The Debilitating Infection of Microaggressionitis
You sometimes don’t realize how much you are suffering from a chronic infection until it knocks you to your knees and you realize medical attention is required.
The chronic infection I am referring to is microaggressionitis which comes from the term Microaggression. This term is used to define daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental humiliation, whether conscious or unconscious, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative prejudicial slights and insults toward any marginalized group.
(Jocelyn practicing piano.)
I was 6 years old the first time a little white girl around the same age and lived down the street called me a “nigger.” The way she said it to me made me realize it wasn’t a good word so I went home and asked my Mom what the word meant. Why would this girl, who didn’t know me, as we had just moved into this all-white neighborhood, call me such an awful word? What had I done? Did I not smile enough? Was it because I was too tall? Too cute? Was I too dark, too light? And all I wanted to do was play in my new neighborhood. This was the beginning of me wondering what was with ME?
Throughout my earlier years my white friends would want me to come to their home but would always find some reason not to come to mine. In school, some teachers were subtle by never calling on me in class when I raised my hand. In 7th grade, it wasn't name calling or being ignored that worsened the infection, it was an outright racist underpinning of my confidence as a young artist. My art teacher erased my pencil drawings because he didn't like where I placed my animals. What? Erased my drawings to teach me about placement in a drawing? I showed other pieces to another teacher who thought they were wonderful. What was happening? And Why was this happening to me? I was a young person simply expressing myself through my drawings, but my work was destroyed by a teacher to prove his point. Why didn't he simply share his thoughts about the placement of the animals so that I could change things the way I wanted to? Self-expression is what art is all about! No one else was treated that way in the class. No one. The trauma from the infection was beginning to take a toll on me. In fact, it took me almost 40 years to ever draw or paint again.
(a recent piece of Jocelyn's artistry)
Throughout my adult life I have addressed blatant acts of racism but mostly remained silent with the symptoms from this chronic infection. Internalizing the racist comments meant to devalue and ridicule me in the most classic form of "othering" me. There are too many examples, too much I have been afflicted by for too long. Stuff like:
“She doesn’t smile enough”
“I’m afraid of her”
“How dare she make a comment”
“She always seems angry”
“She’s too strong”
“She’s too soft”
“She’s not very friendly”
“She speaks well”
“She’s a warrior”
“She’s not like…”
“She thinks she’s smart”
It was like I was “the chair” in the fairy tale Goldilocks and the Three Bears for I was either “too hard,” or “too soft” but, in my case, never “just right” because of white people’s attempts to marginalize me because I did not fit the racist norm whites preferred to impose on black women. This misogynoir — this term refers to the anti-black racist misogyny that black women experience – is prevalent every single day as we are either a Jezebel (the seductress), Sapphire (angry and evil), or Aunt Jemima (jovial and nurturer)…and we know white people ‘love’ Aunt Jemima! The criticism and feeling of incompetence and inadequacy was dizzying as the infection caused more and more damage despite my best efforts to rid myself of this infection.
But, “what’s the point?’ I would say. “They (the white person) didn’t realize what they said.” And most didn’t. If I addressed the problem, what might happen? I remember I clarified language regarding the difference between “a victim” and a “sexual assault survivor” since they were using the term “victim” in a meeting (no one uses this term any longer when describing a sexual assault survivor) and I was told never to speak to the staff person again and that I was to go through that person’s supervisor. And I countered with my concerns and I was turned into the “angry black woman” because I stood my ground and I actually knew what I was talking about. But this is something I feared being labeled…who wants to be called angry on top of the rest of the negativity that has been hurled my way? All I knew was that this infection was getting the best of me as it was impacting my health as a result of the toxic environment(s) I had been exposed to.
And then, Amy. Cooper. HAPPENED.
My outrage was visceral…it was stratospheric because of a white women encountered a black man and believes he is there to attack her. No really, just because he is a black man. No provocation. Nothing. The man was in Central Park birdwatching! My rage was further exacerbated when, like you, I watched a cop lynch a black man with his knee on his neck for 8 minute a couple of days before. 8 minutes. The infection in my body has become wickedly rampant in my spirit. I awake every single morning feeling crazy and go to bed feeling anxious. I’ve spent my life second guessing myself, ignoring the racism, and stepping out of my body in order not to feel the effect of the lashes hurled at me really on a daily basis. But ultimately I’ve realized how complacent I’ve become because I allowed my voice to be silenced over the years due to this chronic infection.
