry at all?

I had another moment of clarity. There was no one was to blame for how I felt. No one at the gathering was intentionally rude or malicious towards me. I felt as though I was wasting my energy being angry. This confused me. I once heard Claudia Rankine use the term microaggression when I attended her book signing of Citizen. I wondered if this applied to my situation. Turns out, it does.

Psychologist Derald Wing Sue defines microaggressions as, “Brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.” Sue describes microaggressions as generally happening below the level of awareness of well-intentioned members of the dominant culture. Microaggressions, according to Sue, are different from overt, deliberate acts of bigotry, such as the use of racist epithets; because the people perpetrating microaggressions often intend no offense and are unaware they are causing harm.

The guests at the private party were not purposely trying to make me feel this way, but that doesn’t change the fact that it hurt.

It hurts to feel separate, othered, and less than. So why do we do it to one another? We are all guilty. There’s a whole lot of othering going on outside of race. There’s religion, gender, sexual orientation, class…We have to stop hurting one other.

We can be cruel.   

In 2014, UCLA Diversity and Faculty Development created a list of microaggressions and the messages that they send as a tool to help college faculty and administration be more sensitive. I understand how some of the phrases could be misinterpreted, but it seems to me that the list itself serves as a tool to intensify the negative effects of racism and separation. Keep in mind that a microaggression is unintentional. How can we intentionally segregate the use of words and phrases?

Professors are walking on eggshells in classrooms afraid of what they can and cannot say as to not be offensive. How can I, as a college student, expect to receive a well-rounded education if we are living in an age of avoidance? How will we be able to teach and learn from literary greats such as Maya Angelou, Mark Twain, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison (to name a few) if we are too worried and afraid of offending others and being offended?

Most importantly, how are we going to connect with others and start a conversation if we can’t ask, “Where are you from?” Where does the ridiculousness end?

I had another moment.

I was driving my children to school when I took a good look at the world around me—the soil, grass, flowers, trees, houses, and all the folks that I passed on my journey.

That’s when it occurred to me that it’s color, it’s our differences that add depth, beauty, and shape the landscape of our world. It’s those differences that also connect us to one another, that give us something to talk about and learn from each other. I realized that racism ends and healing begins right now with each and every one of us. With understanding, forgiveness, and love.

Hi, my name is Rosie, I am not a, “Dirty little Injun.” I am Dakota and Lakota. My ancestors were proud Sioux and so am I. I am a mother, a bartender, a student, and a tutor. I am a horticulture major now and my plans are to go to the U of M where I will pursue a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and minor in Native American Studies. I want to learn the language of my ancestors. Who are you? Who are you not? Where are you from? Where are you going?

Let’s talk…

Micro-aggression comic

 

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