Was That A Compliment or A Microaggression? Can it Be Both?

In this climate of ‘woke’ people, masquerading as the new norm, certainly you’ve heard the word ‘micro-aggression‘.  This word, micro-aggression’ describes the things black people[also LGBTQ, etc…] hear coming from the mouths of white people. It specifically refers to the experiences of African-Americans, black people in this country. They are usually cloaked as compliments, when they are, in fact, racist statements. The saddest part is that a relatively large number of white people don’t even realize that they are also insulting people with their questions, comments or compliments.

This is how insidious that micro-aggressions are. They are grounded in stereotypes and one’s narrow perception of black people[or any member of a group known as ‘other’ or ‘diverse’]. They are also the result of immaculate perceptions, reinforced by media that is over-saturated with negative portrayals of  ‘different’. Messages resonate just beneath our immediate consciousness, exactly where they are targeted.

man holiday people woman

Most of the time, white people can’t understand or find it convenient to pretend that they are clueless as to exactly how a compliment could actually be an insult. By telling a black person that they are ‘clean’ if ‘appropriately’ dressed, ‘one of the good ones’, or ‘different’ is to make an assumption that everyone else who looks like him or her, is the opposite. In some circles, this is called  the ‘exceptional’ or ‘acceptable Negro’ syndrome: that black person who is almost a reflection of whiteness, the familiar, and thus non-threatening.

It is as though someone is telling you, a black person,  that they wish more people were like you, because you appear to reflect and have conformed to what they value, expect and accept. Wearing a nicely tailored suit with a tie, in business attire, a black man is more acceptable. However, not completely immune to racial profiling and other injustices. Wearing a natural, cultural or traditional hair style, braids, dreadlocks or afro, he risks being more threatening. That applies to both men, women and children. Sounds archaic, yes, but not so shockingly, many people still feel this way in the 21st Century, 2021.

Children in school settings have been sent home, shamed and ‘rejected’ through disciplinary actions taken at school, if wearing braids or any hairstyle not acceptable to whites. What do you think that does to a little black girl or boy who sees mainly white figures as the ‘beauty’ model in the media ‘ad nauseum’? At the earliest ages, we are telling them that who they are is ugly, unattractive and unacceptable, and should be hidden from sight. At the same time, those physical attributes, like their round bottoms, full lips, hair styles and more….. are popular enhancements opted for by these same people who say they’re threatened by that which encompasses their natural beings.

We talk about the importance of promoting a sense of ‘belonging’ among children of color, in order to sustain engaged learning in school settings.At the same time, the most natural physical attributes is considered unacceptable and that will confuse a child and will lead to disengagement, at school and the greater society. It is counter-intuitive to the essence of education and schools as challenging, safe and supportive, inclusive learning environments.

sad mature businessman thinking about problems in living room

Unfortunately, when these messages and micro-aggressions by adults in school settings are similarly aligned, many kids internalize these messages and begin to dislike themselves, even before they can identify the best of who they really are. It is much easier to build a whole person than it is to fix a broken one. These things break children-their self-esteem, their spirit and their motivation.

We continue to expect children to cope and be resilient to the avoidable harms they endure on a daily basis, rather then looking inward to change ourselves. We communicate the wrong messages, implicit or explicit, when we insist that we won’t engage and encourage them unless they make us comfortable. Instead of us changing and broadening our perspectives, our mindset, we demand that the ‘other’ must change who they are and reflect a version of themselves that doesn’t threaten or confuse us. That is unfair and far too much to ask of children.

Adults aren’t shielded from these micro-aggressions either. In fact, they have faced these attitudes for much longer than their children. It is not the responsibility of black people to teach and inform whites about what is considered disrespectful to black people. The onus is on you/us to learn and be better, more respectful, if we are actually who we say we are. Or who we want others to believe we are. Not many people will admit that they are racist or hold racist views. But, it is those micro-aggressions that demonstrate just that.

all fam“If you can’t say something nice about a person, say nothing at all.”

This clearly cautions us to think carefully before we speak. Sometimes the words we speak send unintended messages.  Those messages can reveal our deeper thoughts or perspectives that may or may not be beyond our awareness.

Micro-aggressions are harmful to the persons to whom we speak. They not only make statements about an individual, they make statements about the group to which they belong or with whom they identify. To avoid these forms of racist- like dialogue from placing barriers before authentic relationship-building, at any level, white people need to reflect.

Racism is an addiction and racism is trauma, causing harm to all in its tracks  . Examine your prejudices and default assumptions, immaculate perceptions, and question them. If you can honestly see that they reflect some type of racism, sexism or homophobia, then you’ve got work to do. Could a compliment be a micro-aggression or can it be both?




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