Running a marathon is a test of will. A seasoned runner knows very well that the end is the most difficult part of the race, other than the beginning. It does not, however, take said seasoned runner to know that you do not stop running before you have crossed the finish line. In this way, fighting racism in the United States is extremely similar to a marathon. We, as a society, have made a lot of good strides against racism over the years.
It may seem that we are close to finishing with it, what with a black president and greater diversity in business leadership; however, it has only gotten trickier to spot, since it is no longer as obvious as a burning cross or an off-color joke. Today, it happens in much more subtle ways, often unintentionally. The real challenge is in the teaching of open-mindedness when working with what is a gradual solution, considering the very nature of the ingrained prejudices that spark racism and that they can be difficult to spot and even harder to squash.
So, before we can teach open-mindedness, we have to spread and hone awareness. People have to be prepared to accept the fact that even their actions, done even with the best of intentions, could be racist. Behavioral scientists are classifying these accidental affronts as microaggressions, which are defined 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).
In this essay, the focus will be on the three different kinds of microaggressions: verbal, non-verbal, and environmental. Someone with an opposing viewpoint might question whether truly unintentional behaviors could be labeled as racist at all. If racism is defined as a belief, suggesting that racism is purposeful, the examples shown here disprove that definition (and give another facet to the idea) by clearly demonstrating that racism could also be an unconscious perception, perhaps driven by cultural stereotypes or simply an ignorance of basic cultural differences.
Essentially, prejudice itself, even when not acted upon purposefully, is a form of racism. The most obvious type of microaggression is verbal. Some might say that actions speak louder than words. But words have power, too, especially in the media. For instance, While chatting about Lady Gaga’s ‘Sound of Music’ tribute at Sunday’s Academy Awards, Kristi Capel of Cleveland’s ‘Fox 8 News In The Morning’ tried to pay the singer a compliment, but used a racial slur in the process.
Capel said she couldn’t truly appreciate the pop performer when she sings her own songs: ‘It’s hard to really hear her voice with all the jigaboo music,’ she told colleague Wayne Dawson, before repeating the word again. (Dicker) Following the inevitable public outcry, Capel was fired and asked to post a public apology. She wrote, “I apologize if I offended you, I had no idea it was a word or what it meant” (Dicker). There is another fault in that statement: people in the media, who can potentially reach millions, need to know, more than those in any other profession, exactly what they are saying when they say it on the air.
Not knowing if a word or phrase is racially charged will have consequences, not only for themselves but also for those who might be affected by their influence. On the other hand, this ultimately created necessary awareness of the negative consequences of passively ignorant behavior so that people could understand that it was wrong, so perhaps the outcome was not all bad. In another case, Vice President Joe Biden inadvertently characterized the success of President Obama as an anomaly, in terms of his race.
He stated, “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,’ Biden said. ‘I mean, that’s a storybook, man” (Thai/Barrett). This comment, for how insulting it is, was intended to be a compliment; it goes to show that even the most globally powerful people cannot escape the extensive reach of racism. Social media is another venue that can influence large groups of people and is a wide-reaching platform that promotes impulsive commentary, making it a potential breeding ground for microaggression.
Trevor Noah, successor to John Stewart on “The Daily Show,” had tweeted, “Almost bumped a Jewish kid crossing the road. He didn’t look b4 crossing but I still would hav felt so bad in my german car! ” (Arnowitz). This was clearly an attempt at humor, but there is no excuse for how racist this is. Noah trivializes the Holocaust with this statement and has yet to apologize for it, which has caused outrage and conflict on the internet. Perhaps he is unaware of the greater depth behind his racist comments. Racism becomes even harder to identify in non-verbal situations.
Another type of microaggression is the non-verbal kind. One example of such would be when Rashid Polo, user of the popular 7-second-video-sharing social media network Vine, noticed a white store employee attempting to follow him discreetly around the establishment. This happened multiple times, in different shops and with different Caucasian clerks. At first glance, this seems overtly racist. However, the racist connotation could have been unintentional. The individuals following Polo – and many others, since this is not uncommon – were not looking past their own prejudices.
In situations like these, the distinction is not being made between the individual – and the way they dress and act in that moment – and their supposedly predisposed tendencies because of their race (this being a racist assumption). If any customer were acting suspicious, then perhaps this monitoring is warranted. But if they are not, it is not. Make no mistake: what happened was racist, and, clearly, those succumbing to said prejudices need to be made aware of their behavior.
