What’s racist, and why

13 Nov

A colleagues passed along this article “MU students tell their stories of everyday racism”  (http://www.columbiamissourian.com/news/higher_education/mu-students-tell-their-stories-of-everyday-racism/article_81f35cfe-84af-11e5-b4e4-ef223ec60553.html), which reports racial microaggressions experienced by Missouri University students, sought out by the Missourian because:

Throughout the Missourian’s coverage of race, we’ve heard from readers who say they can’t relate to stories of racism. Many have said they don’t see racism in their worlds, and they just don’t think it’s still a problem.

The honest obliviousness to racism in their own community isn’t surprising. I see ripples of it in the SF Bay Area when we read about race and racism at MU, in Ferguson and elsewhere in the South: with the hope, confidence or shield of stereotype that this is their problem, not ours, too.

It’s hard to confront racism in our own communities, especially when its manifestation is more often micro than macro (that is to say, evident in individual actions, as opposed to codified in institutional policy), which is why I would posit that it’s vital to learn to recognize microaggressions.

But they’re micro! Shouldn’t people just stop being so sensitive and get over it?

Well, yes. And.

It’s not healthy to allow microaggressions to define our experiences and identities. And, it’s not healthy to ignore the underlying, systemic (i.e. not just about this one time involving you and me) prejudice and discrimination that microaggressions sometimes indicate. I say “sometimes” because a microaggression can target any identity, including empowered, majority and normative identities (ex. I can be belittled for being “on of those Ivy League snobs”). But not all microaggressions have social or institutional might behind them: snob or not, I still experience the normative social and professional privilege of having my degrees.

And then, some microaggressions do have the power of an -ism behind them. This MU student breaks down what makes some racial microaggressions not just offensive or insensitive, but racist:

One example of a racist experience was when I walked home to Greek Town one night my sophomore year. A pair of white men who seemed to be intoxicated were walking towards me. Before I passed them, they placed their hands in a praying position, bowed and said “konnichiwa” and laughed hysterically before continuing on their way.

Initially I brushed it off because they were intoxicated. And I don’t find being miscategorized as Japanese offensive either. But looking back, I realize this was racism. It is racist to steal another culture’s traditions and words and use them mockingly. It is racist to categorize me based on my race and mock me for it. It is racist to lump all Asian people together into a stereotype. It is racist that though they were intoxicated, this appropriation was embedded in their consciousness to whip out on a passing Asian subject.

Am I forever marked by this occurrence? No. It doesn’t define me. Neither does my race. This occurrence points to a culture that reinforces racism and demeaning behavior. And that is what frustrates me. Words, action and inaction all have power.

And we need to respond when words and actions contribute to cultural and systemic inequity. When a microaggression or pattern of microaggressions reinforces and is reinforced by an -ism, it doesn’t suffice just to tell targeted individuals to cultivate a stiff upper lip. It hurts not just them but us to cultivate fear, ignorance and hate.

** Thanks to CH for sharing.

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