The world’s media is aflame with scenes of protests across the world, as millions of people take to the streets to vent their anger following the murder of George Floyd. #BlackLivesMatter isn’t a new movement, but it’s certainly having a moment right now, and a pivotal one at that. White people the world over are waking up to the racism, whether that be direct or institutional, which is prevalent in the lives of all non-white people, regardless of the town, city, country or continent in which they live.
Racism often comes in the form of microaggressions. Microaggressions are subtle, indirect and often unintended acts of discrimination. If cited as stand-alone incidents, they might tend to sound trivial, but as they accumulate over time, they gnaw and gnaw away at the recipient in just the same way that more overt acts of oppression do.
Microaggressions are sometimes mistakes, and we all make mistakes, right? We all say the wrong thing when our hearts are in the right place but our lack of knowledge leads to us committing a bit of a faux-pas that those to whom we are trying to be allies will find unhelpful. I admit that I can be guilty of that. However, when somebody calls me out on such mistakes, I listen and learn. That is what needs to happen now as #BlackLivesMatter pushes for unprecedented change – those who want to support this civil rights movement will firstly need to listen and learn.
I therefore have put together a list of microaggressions which I alone experience frequently, so that you can educate yourself on why you need to be sure never to commit them again. I can only speak from my experiences as a Caribbean-British mixed-race woman – other people will share similar experiences whilst also having some contrasting ones of their own. However, it is not for me to speak for other people – I can only speak from my perspective in the hope of educating you on why never to do these things again:
“I’m not racist, but…”
My dad says ‘everything before but is bullsh*t’ and I fear that is very much the case here. You might genuinely believe you’re not racist, but if you’ve got to preface whatever it is you’re about to declare with a disclaimer that you’re not racist…chances are you’re a little bit racist. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t need to say it. For instance, if talking about Harvey Weinstein, I wouldn’t have to say “I’m not antisemitic, but I wouldn’t want to be left in a room with him”, because my disgust at the thought of being alone with him has nothing to do with the fact that his family is Jewish. Nothing at all. Therefore, I wouldn’t even need to reference it. If, however, someone felt the need to say ‘I’m not a racist, but I hate Meghan Markle’, the disclaimer really does suggest that that is exactly the reason you don’t like Meghan Markle. (NB a florist felt the need to say that exact phrase to me on the morning of Harry and Meghan’s wedding after I said how symbolic the day was…needless to say I’ve been buying my flowers elsewhere since).
“When I see you, I don’t see your colour…”
This is normally said with good intentions, however it isn’t right. Refusing to see my colour or my ethnicity suggests that it is not important, when in reality it is a fundamental part of who I am. It’s not that you shouldn’t see colour, it’s that you should see it and consider it equal to your own. Denying it exists suggests you are denying racial equality.
“I have loads of black friends / my partner is black”
You cannot cloak yourself in your friends’ / partner’s ethnicity. Having a friend or a partner of colour does not give your carte blanche to act as you wish, and neither does it lessen the seriousness of any racially insensitive blunders you might be guilty of. A lot of racists befriend, date and even marry people of colour. Look at Donald Trump – he dated Kara Young, yet I think we can all say with certainty which side of the fence he sits on when it comes to matters of race.
Ironically, there have been a small handful of boys who’ve been basically having conversations with themselves in my DMs, who this weekend have been publicly sharing openly racist material on social media. This an example that you can like a person of colour – whether that be romantically or very much in the friend zone – and still be racist. Often when this is the case, it is because the racist person has chosen to refuse to see their friend / partner’s ethnicity, as per my second point.
“You’re so exotic”
Speaking of boys in DMs, if I had a pound for every time a boy messaged me to tell me he liked the thought of an “exotic” girl, I’d basically be running a lucrative side-hustle. Is it too much to ask to be spoken to like a normal human being? If you want something exotic, go eat a papaya and stop wasting my time. Boy, bye.
“Are you so-and-so’s sister?”
There was another mixed-race person who attended my secondary school. He had a different surname to me, a different accent, we had not exchanged a single word and yet far too many people assumed we were siblings. The conversation got especially uncomfortable when he went to prison, and people would come to console me. It’s like when you see a woman who looks like she could be pregnant but you’re not sure enough to ask when the baby’s due in case she’s not with child, it’s just that she had pasta for lunch – do not assume!
“Where are you actually from?”
“Where are you from?”
“No, where are you from-from?”
“Oh, well I was actually born in Oxfordshire.”
“Nooooo, where are you from-from-from?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you mean, why am I not white?”
“Jesus, no I’m not racist.”
Well, actually mate…you kind of are. It’s one thing to want to know a person’s ethnicity, and if asked in the correct way, I would say that is fine, so long as you do not push someone who evidently doesn’t want to divulge any further info than they already have. But demanding to know where somebody is “from” suggests that you don’t think they belong here.
Mansplaining someone’s heritage to them
Sometimes it’s OK to just not say anything. If you think someone has made an incorrect statement about their own culture or heritage…just leave it. Your voice does not always need to be heard, especially not when it comes in the form of you mansplaining somebody else’s heritage to them.
I once had to break up a fight in the back of a taxi because my Indian friend lost her rag (justifiably) with a Caucasian boy from Carmarthen, Wales, who had demanded she listen whilst he told her all the things he could teach her about India. I was tempted to just let her lay into him, but the taxi driver gave me a look which suggested that we’d be walking the rest of the way if things didn’t calm down.
