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Why we need to rethink the term microaggression

21st September 2015 — Freshers’ week. I had just enrolled for my Masters at Goldsmiths and as someone who hadn’t taken full advantage of the university experience the first time round, I had vowed to fully immerse myself in the experience. Overwhelmed by the choice of societies I could join, I felt a sigh of relief when I ran into a friend who coincidentally was also studying there that year. A friend I had made on Twitter a few years prior who shared similar interests and views. She recommended I join the feminist society for women of colour and invited me along to their first meeting taking place later that week.

I nervously entered the room, a disused kitchen area, and took a seat at the small table in the middle. There were already a few women present though my friend was yet to arrive. A discussion suddenly ensued led by the organiser about microaggressions. It felt angry. It was a heated debate detailing past experiences each woman had faced. Experiences I wasn’t quite sure I understood or could relate to because in all honesty, I wasn’t even sure I knew what microaggressions meant. Weren’t these simply examples of racism I thought to myself.

As a newcomer, I remained quiet and just listened. Though usually sociable and outgoing, I tend to become somewhat introverted around loud, intimidating characters. This is probably related to my aversion to confrontation and my longing for acceptance. The conversation continued for almost half an hour, during which my friend sheepishly turned up and took a seat while giving me a reassuring smile. I gave the occasional nod in agreement to what was being said though I felt completely out of my depth. Renowned for being the bubbly, positive member of my friend group, I wasn’t sure I was the best fit for this society of forthright women. I considered myself a feminist, but you know, the accommodating kind. The kind that felt grateful to even be in the room as a woman, and even more so as a woman of colour. Though this is something I probably would have never admitted to myself because to do so would have been to acknowledge my difference, and the prejudice I would or could encounter because of it. I was the type of feminist that wanted equality but not at the expense of not fitting in.

As we left the session I confided in my friend that I wasn’t sure I understood the term microaggression and that I had been too embarrassed to admit to this during the talk. Growing up I had endured extreme bullying at the private school I attended, most of which was racially fuelled, and I had dealt with those feelings by blocking them out. I had no desire to revisit memories and experiences in which I’d been made to feel ‘other.’ I told my friend I probably wouldn’t be joining the society or attending future sessions.

Fast forward five years. It’s 2 July 2020. I woke up and told my partner that one of my best friends had made a remark about my natural hair during the previous night’s video call. A remark that I couldn’t help thinking felt like a microaggression. I felt conflicted in labelling it in these terms, not only because she herself is also a woman of colour (of South Indian descent), but because she is one of the kindest people I know and would never dream of being racially insensitive. I told my partner that this wasn’t the first time this friend had made a comment about my hair but on the previous occasion I had simply ignored it even though it had made me somewhat uncomfortable. This time however, I recognised that it had brought up feelings I had previously suppressed — insecurities about my natural (type 3B/C) curly hair and why I always feel compelled to straighten it. He agreed that perhaps I should speak to her about it. Telling people about microaggressions is the only way we’ll learn, he said. I responded jokingly, and somewhat passive aggressively, that I had forgotten it was our responsibility as people of colour to educate others on microaggressions.

The problem with bringing up issues surrounding natural hair, I said, is that it doesn’t seem to be taken seriously anymore. So much so that ‘can I touch your hair?’ has become a familiar trope in comedic sketches. By belittling these instances of microaggressions towards a woman of colour’s natural hair, we are reinforcing the idea of ‘otherness.’ An idea that stems from the notion that white people’s hair is the norm and anything else should be treated as unusual, exotic or even ugly. When this is the narrative that is still being perpetuated in society and in the media, is it any wonder that my natural hair makes me feel uncomfortable, particularly when my own friends comment on how ‘different’ it looks.

Throughout school my hair was often called messy or fuzzy by teachers and students alike. My peers would complain of the strong smell of coconut oil and how ‘greasy’ it appeared. I’ll admit, it did have a ‘soul glo’ jerry curl look to it. The teasing and comments such as ‘mophead’ and ‘muff hair’ became so incessant that I begged my mother to braid my hair. I wanted to look like Moesha. Little did I know the controversy that would be caused by a little brown girl turning up to school with braided hair. I was called into the deputy headmaster’s office. Dr Martin, who was also the history teacher and incidentally one of my favourite tutors, informed me that the headmistress had asked him to tell me to take out my braids because the hairstyle represented a culture that was not aligned with that of the school. I was dumbstruck and completely and utterly embarrassed. Glued to the chair, I had no words. Eventually I started apologising profusely as I held back the tears and agreed that I would remove the braids that evening. No less than a month later, the netball team from the year above returned from a school trip in Barbados. I noticed several of the girls (all of whom were white) had braided hair. None of them were asked to remove their braids.

I would have never said anything to my friend about her remarks five years ago. In fact I would have never said anything even a year ago. The recent #BlackLivesMatter movement and protests seem to have ignited all of those repressed feelings of anger and frustration at the experiences of racial injustice I faced throughout school, and continue to face. Experiences of microaggressions. Experiences that highlight the importance of language and how it can be used as a weapon. Experiences of racism. Because ultimately that’s what they are. They are intentional or unintentional, subconscious or conscious instances of racism. And though that may seem like a big, scary word that makes some people uncomfortable, avoiding it reinforces the idea that these experiences are unimportant or insignificant. It reinforces the idea that it isn’t racist behaviour. It’s something of a lesser degree, and as such shouldn’t be treated with as much severity.

I myself am guilty of allowing micro-aggressive language to impact my judgement. A few years ago I lost touch with a close friend. We had grown apart over recent years due to a variety of reasons, the most prominent of which were my feelings of discomfort around her anger. She seemed to navigate through life with an invisible armour, always on the defence and ready for attack. I ignorantly mistook this for her being an ‘angry black woman.’ Here’s that language issue I mentioned earlier and how these types of narratives can seep into your skin, even into brown skin. What actually occurred is now painstakingly obvious. All of those experiences in which I felt she was acting defensively or aggressively were ones where I had either not noticed or dismissed people’s odd glances or expressions, or curt behaviour. She was reacting to, or in some cases preempting, instances of microaggressions, or more accurately, racism. Experiences that I have similarly since encountered and recognised. And while I am still extremely non-confrontational, I now realise that remaining silent only seeks to enable this culture in which microaggressions are acceptable.

Ateh Jewel said it perfectly in a recent podcast, ‘they’re not micro, they’re macro. They are a thousand little cuts.’ Hearing these words struck a powerful chord within me, a chord that prompted me to say something to my friend about her remarks, a chord that demanded to be heard and could no longer be ignored, a chord that made all the feelings and thoughts I’ve had recently fall into place and form this piece. Language is a powerful tool and whether it’s microaggressions or even the more recently used ‘Karen’ rhetoric, we have to be careful these terms don’t diminish the seriousness of the act. It’s time to stop trivialising these experiences by packaging them in an easy-to-swallow term. There’s nothing micro about racism.

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