America has a long and complicated relationship with racism. In some ways, we’ve made some strides in being anti-racist, but on the other hand, progress is still slow and at times even stagnant. Our country has had to face a reckoning when it comes to conversations about race and the realities of the pervasiveness of racism not only in our history but also in our present. Having these “serious talks” with our children is never easy, but discussing them as a family can positively impact anti-racist progress.
Racism can take on many forms beyond the overt kind, which spews insults and was the basis of segregation. There is another more subtle but equally damaging form of racism based on our conscious and subconscious judgments known as microaggressions. According to the article “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life” published in American Psychologist, “microaggressions are brief and ordinary daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities that communicate hostile or negative racial slights to the target person or group.” There are three types of microaggressions:
- Microassault: “Explicit racial derogations characterized as violent verbal or nonverbal attacks that intend to hurt the victim through name-calling, avoidant behavior or purposeful discriminatory actions.” Example: Overt racism, segregation.
- Microinsult: “Behavioral or verbal comments that convey rudeness, insensitivity and demean a person’s racial heritage or identity.” Example: Asking a Person of Color how they got into Harvard as if you’re surprised they got admitted based on their qualifications.
- Microinvalidation: Behaviors or verbal comments that negate, nullify, or exclude the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person of color. Example: When someone says, “I don’t see color because we are all just one race. All lives matter.”
Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) can get emotionally, mentally, and physically drained when they have to constantly address racism in its many forms. For example, there are certain questions we should stop asking BIPOC individuals now. In an effort to contribute to making positive changes to live in an anti-racist world, we have compiled a list of five microaggressions we should stop saying now and why. Change is possible if we all make conscious choices to (un)learn and grow as responsible citizens in making our society a better place for our children.
1. “Where are you from?”
This microaggression may seem innocuous, but it is hurtful, as it questions a person’s place in this country. At this point, we should all understand Americans come in all shapes, colors, sizes, and ethnic backgrounds and, therefore, remove assumptions of what an “All-American male” and “the girl next door” should look like. For example, I have gotten this question too many times to count and it bothers me every time. I was born in this country and identify as Mexican American, and I feel my identity is invalidated every time my citizenship is questioned.
I was born in this country and identify as Mexican American, and I feel my identity is invalidated every time my citizenship is questioned.
Perhaps consider getting to know the person in conversation to understand their own personal history. You may even want to ask “Is this your hometown?” if you’re really curious, but again tread lightly because a microaggression can easily happen even with good intentions.
2. “You speak English so well.”
We need to stop making judgements on an individual’s language ability based on how they look. When someone speaks with a certain cadence or a particular accent or uses a specific type of vocabulary, no comment needs to be made about the words they have spoken. Microaggressions like “You don’t sound (Black/Asian/Latinx)” are insulting and should not be stated ever.
Personally, I have had people speak to me in Spanish only because of my olive skin and it is clear they are doing so because they think I don’t speak English. It annoys me every time. You should never assume someone speaks another language unless they volunteer that information. In addition, the content of the conversation is more important than how someone pronounces a word.
3. “Are you their babysitter?”
We live in a multi-ethnic world where people fall in love, get married, and start a family outside of their race and ethnicity. When people of different races and ethnic backgrounds have children or adopt children outside of their own identities, these kids may look nothing like their parents.
Questioning a parent’s identity is painful and can be internalized by the victim of the microaggression. I can still recall being at my son’s annual wellness visit in the doctor’s office and the nurse asking me in front of everyone, “Are you his babysitter?” My son looks white and I do not. My face got so red because I was mortified. We should never assume someone is not the parent and instead lead with assuming they are the primary caregiver.
4. “Why do you change your hair so often?”
There are spoken and unspoken rules in our Western society in terms of the way we dress and our own physical appearance. Some of these social norms may not take into account the diversity of cultures that are part of the United States. Having a one-size-fits-all model is not relevant or equitable. For example, Black women’s hair has been judged with negative undertones because it doesn’t fit into Americana “norms” of our society. Because of this, many Black women historically have spent thousands of dollars trying to meet these unfair standards.
When they embody their natural hair and other hairstyles, they unfortunately may be asked insensitive questions like, “Why do you change your hair so often?” No hair and no body is the same. We should not be commenting on someone’s physical appearance just because it’s different from our own. There is beauty in our differences.
5. “I want to be anti-racist and learn from your culture. Can you teach me?”
If you have the audacity to actually ask this in 2022, you would probably get this response: “No. You do your own self-work.” Frankly speaking, it is not my job (or anyone’s job) to teach people how to be anti-racist. We all need to make the effort to grow through our own volition and actions.
The racial and political unrest of the past few years (and longer) have hopefully taught all of us that racism is real and still pervasive. It is, collectively, our responsibility to do the work to dismantle the racism prevalent in our country in its overt forms and in its more subtle microaggression forms. Listening with an open heart, researching and observing, and then implementing anti-racist actions and beliefs are the only ways to move us forward.
Taking steps to remove these types of microaggressions can make a big impact in supporting and validating the experiences of BIPOC individuals. Every comment, assumption, or stare matters. My hope is that we all make conscious efforts to do and be better so that our children’s world is better than how we experienced it.