This week we celebrated the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a holiday I am excited to celebrate every year. There are so many holidays that are difficult for me to be excited about, knowing the underlying celebration is not aligned with my beliefs or values. But this past Monday, I celebrated and soaked in the legacy of MLK.
His words, reflections and critical questions are still so relevant today and I wanted to touch on a point he made in his lifetime, specifically in his Letters From a Birmingham Jail.
He writes 55 years ago, “I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.”
This passage makes me think about something friends of color often complain to me about with white people. White people act as if they/we understand the experiences of people of color so much so, they/we argue with people of color to try and convince them they are being “too sensitive” or “too angry” or “taking things too personally” about experiences they are having. This is so deep because as white people, we will NEVER know what it’s like to be a person of color. If we can’t ever understand this experience, how could we ever determine if someone is being “too” anything when it comes to dealing with the world and the racism, biases and microaggressions happening all the time? We have never walked in the world in skin that is not our own and so the experiences we have in the world are of a person with white skin privilege, which has not dealt with racism on the receiving end. We also don’t hold ancestral memory of racial oppression, attempted genocide and terror because of our skin color so it is impossible for us to really know the depth to how much a microaggression could impact a person of color.
Racism is traumatic and painful. When a person is forced to deal with racially painful situations, and there is a lifetime and/or generations of trauma already there, the impact can be severe. Nobody outside of that person, particularly someone who hasn’t felt that type of pain/ trauma, has the ability to know how that person feels. AND, a white person telling a person of color that they are being too angry or too sensitive about situations in their life that are likely or definitely related to race is a microaggression. If you don’t know what a microaggression is, I have added a definition and some examples below, courtesy of Derald Wing Sue from this article.
My next question that I ask is why do white people do this? What is happening for us when a person of color is explaining their own experiences in life, particularly when it has to do with situations where race is involved, and we don’t believe them? If we could admit that people of color understand their own personal experiences better than we understand them, would it somehow turn a finger on us to say that we are racist? Are we so paranoid about being looked upon as racist that we subconsciously (or consciously) negate a person of color’s experience as a way to stay “emotionally safe”? Or are we force fed the idea that this world is “our” world, that our voices, opinions and thoughts are validated in most situations in society so of course our experiences in life must be that of everyone else. So if our experiences are privileged above other’s, then when a person of color explains to us a scenario we don’t understand because we have never felt it before, we don’t believe them. We think they are wrong.
A great way to hit this point home is the way people talk about police profiling and police brutality. Most white people believe profiling and brutality by the police is either totally untrue, or is something that happens occasionally and by the few “bad apples” but not actually a common occurrence. This is because we don’t witness it or experience it much, if at all. For people of color, particularly the darker the skin and/or if the city and neighborhood they live in has a higher percentage of people of color, they see or experience or hear about profiling and brutality with such consistency that it is difficult to see it as random or occasional. So, when a person of color explains how they have been taught to act when being pulled over and a white person says they are being paranoid or sensitive, this is a microaggression. In the Black community, for instance, it is common place to have conversations with the children growing up (especially the boys) about how to act when approached by police officers. They are taught very clear rules and regulations of how to behave in these situations, because it can be a matter of life or death. Black people (and many Latino people or high melenated Asian and Pacific Islander people) know this intimately because of the history and current day world with police terror in communities of color. To a white person who has never experienced this or who doesn’t have many encounters with people of color to hear their experiences, they they don’t believe this reality exists.
Any my question to everyone who doesn’t believe in this reality, is WHY? Why is it so hard to understand that someone else’s reality is not your reality? If you/ I/ we don’t experience something that doesn’t mean it isn’t actually happening to people who live in a different experience because of something like skin color.
In order for us to do the real healing necessary, the real work necessary to make some significant changes and impact to our society, we MUST first listen to the ways racism has impacted people of color, with the FULL AWARENESS that it is really happening as they are sharing. IT IS REALLY HAPPENING. Once we can start learning these very important skills of listening without believing we know someone else’s experience better than they know their own experience, we can start having real dialogue about the impact and harm and move forward in how to heal and change.
Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. In many cases, these hidden messages may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment.
- A White man or woman clutches their purse or checks their wallet as a Black or Latino man approaches or passes them. (Hidden message: You and your group are criminals.).
- An Asian American, born and raised in the United States, is complimented for speaking “good English.” (Hidden message: You are not a true American. You are a perpetual foreigner in your own country.)
- A Black couple is seated at a table in the restaurant next to the kitchen despite there being other empty and more desirable tables located at the front. (Hidden message: You are a second-class citizen and undeserving of first-class treatment.)