Adultification is where society treats children of marginalised groups as more mature than they actually are. This is particularly common with black girls who’re treated as less innocent, less carefree and less dependent than their white peers. This has been proven to lead to black girls finding themselves in greater trouble at school than white students with similar behaviour. Records also show that the police in America are less likely to take into account a black youth’s age when reprimanding them, than they would if reprimanding a young white person.
A survey carried out by the Georgetown Law Centre on Poverty and Inequality found that the majority of their participants perceive that:
- Black girls need less nurturing
- Black girls need less protection
- Black girls know more about sex and other adult topics
- Black girls are more independent
- Black girls need comforting less
- Black girls need to be supported less
Research continues into why this is the case – whether it is purely down to racial prejudice or whether there are other contributing factors also present. However, we all need to be a bit more mindful that female black children are still children, despite which perceptions you might automatically jump to. This erasure of black girls’ childhoods has far-reaching implications, such as a higher rate of exposure to abuse and disproportionate rates of punitive treatment in the education and legal system.
“Angry black woman”
Similarly, black women are stereotypically viewed as angry. Don’t get me wrong, black women have a lot to be angry about, but this vilification of them is increasingly harmful. By brandishing them as angry, you are telling them that they are taking up too much space and should therefore be seen and heard less. Next time you think a black woman is being angry or aggressive, ask yourself whether this is actually the case or whether it’s internalised racism rearing its ugly head. Black women are allowed to disagree with you, to express their opinion, to propose a better option, to say no, etc etc without being angry. Would a white woman be deemed as ‘angry’ for doing those thing? No, but a black woman is.
In Obama’s ’08 campaign, Michelle was vilified in mainstream and even centrist publications as being ‘angry’, because she dared to suggest that America could be doing better. This suggestion – that a country, if wise at the ballot box, could improve the lives of its citizens – is not left-field or unfamiliar…in fact it’s the basis of most political campaigns in the Western world. However, when Michelle said it, she was ‘angry’. This is one of millions of examples, which see black women having the shut up and listen, not speak.
A nasty by-product of the ‘angry black woman’ stereotype, is the weaponizing of white women’s tears. There is a trope of white women crying when engaging in an otherwise constructive conversation with black women, on the basis that they feel ‘attacked’, ‘threatened’, ‘confronted’. This is particularly problematic in the workplace, where black women who seek to challenge or question are met with accusations of bullying and aggression, as a result of their white colleagues crying and playing up to the ‘angry black woman – helpless white woman’ stereotype. These strategic tears silence black women even further.
Click here to see a mild example of such weaponization of the white damsel in distress vs angry black woman stereotype. Here you see Jully Black, in a debate with Jeanne Beker. Black is making coherent arguments which are garnering support from the audience. At the moment where it seems the mood in the room may be shifting in Black’s favour, Beker exclaims “why are you attacking me Jully?” … no ‘attacking’ is taking place at all, however it was a knee-jerk reaction for a white woman who wanted to shut down the black woman opposite her.
This weaponizing of tears prohibits black women from speaking ‘out of turn’ or getting ‘above their station’, which is racism in one of its most destructive forms.
We all have faults. All of us. Every race. Every ethnicity.
So to suggest that one race’s faults justifies racism is…well, racist.
This has been all too common on my Facebook timeline this week (it’s funny how the same people who were experts on EU membership pros and cons and Coronavirus are also experts on race relations isn’t it…). I’ve seen countless people jump on the fact that a minority of troublemakers infiltrated the #BlackLivesMatter march in London to wreak havoc, using the unaffiliated violence to denounce the movement as a whole. Seems a bit convenient to me that those angered by the violence at the protests were mostly silent when a black man was murdered in broad daylight by a police officer.
Do not weaponize faults of others to excuse your own bad behaviour.
There’s a trope of people thinking that being called a racist is worse than suffering racism. If someone calls you out on something you’ve said, your approach or your actions, then listen to them. The worst thing you could do in that moment is jump to your own defence.
Someone seeking to help end racism will understand that they’ll sometimes unintentionally do the wrong thing and want to learn why it was incorrect and how not to do it next time. Someone not seeking to help end racism will say something along the lines of “but I’m not racist”.
Listen. Listen. Listen.
It is not about being perfect all of the time. It is about learning how to do better.
Understand that there are just some things you will never understand because you cannot live those experiences. But also understand that by listening and learning, you will become a better person for it. This is something that I made a concerted effort to do when discussion was rife surrounding antisemitism within the Labour Party. I have never witnessed a case of antisemitism; I’ve never seen signs of it taking place in close proximity to me and I have never heard anyone say anything antisemitic…but that does not mean that it doesn’t exist. I therefore took it upon myself to source information on antisemitism and the experiences of Jewish people, especially those living in the UK, so that I could better understand it. Appreciating that just because I don’t feel something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, was an easy leap for me to make because it’s something which I have been trying to convince racism deniers for as long as I’ve been mature enough to recognise prejudice.
“Is that your real hair?”
“Can I touch your hair?”
“How do you get your hair like that?”
To explain to you fully why black women’s hair holds so much symbolism would take me somewhere in the region of another 10,000 words, so all I’m going to ask is that you go away and educate yourselves on this. Read ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ by Emma Dabiri. And in the meantime, whilst your waiting for your copy of the book to arrive, don’t ask any of the above questions. Please.
“I’m bored of hearing about racism?”
Well guess what, we’re pretty damn bored of receiving it. That’s right Laurence Fox, I’m talking to you.
If racism weren’t happening, we wouldn’t have to keep banging on about it. So if you are bored of hearing about it, there’s a pretty easy solution – end it.