Though I did not know what it was at the time, I first experienced what can be called a microaggression on my first day at the Maret School, where I am currently in 11th grade. I was a 6th grader at the time and I was extremely nervous; I spent half an hour picking out my outfit that morning. Maret is an extremely exclusive, affluent school in the middle of an even more exclusive, affluent neighborhood. It was not a place in which tall, athletic black girls were abundant. Nevertheless, there I was, having survived the excruciating application process to claim my spot in those halls. The actual logistics of the day have by now fled my memory, but one thing that stuck was our first break period. A series of couches were lined up in a hallway across from an array of bagels and hot chocolate, and the entire 6th grade class was freed to mingle for fifteen minutes. I was talking to a girl I had just met, likely about soccer or classes or something equally casual. Suddenly, I felt strange hands on my head; specifically, on my hair.
At least 10 different people (though the number is likely higher if you count stares and whispers) proceeded to pick apart my carefully constructed bun (or “poof,” as they called it).
“Wow it’s so thick!” “What do you do with it?” “But how does it work?”
Bear in mind that this was my first experience with the majority of my classmates, and while there is something to be said for youthful curiosity, children are taught on their first day of preschool to respect others’ personal space. I was extremely uncomfortable, and I wondered whether I had any right or reason to stop them, eventually electing to simply smile. I did not immediately tell a teacher, nor my parents, nor my siblings about that odd break period, though I’m not sure why. Several weeks later, I casually mentioned it at the dinner table.
Until I saw my mother’s shocked, horrified face, I don’t think I realized that something had really gone wrong. Though it had bothered me in the moment, no one in my class thought it odd, so I’d convinced myself it was just nervousness and continued about my business. People had continued to touch my hair; I had continued to smile and nod uncomfortably, continued to question whether I had a valid reason to refuse them. But with my mother’s demands that I refuse anyone who tried touching my hair again came a troubling realization: I was essentially the only black girl in my grade. There were two or three girls with one black parent, but their mixed heritage had given them straighter, silkier locks in place of the coarse, puffy coils I continue to do battle with. There were black boys with my same texture, but their hair was cut short, and several of them had grown up with the class and were no longer considered new objects of interest. I was seeing Maret in a new light, and the angle was anything but flattering. With my ever-fascinating curls now physically out of reach, students instead asked me pointed questions in the hallway. Several girls recoiled in shock when I revealed that I wash my hair every two weeks or so (my hair dries out easily so washing often weakens the strands).
Incidents like this wounded me, shaking my confidence in the my choice of school. Because of hair, of all things. It seemed so silly, but those wounds, and more like them, haunted me all the way to high school. They still bother me today.
But was it really just about hair? Psychology Today has defined microaggressions as “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” (Sue). Essentially, any action or reaction that negatively targets a marginalized group is a microaggression. Unfortunately, neither in that definition nor any other article did I find the answers to my classmates’ questions: What if it was just a joke? What if it’s true? What if the person or group being targeted is just overreacting? In my case, my classmates were curious; I was there, it was just hair after all. No one meant any harm. In this is the crux of the issue, the “whether intentional or unintentional” part that people often ignore. For me, and for many minorities, it is not about the intention or size of the action, but the effect of otherness it imposes. My classmates did not touch my hair because they had seen it before or to appreciate it; they messed up my bun because to them it was a foreign object, and by that logic they concluded that it was their right to investigate without permission. Microaggressions are at best uncomfortable and intrusive; at worst they can be traumatizing and alienating, as my experience almost became. For my classmates, this concept was difficult to comprehend.
One of my best friends (both then and now), and one of the first to unceremoniously grab my bun, was also the first to question my discomfort.
“Why do you always grab my hair?”
“Because it’s poofy,” she giggled, “and it’s cool. It’s kind of a compliment, actually. No one means anything by it.”
A compliment: this is how many microaggressions are dismissed or explained away. As a black girl in America, I’ve had my fair share of these.
“You run fast for a girl.” “You’re so well spoken.” “Wow, you live in a really nice neighborhood.”
Am I supposed to run slow? Did you expect me to be speaking a different language? My parents are both full-time lawyers in DC paying school tuition; did you expect me to live somewhere else?
