Nicole Chung, managing editor of “The Toast,” posted an article at “Race” on her Website on January 5th titled “What Goes Through Your Mind: On Nice Parties and Casual Racism.” It’s powerful story and truth telling about microaggressions and the thoughts and feelings that People of Color experience in a culture that makes the White experience normative.
I felt a cascade of emotions when I read Chung’s article, starting with dismay, but not surprise, that a racist comment was made at a family holiday meal. Next came disappointment, also not unexpected, at the writer's choice not to address the comment head on, and finally I landed on empathy and compassion for the author's analysis of the situation and her predicament and situationally forced decision not to rock the boat. Been there, done that, and reflected on the subject of microaggressions for many moons. Will not be buying any teeshirt.
I remember Arthur Fletcher's comment in an ethnic Chambers of Commerce keynote talk 25 years ago. Fletcher at the time was chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and known as the "father of Affirmative Action." Fletcher was also the president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund who coined the phrase, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” On that night in Denver, Fletcher was 67 and had undergone bypass surgery. He declared that there is no benefit in keeping silent about the dismal state of civil rights in USAmerica and that he would speak out again and again. I'm approaching 67, and I've felt the same way since I first encountered the civil rights and women’s movements. Speaking out is something anointed and professed leaders are called to do.
Human interactions become racialized when someone says or does something that makes race an issue. “Do people ever tell you that you look just like everyone on that show?” asked the woman at the dinner table of Chung, referencing Chung's interview with Constance Wu of the television series Fresh Off the Boat, featuring an Asian family. Chung is an Asian woman in an apparently dominant culture family (White, I’m guessing) and has biracial children, just like me.
Chung wrote that several possible responses flitted through her mind, including, "Why on earth would you say something like that?" and "For one wild second I allow myself to imagine speaking freely, with no attempt at self-deprecation or careful diplomacy.” She characterized her unspoken question as being “brutally direct.” Wow! Just wow!
We People of Color have been carefully taught through the school of hard knocks to be circumspect in our speech so as not to cause any conflagrations and be accused of making a mountain out of a molehill when we could have "just let it go." A White woman from the dominant culture could speak freely and say any thought that popped into her head, including “Do people ever tell you that you look just like everyone on that show?” -- something I am positive no one ever says to a White person.
Just imagine me saying to a White person, "Do people ever tell you that you look just like everyone in most Fortune 500 board rooms?" It's offensive and demeaning to talk to people that way, and it also can rob the person at whom the remark is directed of her power and self-esteem as she attempts to overlook the question for the sake of a semblance of family peace.
I agree with the direct characterization of "brutally direct" that Chung ascribed to her possible response of "Why on earth would you say something like that?" However, I don’t find the question brutal at all. I find the question honest. I'd really like to know what is going through someone's mind when they say things like that.
We teach our children to question why things are said and done, so that they learn how to discern the motivation behind the things that people say and do. I believe that we also need to model that kind of questioning so that we don’t become too domesticated and trained into model minority behaviors of self-deprecation and careful diplomacy as matters of habit, practicing “going along to get along.”
I am a person who bears those characteristics of self-deprecation and careful diplomacy. When appropriate, I am self-deprecating. However, I find self-deprecation to be overrated as a false show of humility and a characteristic that is unfairly encouraged in females as a means of keeping women down. Remember the biblical verse admonishing us not to hide our light under a bushel basket? [Matthew 5:15] I am also diplomatic, scanning the waters of relationships with diligent alertness to show care and concern for others by how I speak and behave so as to avoid breakdowns in communication and relationship.
Relationships become racialized, but they don’t have to become strained, provided everyone exercises openness and honesty about what they know and don’t know about race and racism. Tina Turner performs a song titled “Simply The Best,” which has a wonderfully relevant lyric on this subject: “Speak the language of love like you know what it means. . . . It can't be wrong.”
- Conversations need to be direct, using words that convey what we actually mean.
- Questions need to be precise, asking what we actually want to learn and understand.
- Feelings of offense need to be owned, disclosed, and respected.
- And no, you don’t get to say that your feelings are now hurt as your defensive response to having said or done something that was offensive to another, especially to a Person of Color.