The micro-aggression panel earlier this semester served as both an informational session for students unaware of the phenomenon, and as a sort of reflection for those with the shared experience. While I had heard the term prior to the panel, I was not actively thinking about micro-aggressions happening around me, nor was I conscious of my ability to inflict such pain on another. Micro-aggressions were defined as statements that are not intended to be harmful, but which take on a cumulative effect, and are based on stereotypes that communicate the power imbalance taking effect in our system of institutional racism. Micro-aggressions are often individually small scale statements, yet they carry the message that even small differences in appearance or nationality are enough to make large scale divides. These sentiments are frequently carried out by close friends, thus minorities are attacked by those whom they placed trust in and believed were outside of the racist system. In analyzing a micro-aggression, the underlying effect is that because you are different and unlike me, you are un-American and do not belong. As minorities look to authorities to uphold their desire for belonging, too often those in power either look the other way or worse, contribute to the feeling of inferiority. Thus, we must strive to create allyship by consciously refusing stereotypes and mindfully viewing others as equal beings. Bystanders must call attention to acts of micro-aggressions not only to overthrow a system of ingrained racism, but to encourage a sense of belonging for minorities. As long as society refuses the humanity of some, minorities will always be on the other end of both micro and macro aggressions. At some point it becomes not their responsibility to overcome the hatred, but the responsibility of the oppressor to realize their own ignorance.
When thinking about micro-aggressions in terms of community interactions, it seems the notion of witnessing another’s pain is necessary. In Tamura’s unit, she mentioned how trauma affects the individual. When a person in a position of power comes into contact with another’s trauma, it is imperative that the onlooker bears witness. Part of this witnessing includes recognizing our own role in racist structures. Are we passively accepting stereotypes and their influence on the political system, or are we taking aciton. By-standers to micro-aggressions play a crucial role in existing power dynamics. By denouncing the stereotype and calling attention to the statement, we can slowly dismantle the power differential. The micro-aggression panel deals with the question of how communities with generations of harmful stereotypes can interact with one another. Similarly, activist Bryan Stevenson’s lecture at Davidson called upon the same logic.
Bryan Stevenson Lecture
Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of Just Mercy, spoke at Davidson this spring. Within his speech, he provided the audience with four steps to actively dismantle the racist post-slavery world we exist in. First we must get proximate to individuals who are suffering. Coming face to face with an individual in pain, someone who has been broken by society, is essential. We must make small actions locally, because the larger community is built upon the individual. Second, we have to change the narrative. Similarly to the micro-aggressions panel, Stevenson mentioned that our society clings to unjust stereotypes. But, we have the power to think differently. Next, we must get uncomfortable. It is not enough to just look at someone who needs help, but we must step down from our position of comfort and ease. Finally, we must have hope. Hope is an agent of change. Stevenson’s lecture was refreshing because he spoke with such certainty about the route for action. He was not afraid to call out the racism that we are complicit in everyday. It takes such rhetoric to awaken a crowd of privileged individuals.
My research paper addressed how the historically racist housing practices in Davidson led to toxic asbestos exposure for minority residents. I discussed how the white and black communities have been fractured by this bodily harm. The white community, in the position of power, had not even properly witnessed the injustice. I concluded my paper by arguing that the only solution to the asbestos crisis was to follow Stevenson’s advice and get proximate and get uncomfortable. In application, “getting uncomfortable” means that the white residents have to recognize that they are complicit in a racist system. It is necessary that all residents come to terms with the physical harm that such a system forces onto the bodies of African American residents. We can no longer allow the asbestos to sit under the surface, nor can we ignore the pain and death that it brings.
Connecting the Davidson community to Stevenson’s lecture seemed like a helpful application to find a solution to the power imbalance. But as I’ve continued to think about my research paper and Stevenson’s lecture while building my portfolio, I’m left with more questions. Getting proximate and chaining the narrative seem to be essential to building a new humane society. Yet, there seems to be a fine line between those actions and the idea of white saviorism. This is not an excuse to do nothing, however I feel that we must be mindful of what motivates us to aid others.