By capturing it on video, Rashid Polo did just that; he created awareness of the problem n as many people as he was able to reach. However, because non-verbal microaggressions happen so often, many assumptions are being made prematurely concerning peoples’ intentions. An incident that highlights this point occurred between Oprah Winfrey and a Swiss store clerk. Winfrey recounted a story of entering a Swiss shop in July and having a clerk refuse to show her an expensive Tom Ford bag on the grounds it was too costly for her, which Winfrey interpreted as a racist affront.
The unnamed clerk says the entire situation was simply a misunderstanding and she was willing to show the bag, but was offering up a less expensive model at the time. She tells Swiss media she was in no way racist. She has apologized. The storeowner says spotty English was to blame. (Newcomb) It is unlikely that there had been anything about Oprah Winfrey’s appearance that would have influenced the clerk’s decision to show her a lower priced bag – other than her race. Given the clerk’s response to Oprah Winfrey’s claims, the insult was probably unintentional.
But why does race come into play at all? Because of the potential sensitivity to prejudice, unintentional or otherwise. A more extreme case of non-verbal microaggression happened at Google: Google recently attributed its poor workforce diversity demographics to ‘unconscious bias’ that cause hiring managers to unwittingly give preferential treatment to candidates who fit a given profile. As a result, Google’s U. S. workforce is 3 percent Hispanic and 2 percent African American.
But Google fails to reveal that underlying unconscious bias is a series of microaggressions that individually may seem innocuous, but as a whole are detrimental to the company. To counter public condemnation of its diversity numbers, Google is offering free computer coding lessons to women and minorities, but it has done nothing to find work for the 20,000 fewer African Americans, employed as computer programmers and systems analysts since the end of the Great Recession in 2011.
Google has, in effect, eliminated those workers from its consciousness, in what may be its reatest microaggression of all. (Gates) This is fairly selfexplanatory. This excerpt (from the original article) hits all the key points of unintentional racism and suggests that there may even be environmental factors at play. The most obscure cases of microaggressions are environmental. Take this for example: even some of the most widely renowned and respected universities have turned a blind eye to racism. On campuses such as those of Columbia and Cornell, students have reported many incidents of blatant anti-Semitism. Yet, there has been little action in response to end it.
In a new report issued by the David Horowitz Freedom Center, a conservative group based in Southern California, universities in the United States with the worst anti-Semitic activity played host to numerous incidents of anti-Jewish acts, such as Israeli Apartheid Week (a weeklong event that demonizes the Jewish state); interrupting university activities by staging mock ‘checkpoints’ on campus; campus speakers that call for the destruction of the Jewish state; and verbal or physical harassment and violence against Jewish and pro-Israel students’…
These incidents ‘occur on university property, often with the support of university funds, despite the fact that such behavior is explicitly forbidden under campus codes of conduct. ‘ (Himelfarb) While the goal of the student protest was to bring attention to an issue they believed in, it had the unintentional effect of singling out other Jewish students. The university failed to realize this, and, in not acting to fix their initial mistake, they created a hostile environment for a part of the student body.
Another instance of environmental microaggression is found within the debate surrounding affirmative action. Affirmative action (AA) is defined as “a policy or a program that seeks to redress past discrimination through active measures to ensure equal opportunity, as in education and employment” (Gomis). The argument against AA is that, essentially, underrepresentation of certain races in the poor community causes AA to have a disproportionate effect, and that it therefore favors race over academic achievement.
Justices Sotomayor and Ginsberg responded to a case in which AA was repealed by Michigan universities with the following opinion: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination” (Gomis), which effectively summarizes the case for AA. AA remains necessary as an attempt to level the playing field for minorities who are in a place where they have limited options.
The Supreme Court agrees with the viewpoint that any and all attempts to remove it are racist in nature. Another recent tactic to create roadblocks to disenfranchise racial minorities surfaced in the recent attempts to implement a voter ID law, because of which voters are required to carry a photo ID in order to vote. The most common form of photo ID is a driver’s license. A large portion of minorities, especially those in urban areas, do not drive. State legislators who support voter ID laws are motivated in no small part by racial bias, according to a new study from the University of Southern California. The study finds strong evidence that ‘discriminatory intent underlies legislative support for voter identification laws'” (Ingraham). This creates an environment in which it is more difficult for minorities to vote for leadership that is sympathetic to their needs.