There comes a point in every interracial and inter-cultural relationship when these tricky conversations have to happen. I’m a black American from the South Side of Chicago, and as traveled as I am, I will always view the world through this cultural lens to some extent. On the other hand, my partner is not black, nor is he American. And, naturally, he lacks the context and certain vocabulary to talk about issues that affect me and other minorities on a daily basis. Which is why when it came time to explain the word ‘microaggression,’ I needed to be clear, concise and keep in mind that outside of the United States, and the cultural microcosms in which I move, such terms aren’t as common. (My partner and I live in Western Europe.) That doesn’t mean, however, that the acts themselves don’t still occur. Microaggressions are defined as: “The 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.” To be clear, the article in Psychology Today that the definition was pulled from also states that microaggressions can occur among any and every marginalized group. I’m speaking about microaggressions that affect women of color specifically, as that’s my reality. Here’s how I explained microaggressions to my non-black and non-American partner:
Microaggressions aren’t necessarily malicious
Committing a microaggression against a marginalized group doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person. For the average individual, it’s simply a moment of haphazardness or imprecision of words. As a black woman, I try to see microaggressions as teaching moments to point out the unintentional or subconscious ways that people’s prejudice and fears manifest. Also, I want to make it very clear that even though I pertain to two of many marginalized groups, I myself try to be aware of microaggressions that could hurt others as well. I’m not exempt. No one is.
Unintentional or not: Every action causes a reaction
Simply not understanding something does not make it any less real for the person affected by your words or actions. Whether or not I intended to spill milk does nothing to change the fact that there is a puddle of milk on the floor. To waste time explaining (with no avail) that you didn’t mean to offend or hurt someone does nothing but take away from their pain and, in turn, merely exasperates the situation. The time you spend trying to convince someone that you didn’t “do anything” would be better spent apologizing and understanding the root of the issue. It’s real to us. That’s what matters. This is not an opportunity for you to get defensive or offended at the very suggestion of your being “racist” or having prejudices. Remember: It’s not about you.
“I’m sorry if I offended you” is not an apology
Obviously, you offended me, I just told you. There’s no ‘if.’ It happened. Let’s just be real about it and not back step with half-hearted apologies and excuses.