Racism is not always obvious, explain these Windsor students
One of the most common forms of microaggression is racially based
When racism is subtle or hidden in subcontext it's often referred to as microaggression. These acts that target members of marginalized or vulnerable communities can sometimes be hard to pick up on.
Kayla Smith, Charles Campbell and Tiana Knight are all members of the Black Law Students' Association and students of law at the University of Windsor.
They shared their stories and examples of microaggression with CBC Windsor Morning host Tony Doucette. Here's what they had to say.
About two years ago I had gone to Devonshire mall to get some makeup ... and as I had approached a particular brand, they had told me that they don't offer my shade and I was saying 'Well what do you mean by you don't offer my shade?' As she went on to explain that they just don't have anything that would be accommodating to my skin tone and it was really 'othering,' that experience was really hurtful because at that moment I felt very much excluded. I think the beauty industry often does not celebrate blackness and their products are not geared toward women of darker skin tones. And that was an experience that although indirect, maybe unintentional definitely had a strong impact."
For me it happens to be more physical because I'm a bigger black man. So for example if I go into a store — being followed by security when I'm just buying a routine ice cream is something that I would experience. Most recently, to give a specific example, I was in Detroit trying to purchase a shirt for my upcoming wedding and when I went to the store I picked up the shirts and I was getting served by the representative and another white customer was in a rush and I was in a rush as well trying to go to class, but when her manager came and said 'I need to use a register' there's two registers available — but the lady who was helping me moved to the side and tried to serve that customer. And I recognized in that moment that 'OK my business is not as valuable as other customers business.' So I had to stop it right there in that moment and I said 'Excuse me, I'm just as important as this customer so I need you to continue with the transaction because I'm in a rush just as much as he is.' And as they completed the transaction I recognized the overtones of you know this individual, I'm coming off as being an aggressive person or someone that is short tempered but in actuality I was just standing up for myself which I think a lot of visible minorities have to do to confront these micro aggressions.
My experience is a little bit more focused on an academic situation that I had a few years ago when I was completing my undergrad. I'm someone who always advocates for myself in all situations, and so this particular situation was with a professor and we were marking our midterm, taking it up as a class, and there was something on the midterm that wasn't actually correct. So I wanted to advocate for myself and I wanted to get that mark because it was marked wrong, and so I think my passion for that was taken as aggression and I was called disrespectful by my professor for advocating for it myself. I don't think advocating for myself, especially in a very polite tone, is something that can be construed as disrespectful. But also for myself I think as a lighter skinned black woman I don't experience as many microagressions as black people who are darker than me. But for me it took me a while to really kind of pinpoint a moment that I could remember experiencing a microaggression — I think part of that is the shade of my skin.
What racial stereotypes do you see perpetuated?
I would say it depends for different genders in the black community. I think for a black woman specifically it's being emotional, aggressive, ostentatious, overwhelming. For black men it's physical aggression, if there's any exertion of passion or relentlessness — if it's not directed in sports — then it's seen and perceived as a threat. And I think those permeate in every space. We tend to speak about an academic space where in law school when I do vivacious advocacy and law school — if I am too much of an advocate then I'm 'biting someone's head off' as opposed to being a real good advocate because of how I'm perceived. Once I stand up or from speaking it's like 'Whoa this black man is being more threatening.' I think that is the stereotype that specifically black men experienced. They have to minimize, they have to become a smaller presence and kind of compact their physical presence in various academic spaces. So in some cases you see a lot of black men you know don't have as deep a voice, they tried to wipe their voice, tried to make their voice come off as more European and we associate European tone of voice with academia or intellect when in reality all cultures around the world that demonstrate intellect they just have a way of speaking in a reasonable understanding. And I think that's really what black men have to confront in this day and age.
I think another micro aggression or perhaps a backhanded compliment is 'You speak so well.' And the question is 'Well why wouldn't I speak well?' I think people need to be a little bit more conscious of what they're trying to say and how it can be taken because of course I speak well, I'm a smart girl and I would hope that I speak well.
I think when you put three brilliant, intelligent, successful black people in a room and you are eloquent and you advocate for yourself and you're able to hold yourself in professional spaces and all spaces and you're black you're not expected to do that. It's not something that we equate with black people a lot of the time and I think people are taken aback by it. It brings to their attention the fact that this is a reality, something that they don't experience often. And so they're trying to get a better understanding of why there's black people who speak well, why there's black people with great education.
What's never 'OK?'
An absolute nonstarter is when someone approaches me and touches my hair. I find it extremely disrespectful. I don't see non-black people approaching another individual and touching their hair. It's often again this fascination about how black women's hair changes, textures. And I find if you have a question that you can ask me or you can also do research in and educate yourself. But going and touching somebody's hair — their physical body — can often be a breach of personal space. And it is also likened on to going to view animals at a zoo and touching them and being in awe of them and so I find that to be again very disrespectful.
I won't tolerate being in the straitjacket of oppression. I think sometimes when I'm confronted with stereotypes of being this physical, aggressive person or whether it be being presumed as aggressive ... where if I respond any way I'm confirming what you're saying about me. So I'm in a straitjacket, I'm not able to respond. So now when I'm placed in those kind of positions I confront it right there and then. Even if it is a straitjacket, I'm breaking myself and breaking the individual that has put forth those microaggressions out of that straitjacket or allowing it be forced on me by saying 'No this is not OK.' And that's predominant in the academic environment just as much as it is in the environment outside of academia.
How do you respond to help people understand?
Taking that teachable moment to further educate people. I think when you don't belittle people who have brought ignorance to you, that's a prime way to do it. I don't think we can always be upset at people who just don't know. I think it's really an opportunity to have a one-on-one with them and really educate them on why this is not an appropriate thing to say and the appropriate thing to do. It's really just about educating people.
Do you feel responsible to teach in circumstances like that?
From grade 3 when I wanted to be a lawyer, a teacher said 'You know what find a Plan B because that might not be a reality for you.' And as you progressed through your public school education, where I was coming from in Brampton, I just had to make sure that you know I never accepted the stereotypes that were given to me. But I was comfortable carving a new reality for myself.