It’s the first of the year, and everything old is new again. Remember Seinfeld, the show about nothing? The updated version of the Seinfeld conceit, Microaggression, is being serialized on college campuses everywhere.
If you are unsure of the premise–something about nothing–let one of the rising stars of Microaggression explain.
Felicia Harris blogs for The Chronicle of Higher Education; Miss Harris is a doctoral student at the University of Georgia. The Chronicle gig is a huge plume in her chapeau, and puts her at great advantage in her eventual job search. Good for her. I mean it. Her dissertation topic is a winner, too: how social media tools can be used to aid public health interventions and health promotion targeted toward black women. With all of this going for her, Miss Harris still finds things to complain about–she’s only human, after all–listen here to her struggle against the demons of microaggression:
I had pushed back against a colleague’s offensive remarks related to race, gender, and class, and somehow my complaints had been passed along to our department’s HR person. I was called downstairs, asked to close the door, and have a seat. I was told that I was letting my emotions get in the way of work and that I needed to find a way to not let that happen. I was also told that remarks I had perceived as offensive were probably not intended to be, so I shouldn’t take them personally. I was speechless.
About a week later, that same HR rep sat in on a conversation between the offending colleague and me as we tried to work out our “personality” kinks. The rep sat quietly as my colleague made a series of what I perceived to be offensive and insensitive remarks, culminating in a snarky comment related to affirmative action. At that point, and with the HR rep silently nodding along, I knew I had to speak up. I imagined myself holding up both arms and yelling “Hands up! Don’t Shoot!” I wanted to move the chairs back and stage a 4.5-minute die-in right there on the office floor.
Unfortunately, I knew that neither one of those acts would help my colleagues understand the injustice that was happening in that moment. Chances are they wouldn’t even get that I was protesting systemic racism and injustice. (I know that because I had a colleague ask me to explain what “I can’t breathe” was in reference to, after seeing NBA players wear T-shirts bearing that phrase.)
What I did, instead, was lay my job on the line by refusing to be complicit anymore. I explained to my colleague what a “microaggression” was and I gave concrete examples of how it would feel if the tables were turned. I explained to her why there was a need to be more conscious in our comments about the bigger picture — because it is impact, not intent, that shapes people’s experiences. She thanked me and asked me to help her to continue to learn, as she always felt like she was walking on eggshells around me because, she said, she knew I was “sensitive.”
Note that Miss Harris, a student of communication, refrains from sharing the “offensive remarks” that set her into a tizzy. Her presumption that her readers assume she is an authoritative narrator seems to me a little, well, presumptuous, but no matter. Microaggression is, after all, much ado about nothing. And nothing is exactly what we have in the way of evidence that Miss Harris has been insulted or discriminated against because of her race (Negro). In the Technicolor world of Microaggression, if you–a member of a recognized victim cohort–say you’ve been slighted, you’ve been slighted. No Kramer spewing racial epithets necessary.
This episode of Microagression continues:
In recounting the story to my counselor, it was at that point that my tears broke free and I reached for the tissue box. Often, these experiences feel like a wave of heat flashing over your entire body as you struggle to remain professional, always professional.
Too often, I laugh off the comments, and turn the proverbial “other cheek” when I find myself in these encounters because I know that my honest response would make the offending parties uncomfortable, and because – I tell myself – they didn’t mean it “that way.”
But not this month.
This month, I’m painfully aware that whether or not it’s meant “that way,” an act of injustice is still an act of injustice. And because those acts can cause serious, irreparable, life-changing, and sometimes, life-ending harm, we can’t afford to hold our breath during those moments any longer.
It becomes evident that we can’t hold our breath on these issues when we consider those last haunting words of Eric Garner. Before he was gasping for air, repeating, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” he told the officers: “Every time you see me, you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops today.” Unfortunately, people don’t listen to the pleas for our lives on sidewalks, when we’re yelling in defense of ourselves, claiming our innocence and hoping that they will see us as humans as opposed to demons, thugs, criminals, or threats to their security. They don’t see our tears as we mourn those losses in the privacy of our homes, in the bathroom stall at work, in a parked car too paralyzed by grief to drive, or in the corner of our counselor’s office clutching a handful of tissues.
I am certain that you are as affected as I by the poignancy of Miss Harris’ conflation of her distress at the microaggressions that come her way with grief of mothers whose sons have died at the hands of cops, or, more likely, other black criminals. In the wacky world of Microaggression, the perception of an unintended insult is just as emotionally fraught as the aftermath of a murder. See, even when the “something” is homicide, on the reductio ad absurdum even playing field that is Microaggression, it’s lumped in with a bundle of nothing. And yet we wonder why some question whether black lives matter.
We see another interesting dimension of Microaggression in Miss Harris’ citation of Mr. Garner’s penultimate words, “every time you see me, you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops today.” After 34 arrests for crimes ranging from aggravated unlicensed vehicle operation to false personation to possession or sale of untaxed cigarettes to marijuana possession, it’s no wonder Mr. Garner was tired. There’s a much simpler cure for the ennui that ensues after multiple busts than resisting arrest: stop engaging in criminal, or misdemeanor, activity.
Miss Harris, though, is too overcome to think clearly:
In the past few weeks, I told my counselor, I’d felt my walls crumbling down. I told her that, quite frankly, wearing the mask becomes more and more difficult when you realize that you may be complicit in larger systemic processes that contribute to the deaths of unarmed black men and to national unrest among people who, although you’ve never met them, share the black and brown hues that are used as markers to treat all of you in similar ways. “It’s so hard,” I whispered, as the tears broke free from my eyes. “It’s so damn hard.”
Would it be too microaggressive of me to wonder if Miss Harris is speaking of an oxygen mask? Perhaps, but. It’s so hard, it’s so damn hard to resist.