As people across the country mobilize to end police violence against Black Americans, a graphic circulating on Twitter is helping us delineate overt, socially unacceptable white supremacy from socially acceptable, covert white supremacy. Most of us would agree that overt white supremacy in the form of hate crimes and the N-word are incontrovertibly racist. Instances of covert white supremacy, also known as microaggressions — the statement that “There’s only one human race,” for example — may seem innocuous, but they inflict just as much damage.
What exactly are microaggressions, though? “Microaggressions are subtle, oftentimes unintended, perhaps even well-intended sometimes,” E.J.R. David, a professor of psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage, tells Mic. “But they turn out to be slights, or offensive and hurtful comments, behaviors, or attitudes toward historically marginalized people.”
Remember, racism is built on the notion that the white race is superior to races of color, explains Shardé Davis, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Connecticut. Microaggressions “are still rooted in the belief that whiteness is superior and/or perpetuates a system that has set white as the superior race.”
And although microaggressions are as harmful as overt racism, they’re harder to detect, making them easier for aggressors to get away with, Davis says. They can more easily brush off and justify microaggressions, and shift the blame to victims by, say, accusing them of overreacting.
Meanwhile, microaggressions can cause victims significant psychological distress, David explains. Their ambiguity can leave them wondering if they really are being oversensitive. “It’s like gaslighting,” he says. “It makes you question your reality.” Victims might ruminate about the incident long after it happens.
And it’s not a one-off, either, David says. People of color, especially Black Americans, experience them all the time. As more people around them invalidate their experiences, their relationships can suffer. Over time, the injuries from these slights can build and cause them to snap, which may lead to them getting fired, arrested, or even killed.
Here are common racial microaggressions you might’ve dealt with, or committed yourself:
“We’re all just one big human family.”
This kind of sentiment falls into the "I don't see race" bucket. A white person who communicates statements like this might justify it by saying they’re simply trying to invoke peace and counter divisive rhetoric, Davis tells Mic.
But a Black person who hears this might think, “no, we’re not all one human race because your ancestors are the ones who colonized this land, stole it from Indigenous people, and brought Black slaves to build a country for only white empowerment and economic betterment,” she says. This remains the foundation on which our country, culture, and institutions are all built.
Claiming that we’re all the same might make assuage white guilt about racism and privilege — but “ignores a very real system of oppression,” Davis says.
Assuming Black people are criminals or “always up to no good”
This could look like store employees following Black shoppers, David says. While this stereotype might not seem like a big deal, Davis says we’ve already seen how it can find a deadly outlet through racial profiling by police. “That is why they are killing Black bodies at a disproportionately high rate,” she tells Mic. “By deeming them a criminal before the person has even committed a crime, they have deemed that that Black body needs to die.”
Assuming Black people are not smart
This can look like assuming a Black person made it to college based not on their intellectual merits, but affirmative action or an athletic scholarship, David says. Internalizing these messages can harm Black students’ self-esteem and lead to impostor syndrome, which, in turn, can hurt their academic performance, or even convince them to drop out of school entirely.
People of color, especially Black Americans, experience them all the time. As more people around them invalidate their experiences, their relationships can suffer.
Part of the problem is that our educational system is rooted in whiteness, yet BIPOC are often “operating from a completely different educational construct,” Davis says. “It’s different, but not less than.” We see this in how schools teach white English as the standard American language, upheld as smart and intellectual — which implies that anything other than white English is dumb and unintellectual. When African American Vernacular English, formerly known as Ebonics, gained traction in the 90s, many perceived it as such, Davis says. Many still do.
“But where are you really from?”
Although often stemming from genuine, well-intentioned curiosity about a person’s ethnicity or heritage, it implies that they can’t possibly be from the U.S. if they’re not white, David says. People of color get this question a lot, Asian Americans in particular because they’re often perceived as perpetual foreigners. When people have asked me where I’m really from, especially after I’ve already said I was born here, it makes me wonder why they’re asking in the first place if they expect a specific answer — as if I’m a sock puppet whose responses they get to control.
Touching Black people’s hair
“You’ll have a lot of white people just come up to a Black person’s hair,” Davis says. Complimenting it doesn’t negate that they’ve, one, invaded the Black person’s space, and two, touched something considered sacred, especially for Black women. “My hair is a crown,” Davis says. “You didn’t just touch me, you touched my crown.” And what’s more, “you’re doing it out of fascination, like I’m a circus act.” This implies that white hair is normal and any deviations from it are abnormal, once again centering whiteness and reinforcing white supremacy.
What if you’ve been responsible for some these microaggressions? First, acknowledging this is already a big step, David says. Remember that all of us have biases and incomplete understandings of the world, meaning that any of us can be guilty of microaggressions.
Importantly, listen, Davis says, especially if you're white. As a white person, you'll never know what it’s like to not benefit from the violence your ancestors committed to secure a superior position for your race relative to BIPOC. Open yourself to being educated and checked. Apologize to the person you’ve harmed in private, and then publicly, in case you inadvertently harmed other BIPOC who were present.
If you’ve been on the receiving end of a racial microaggression, it’s important to believe what you experienced was real, so you don’t end up questioning your sanity, David says. Seek trusted people who can validate your experiences and remind you that you’re not alone.
Deciding whether to act on a microaggression requires a complex risk analysis, Davis says. Consider whether, firstly, it’s even safe to respond, since doing so could get you arrested or even killed, especially if you're Black. You might also need to consider whether speaking up is worth risking your employment or friendship.
While deciding to walk away might make you feel weak, or like a sell-out, remember that bravery and strength doesn’t always mean fighting back, David says. “Sometimes, being strong and being brave also means surviving. Simply surviving. For us to survive in this oppressive world is already evidence of our strength, bravery, and resilience.”