Examining Ourselves in the Face of Racism Today
by Alexis Christensen
I’m starting this post knowing you might disagree with me, which makes it hard for me to express my thoughts on racism. I actually wrote an entirely different blog post to avoid writing this one. But, this cannot be avoided. Not if we are to move forward in our world, our city, and in our relationships. So, let’s take a breath, remember that we are all people with varied and real experiences, and move forward.
I recently learned a word that has helped me (and others around me) process my feelings about racism in America today. It’s called microaggression. Coined in the 1970’s by Chester Pierce, and broadened by Derald Sue Wing, microaggression refers the “quiet, often unintended slights— racist or sexist — that make a person feel underestimated on the basis of their color or gender.” These slights are everyday words, phrases, or adjectives used to describe people of color that perpetuate stereotypes and racial structures in our society. This isn’t hyper-sensitivity, anger, or bitterness. It’s about speaking up when people hurt and devalue others. As a black woman, I can think of countless examples of microagression. People I love and cherish have unknowingly caused pain. Comments as simple as “You probably like fried chicken too” to bigger ones like “You don’t talk/act like a black person.” Other friends have shared similar experiences, enduring comments such as “I’m glad you’re not an angry black woman” and “Your skin isn’t too dark.” These comments do not define black culture. They actually nullify a person’s self, creating ruptures in our view of the world. From experience, the best way to move forward is to break the silence.
That’s just what a group of black Harvard students did. Through a photo campaign called “I, Too Am Harvard” students joined together to share their experiences with microaggression. Their boldness to confront these everyday occurrences sent waves through the campus and the world. It gave confidence not only to the students, but to many in the black community who are told that white is right.
It also started dialogue. Dialogue is important because racism isn’t dead. It may be less blatant but it is alive and well, and if racism discussions become taboo, then we are losing. Personally, I try to avoid most things that produce tension and disharmony. But this conversation, this topic, has been growing inside of me, not only because I am black, but because of the work I do in the community. Conversations often amount to stuffing down emotions, numbing ourselves as a people, or giving up hope because we can’t afford to be misunderstood again. But I have a group of radically deep, intellectual, caring friends and family members who have nurtured and listened, and challenged me to lend my voice to the dialogue.
My hope, (I always hope), is that whoever you are, wherever you are, you will take Socrates’ advice to heart and know that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
I’m asking you to live a life where ignorance of microaggression doesn’t equal bliss, and that you’ll lend your voice to the dialogue in your own way. I don’t have all the answers; heck, I’m a super complex person and cannot begin to tell you what to do. But I can offer a place to start. Let’s make this an ongoing discussion. Only through intentional conversation and examining our lives can we combat today’s brand racism. As we work and live in community, and as we believe for a better world, the more thought, effort, time and conversations we have, the greater openness we will see in our communities for all people. We will see greater unity and reconciliation in our lifetime, if we try.
Learn more about microaggression (Links I utilized in the writing of this post):
I, Too Am Harvard:
This week’s Act Locally Waco blog post was written by Alexis Christensen, a Community Organizer at Waco Community Development Corporation (Waco CDC). Would you be interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco blog? If so, contact Ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org.