White people: You see yourselves as good moral human beings: “I don’t have a racist bone in my body because “I don’t see color” or “I love everyone!” But then the Amy Coopers of the world can whip out their privilege in an instant when feeling ‘threatened’ by a Black person. And if it’s not our mere presence that threatens you it’s because we’ve said something that’s right and that might actually mean you’re wrong… White people: you have no idea how much you have been like fingernails on a chalkboard.
Microaggressionitis. It’s real.
Here are the symptoms: feeling powerless, high cholesterol, outrage, depressed, invalidated, sad, tearful, hypertensive, not wanting to get out of bed, Covid-19, aching heart, obesity, oversleeping, anger, feeling demonized…need I go on? The impact on our bodies, mind, and spirit are so damaging that it leaves many of us so broken that the pain is simply too deep to speak.
What power Microaggression has in women of colors’ lives. While most of it unintentional and unconsciously conveyed, it rips into the very soul of a Black woman each and every day. And given today’s climate, the stakes are often times become more real. Last month, Kamala Harris was announced as Joe Biden’s running mate in our next presidential election. No sooner were the words spoken when she was being called “nasty,” “angry,” and a T-shirt printed with “Joe and his Hoe.” Similarly on a FB post I saw her called “slut and a prostitute.” In Kamala’s case she has the dubious notoriety of being both a Jezebel and a Sapphire. And like Kamala, Michelle Obama has been there. She recently revealed that she is slightly depressed and I know why: for she, too suffers from Microaggressionitis.
Given today’s climate it is all the more important that we be kinder and more gentle with one another and give space for voice to many of us who are exhausted from being so marginalized. As one who teaches leadership education, I have really tried to lead authentically despite my chronic disease. I want to teach students that exemplary leadership begins by understanding ‘self’ so that you are more aware of your behaviors and the impact you have on others. Learn to understand the differences in your surrounding and ensure that people feel included, engaged and safe. Learning to be an advocate around social justice issues and accept what you don’t know. Learning the essence of your “Amy Cooperistic” behavior which requires much self-reflection. Leadership demands empathy - but it is tricky with racists. Racists must change rather than patiently accepted. Remember, Amy Cooper didn’t think she was a racist.
So, how does one live with Microaggressionitis? First, I have recognized I AM an angry black woman and that’s okay. It will help begin to dissipate the impact of this chronic disease. Secondly, living with it has allowed me to channel my anger, frustration and sadness in ways that have given me strength. It has helped me to be as authentic as I can be as a leader whether through training, working with staff, and providing guidance to others. I have found opportunities to work with social impact organizations and to continue teaching students what it really means to have the courage and fortitude to lead. Finally, this blog is another space to bring a loud voice to the issues around social justice and how they impact you and me.
There’s two things you can do to address Microaggressionitis. First, validate black women. ‘Angry’ doesn’t mean she’s going to kick of her shoes, pull off her earrings, and put Vaseline on her face because she’s going to kick your ass. It means she’s suffering and she needs your support. Listen to what she is saying, her voice is to be valued. Secondly, the only cure for this infection is if you change you. Explore and understand the impact of your whiteness. Unfortunately, many times this is met with much resistance by you. You must find ways to have a deeper understanding of what White privilege is, how it impacts an individual’s life whether it’s in your personal life or in the workplace. Today’s racial climate demands that you do.
And before I go any further, don’t ask me to help you change you. It is no longer my responsibility…it is yours. There are so many resources like books, podcasts, and each other to sort through issues of race and racism. I am always mindful of what Dr. King said which was "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Racism thrives on overt optimism and silence. Start having real conversations no matter how difficult, how clumsy, or how imperfect they are. I most certainly, for one, will applaud you. And, you know what? -- I realize how much is changing as I look at the frontlines of protesters in Portland, Chicago Kenosha, New York, etc. because there you are. I applaud you for your activism and courage in doing what’s right for social justice.
In closing, I say this to you: keep Amy Cooper in your mind. Keep that officer’s knee on George Floyd’s neck in mind. Keep sight of Breonna Taylor’s last breath not understanding why the police broke into her apartment in mind. And now, Jacob Blake, in mind. I do. An sadly, there will be another one tomorrow and the next day. So, keep marching. Keep engaging in dialogue. Keep writing. This infection is figuratively and literally killing my brothers and sisters each and every day so we all should be outraged enough to do our part until it stops.
Microaggressionitis. It’s real.