Furthermore, what would you have said if the neighborhood wasn’t as nice? Or if I didn’t speak as well? Would you have congratulated yourself on your spot-on prediction? Would you have mimicked my speech because it sounded cool? What exactly is the payoff in these cases? That’s the part that I’ve never understood. So-called “compliments” like the ones above imply that I have succeeded by miraculously breaking some box that women or African Americans or
African American women must fit into. You are congratulating me for not exhibiting the pre- existing faults that must go hand in hand with my identity. If I saw a white businessman in a suit would I congratulate him for not sitting in his basement watching football and eating chicken wings?
Eventually I told people to stop touching my hair; eventually they listened. I spent three years making mostly white friends (who were wonderful) and learning from mostly white teachers (who were great). But when three black girls joined my class freshman year and I met Maret’s blooming black faculty, I realized how much I had missed bonding over hair struggles and joking about Grandma’s mac and cheese. This isn’t to say that white people are incapable of having those conversations, but there are cultural commonalities and practices that my white friends didn’t understand or even made fun of me for. Some conversations work better with melanin. And I’m not just talking about what hair products work best.
I desperately needed a group of people I trusted to talk to about my issues with behaviors and comments like the ones above. Maret’s black community seemed like a good place to start. After an inner debate about whether I was still “black enough,” I finally worked up the courage to attend my first Black Student Union meeting. I’ll never forget that first day. It was a potluck, with homemade fried chicken, assorted sides, and watermelon (Stereotypical? Absolutely. Delicious? Even more so). Overtime, it became a safe place to vent about all the strange, offensive things we had to put up with everyday (aka: microaggressions). From assuming that someone plays a certain sport, to mixing up names, to joking about slavery, to referring to girls’ hair as “an animal,” everyone had stories to tell. Nobody claimed it meant nothing; everyone just got it. That feeling of being understood, at long last, was both freeing and eye-opening. And even though the members of BSU weren’t necessarily my closest friends, I discovered that I too had a place in that community.
Those meetings and the conversations they sparked helped me realize something that may seem obvious but that I’d never fully appreciated before: Things change only when we dare to change them. You can’t excuse a transgression or toss it aside because “it wasn’t meant that way,” because ultimately intention has no direct effect on outcome. Accidentally knocking someone over doesn’t make their bruises fade any faster. As much as I love having my school’s black community to turn to for help, wouldn’t it be better if we were talking to the rest of the Maret community rather than preaching to the choir?
So to everyone who read this and found their own experience within it, I’m going to give you some advice on how to confront these situations: don’t make it pretty. You’re challenging someone who threw identity around like a joke; there’s nothing pretty about it. I’m not saying just yell at them (though sometimes that can be therapeutic), but don’t tiptoe around the issue, whether it’s your best friend or that random science teacher who still can’t pronounce your name. To anyone who read this and didn’t find their story, but stayed with me anyway, I’ve got news for you for you: you’re in here too. You’re the person on the other side, the one who made a joke, or pulled a curl, or thought I was from the hood until you came over for dinner last week. Don’t panic; we haven’t condemned you yet. But the next time you start to go after someone’s identity, pause for a moment and ask yourself: Why is that funny? Think it over; do some research. The answer might surprise you. You’re going to be defensive. I’m going to ask you to lean past that discomfort and actually listen to what’s being said. Don’t run away; own it and learn enough not to make the same mistake twice. When you choose to laugh it off, you disrespect both the individual in question and the problem your transgression represents. Cliche as it is, our unique identities are what make us all so incredible. Let’s pledge to work towards a community that celebrates that distinct beauty instead of making it into a punch line. And in that spirit, I pledge to march down whatever new hallways I find with my afro held high.
Sue, Derald Wing, and David P. Rivera. “Microaggressions: More than Just Race.” Psychology Today, 17 Nov. 2010, www.psychologytoday.com/blog/ microaggressions-in-everyday-life/201011/microaggressions-more-just-race. Accessed 14 Dec. 2016.
“My piece is about struggling with microaggressions regarding my identity as a black woman in a predominantly white school. I look at microaggressions and how they are and should be dealt with on a wider scope in addition to working through my own experience. I was made to feel that part of me didn’t fit with everyone else, but over the years I’ve worked to regain my confidence in that part of myself, and I want my writing to help others do the same.”