They’re Called ‘Microaggressions’ but There’s Nothing Small About Them
For eleven months, I regretted that I had not glared at my white therapist and said, “You are dead to me. You are not the person I thought you were. You never knew me. You only saw the stereotype.” For 18 years, he had been my favorite doctor, yet I stayed away. Previously, I would have sworn he would be the last person on the planet who I would suspect of bias; now, when I thought of him, I felt as if my head would explode.
In Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestation, Dynamics, and Impact, Dr. Derald Wing Sue wrote, “The most detrimental forms of microaggressions are delivered by well-intentioned individuals who are unaware that they have engaged in harmful conduct to a socially undervalued group.”
The perpetrators are seemingly liberal, well-educated and espouse egalitarian values. However, they are aversive racists. They harbor unconscious biased attitudes that result in discriminatory behavior. Whether intentional or unintentional, everyday slights, insults and snubs communicate hostile, derogatory, demeaning or negative messages to the targeted marginalized group. After continuous and cumulative racial microaggressive stress, individuals develop physical and psychological ailments, from hypertension, heart disease and diabetes to hypervigilance, alienation and perception of whites as enemies unless they prove otherwise; race-related fatigue from the effort of defending against attacks and claiming one’s humanity.
In spite of my disappointment and anger, I did not fire my doctor because he was extremely protective of his patients. I’ll never forget the time I overheard him berating an African-American female psychologist who I still think “beat my self-esteem bloody.” Before slamming down the receiver, he had roared, “You stay away from Veronica and leave her alone. You’ve already done a lot of damage to her self-esteem. You make my job harder.”
Through the years, my therapist had encouraged me to write, and at times, I would allow him to read some of my work. At our last session, he read an essay about my childhood. Afterward, he seemed overwhelmed with shock, as if he had discovered I have three legs. I wondered what he had read that had blown his mind. After several moments, he spoke as if he were stupefied. His voice was lower than usual, and he paused after each word. He said, with wonder, “You went to Catholic school. We were too poor.” I was amazed at his reaction. And, I seethed as I thought, “You assumed that I must have been poor in Detroit, and maybe more poor than you and your three siblings in Lansing.” I clenched my teeth. I tensed. He knew I was an only child. I thought, “It didn’t occur to you that an only child of any color might have some advantages that a person who had several siblings lacked?”
I glared at him. I was furious. I wondered what else he had assumed. He must have sensed that something was amiss. He blurted out, “I always thought your mother did not receive the credit she deserved.” I wondered where that statement had come from. It had been years since I had mentioned my deceased mother to him. As I walked out, I ignored his question about scheduling a future appointment.
I find that microaggressive behavior obliterates the customary pattern of interaction. After one instance, for several weeks I avoided the library of the newspaper where I worked as a reporter. The head librarian had always been enthusiastic about my writing, therefore, I was in her work area more than was necessary. However, at lunch one day, she introduced me this way: “This is Veronica. We think of her as a sort of pet.” I felt as if I had been slapped. But, I remained silent. Previously, when I had objected to microaggressive remarks from other colleagues, a learning moment did not occur for them. I was lambasted for being “defensive about being black.” Acquaintances have been labeled “angry,” “racist” and “paranoid.”
However, I reacted angrily on a temp job when my extremely plain, white female employer shared a “joke,” about “ugly, black features.” At the time, she was pregnant with her third child by her African-American partner. She said, “We said, ‘We got lucky with the first two; they look Hispanic. The next one will be ugly. He/she will have nappy hair.’” I snapped, “I have nappy hair and I don’t consider myself ugly. Nappy hair can be beautiful, too.” The woman stammered, “I uh, uh guess so.”
In case I was still unaware that to some people “black is never beautiful,” fate allowed me to overhear two white men talking about my appearance. The first person said, “That black girl is pretty.” The other man said, “That’s a little Native American. I’ve seen her selling at the powwow, so she must be at least half Indian.” The other speaker said, “Oh, so that’s why she’s so pretty.”
The most absurd experience occurred at a party for writers. At the conclusion of our conversation, an elderly white man said, “You speak very well.” If I had been quoting Shakespeare all evening, the remark might have made sense. However, I was speaking the same standard English he used.
Lastly, in another instance I was revolted by the attitude of a potential employer at a job interview. The company was seeking people who had knowledge of other cultures and languages. The interviewer wondered how I had become interested in Brazil. I explained that I was a child during the civil rights movement and I had been traumatized by photos of bombed churches, lynchings and policemen attacking peaceful demonstrators. At that time, Ebony magazine had published an article about racial democracy in Brazil. I decided to see it for myself.
The woman did not respond. Her expression was deadpan. There was no pity for a small black child who had been traumatized by scenes of racial hatred. In addition, there were no words of regret for the nation’s racial turmoil. Yet, when the conversation turned to Native Americans, she leaned forward, and with passion said, “I think it was horrible what we did to those people.”
Veronica Maria Brown-Comegys is a former Michigan newspaper reporter, and freelance writer for UPI in Rio de Janeiro. Brown-Comegys is a former graduate student in the Michigan State University Department of Anthropology. Follow her on Twitter.