One day at the market after my shopping cart was full, my daughter and I made our way to the checkout counter. Our cashier wore a nametag with a name I felt was “not from around here.”
In an attempt to be friendly I asked, “What is the origin of your name?” I caught a hint of awkwardness before he politely answered. Smiling, I said, “I like the sound of your name.” I felt proud of myself for being so cordial and welcoming. As we were leaving my daughter rolled her eyes and asked, “Mom, why did you do that?” “I just wanted to be friendly,” I replied. “It wasn’t friendly,” she scolded, “It was weird.”
Since then I have learned the word, “microaggression.” I turned to Google to learn more. I also read articles and looked at photographs taken by Kiyun Kim in the article, “Racial Microaggressions.” I realized there have been other times when unaware, I may have caused pain. Although this word has been around since the seventies, I didn’t learn about it in public school or college classes. Living within my bubble, I didn’t hear news stories or read articles about the wounding effect microaggressions can have on those on the receiving end of them.
Microaggression is defined as, “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to individuals because of their group membership. They generally happen below the level of awareness of well-intentioned members of the dominant culture. They are different from deliberate acts of bigotry because the people perpetuating them often intend no offense and are unaware they are causing harm.” Microaggressions can be directed at any marginalized groups.
Looking back I cringe at my exchange. It was a microaggression and it was not my first time. I looked at his name and his appearance and determined he wasn’t “American.” In asking the origin, I pointed out I noticed he was different from me, a real American with a real American name.
Unconsciously I was attempting to send messages like, “although you are different, I am open-minded and welcome your kind,” or “although you are not from here, I’m okay with you having this job.” I wanted him to know he didn’t have to fear me. I pompously offered my assurance, my approval and my protection. How arrogant to think I had a right to hand out that kind of validation.
Now I always try to be friendly, but until then I behaved differently with cashiers that looked like me with names such as Suzie or Brian. To them I asked, “How is your day?” or “Do you like to garden?” I asked these questions for they, like me, belong here. It would be arrogant to offer them my protection and they certainly don’t need my stamp of approval.
Some may say, “Don’t worry about it. You were merely being friendly.” But the truth is I felt the need to protect him with my whiteness. It is uncomfortable to accept the harm my whiteness has done. I want to shirk my guilt by saying I shouldn’t be blamed for something I didn’t ask for. I mean really the tentacles of systemic racism were here long before I was born. I didn’t ask for the entitlements I’ve benefited from and I certainly haven’t been racist. Have I?
Although it is embarrassing to admit my shortcomings, the responsibility to change biases lies on my shoulders. I can choose to believe what I am told about how demeaning it feels to be the target of these words and actions, even if unintended.
I wish I could go back to that day at the market and ask a different question. A question based on the truth that we are all equally human and deserving of opportunities, respect and belonging.
Here is the Huffington Post article, “Racial Microagressions”
This article explains how microaggressions can be directed at any marginalized groups.