I had a conversation with a white friend recently about some racial topics, and it got a little heated, as these conversations often do. One issue that got sort of glossed over was the idea of microaggressions. Specifically, my friend expressed that he doesn't believe in such a thing, and refuses to feel like he's walking on eggshells all the time. It's ironic. I don't think that most decent people would willfully say that they don't acknowledge that we each have a responsibility to watch what we say and to avoid insulting people or hurting feelings, but for some reason we always choose to see only our intentions, and never our transgressions or even our prejudices. I also think that there's something about the term that gets people upset right from the start. Microaggressions. It sounds like some kind of sci-fi world conquest campaign, like nano-bots designed to infect and control world leaders (rights reserved on that story idea, by the way). It sounds like a deadly and highly contagious virus that turns people into zombies - the fast angry ones, not the slow hungry ones. Frankly, it sounds like one of those new terms that people invent for issues that really do need to be dealt with, but that too many people don't even want to acknowledge.
There are several definitions of microaggressions out there, and a lot of writing on the subject, ranging from the idea that this is all a part of the new "victimhood" status to the idea that this is a longstanding problem that is only now being attacked because so-called "minorities" in America are growing in numbers to the point that they are unwilling to ignore these slights any longer. Whatever definition you use, at the core of the matter is the issue of assumptions. Asking an Asian or Hispanic person where he's from assumes that he's not from right here in America. Maybe a nicer way to get to know someone would be to ask about their ethnicity or heritage, which you could ask anyone of any racial appearance. Remember, white people don't come from the Isle of White. Telling a Black person that she doesn't "act Black," assumes that there is some Black code of behavior, which you have either perceived or invented. Even worse, usually it means that she doesn't possess any of the negative traits that you're stereotyped with Blackness.
This is why the word exists, and this is why we should be open to discussing it, even if it means that someone is questioning or correcting us. A situation like that can help us to see our own assumptions and prejudices reflected back at us from others. Obviously, no one wants to be embarrassed in public or drawn into a fight or accused of being a racist for saying something that wasn't quite thought through completely. On the other hand, gentle correction calling attention to the offense can go a long way to opening someone's eyes and creating an ally instead of an enemy. I have one particular Black friend that swears that everywhere he goes, he gets mistaken for an employee, regardless of what he's wearing or doing. Maybe he's just got a really helpful look on his face all the time, or maybe white folks assume that he could only belong in these spaces by working there. Hard to say. He's even told me that a store manager once ordered him to go stock an aisle, because he was wearing the same color shirt as the uniform. Maybe he just looked like one of the new hires. Hard to say. I've actually been with him when it happened. Once we were in our favorite grocery store getting some supplies for poker night, debating what kind of drinks to bring, and a guy walked up into our conversation and just stood there. After an uncomfortable moment, we both looked at the guy, and he said to my friend, "When you're done helping this customer, I have a question for you." The thing is, my friend wasn't wearing anything even close to the uniform - not the same style or color or anything. I really like the way my friend handled it. He just smiled at the guy, kind of chuckled, and said, "What makes you think I work here?" Immediately the guy's eyes opened wide, as if he was seeing colors for the first time, or maybe polo shirts, and stuttered, "Oh, man, I'm sorry." Then, my friend smiled even bigger, said, "no problem," and held out his hand to shake. Once the guy shook his hand, looking embarrassed now, my friend asked him again, more quietly and, somehow, even more friendly, "But really, what made you think I work here?" The guy laughed, a little nervously, apologized, and walked away, but I bet he was still asking himself that same question the entire ride home. "Why did I think that guy worked there?"
What I liked about my friend's tactic, which he has probably developed over years of mistaken identity, was that it was confrontational, but not accusatory, probing, but not aggressive. He didn't call the guy a racist, and thereby shift the focus from what just happened to an attack on a stranger's character and honor. Just a simple question. "What makes you think I come from somewhere else?" "What do Black people act like?" You probably won't get an answer, but it forces the other person to contemplate their perceptions. And, who knows, maybe there is a legitimate reason, a good intention behind that awkward question or statement. Really, how do you ask about someone's ethnicity without being awkward or offensive? It would be easy to say that their ethnicity shouldn't matter, but my ethnicity matters to me. Is it stupid to think that other people's ethnicity matters to them? If I am getting to know someone, shouldn't that be at least a part of the process?
Here's an example from a white perspective. After a few days of no electricity and air conditioning after hurricane Irma, I finally broke down and decided to get a generator for the house. My daughter and I hit about five different Home Depot locations before we found one that was just unloading a shipment of over thirty of them. So I did what any Miami boy would do. I pulled one out, put it on a hand-truck, and then sat on it until my wife could bring the Home Depot card. While I was perched on top of my brand new generator, a woman employee working the section told me that FEMA has grants for people who purchase generators during the power outage. Since I'm always looking for the hookup, I chatted her up about it. As we were talking about it, a dark-skinned customer, probably Haitian, based on the accent, walked directly through our conversation and jumped in it. "You Republican?" he asked me. "That's not for Republicans." I wasn't even sure what he was getting at initially, but then he said, "Make America great again, right?" Luckily, the employee checked him before I really got a chance to respond. I say luckily, only because I didn't really have a ready response, and he moved on. It made my daughter angry, though, she felt lumped into this accusation of being Trump supporters. He made an assumption about my daughter's race, based on her appearance. He made an assumption about my politics, based on my appearance, and said something stupid and mean, especially when, as a city, we're all trying to recover from a disaster. My daughter said that she hoped he was still hanging around when my wife brought my card, just so he would feel stupid. The problem with that, I told her, is that it would just be another assumption. Plenty of racist people marry people of other races; in fact, sometimes that's why they do it.
Again, that's what microaggressions really are, questions and statements based on our assumptions and prejudices. Sometimes they are innocent, but ignorant, but sometimes they are hurtful, and nobody gets a pass, even with good intentions. It seems obvious that good intentions don't make up for inadvertently insulting someone. But it also seems obvious that one stupid or ignorant question doesn't make you a bad person. Maybe if we called it something else, some people would feel more comfortable talking about it. Maybe if we called them "tiny accidental insults," instead of a word that sounds like the bad guys from a Voltron episode, a lot more people would be willing to discuss them.