For many white people in the U.S., the Black Lives Matter protests and subsequent conversations around racial justice over the past few weeks have been a long, overdue wake-up call. Many are realizing that it’s not enough to not be a racist; one must be anti-racist, aka actively working to combat racism in their lives and communities and pushing for long-lasting changes.
Learning how to be an ally to the Black community is just that; a learning process. Sometimes, you may say the wrong thing simply because you didn’t know better. Mistakes happen and it’s better to misstep than to be silent and not work toward change at all. But that doesn’t just give someone carte-blanche to mess up without accountability. It’s crucial that people acknowledge their mistakes, learn from them, and do better.
While virtually everyone can recognize blatant racism and hate crimes such as the acts of brutality and murder that have made headlines the past few weeks, Antoinette Landor, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri, says Black people are also subject to microaggressions, aka verbal and behavioral exchanges, sometimes subtle and covert, that send denigrating messages to people of color. “These raced-based interactions, including slights, exclusions, avoidance, and unfair treatment can be stressful, demoralizing and, more importantly, threaten mental and physical health,” a study in the journal Social Inequality further explains.
What makes microaggressions even more insidious and harmful is that the people who commit them—yes, even people who consider themselves to be allies—often don’t fully realize what they are doing. That doesn’t excuse the behavior—it just makes it all the more important to learn about, call out, and stop in its tracks.
To do you one better, we put together a list of some of the most common examples of microaggressions, so that you can better identify them in yourself—and stop yourself from making these mistakes in the future. You’ll be a better ally for it.
4 examples of common microaggressions every ally should be aware of (and avoid)
1. Claiming to not “see” color
PSA: This is…super unhelpful. “We learn at a very early age—4, 5, 6—that we’re not supposed to talk about race-related matters …My argument is you can’t solve a problem if you can’t talk about it,” said Beverly Tatum, author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race, in a 2017 interview. When you choose to ignore someone’s racial background by being “colorblind” in this way, you’re choosing to ignore the injustices they face because of their skin color. This is also why the phrase “all lives matter” is problematic—it minimizes and erases the specific issues Black people endure as a direct result of their race.
2. Saying that you’re not racist because you have black friends
Just because you have a Black friend (or even several) doesn’t mean you’re immune to racism. “The ‘some of my best friends are black’ defense, has so often been relied on by those facing accusations of racism that it has become shorthand for weak denials of bigotry—a punch line about the absence of thoughtfulness and rigor in our conversations about racism,” Jon Eligon wrote in the New York Times. Using the Black people in your life as a shield to defend yourself from racism just lets you avoid the issue of confronting your own biases—and makes you a terrible friend to boot.
3. Assuming A Black Person Is Dangerous
Even if you consider yourself an ally through what you say, unspoken actions speak louder. And how you act around Black people—particularly strangers—can reveal volumes. Assuming Black criminality is another racist action that can manifest in microaggressions like crossing the street to walk on the other side of the sidewalk from a Black person, or clutching your purse more tightly as you do so, according to educational resource The Conscious Kid.
4. Back-handed ‘Compliments’
As I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual author Luvvie Ajayi pointed out in a 2018 TED article, telling a Black person they are “well-spoken” or “articulate” is a microaggression disguised as a compliment. “It is usually a white person who is earnest and honest in their admiration of your verbal abilities, and in that moment, you swing between being appreciative and being totally offended,” he wrote. “It’s a backhanded compliment at best, but mostly it’s a put-down, because no matter how much you’ve studied, how nice your clothes are, or how impressive your body of work is, people still expect little from you (because: minority).” Basically, it reveals an expectation that a person of that race or background should talk or act in a certain way—and the false assumption that Black people are not as intelligent as white people.
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