Guest Column

Pandering to the microaggressions of racists

2018-05-08 20:00

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Charlene Naidoo

Most of us know of the American civil rights icon, Rosa Parks, who in 1955 in America, refused to move to the back of the bus. Her metaphorical stand against racism and segregation.

But this isn't a history lesson.

The point of this anecdote is the little-known reason for Rosa's sitting protest. Some historical narratives claim she didn't give up her seat because she was tired.

She was tired.

In her own words: "I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I was at the end of a working day. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in."

Sixty-three years later in America, two black men also got tired.

We know the story by now. They were waiting for a friend at a Starbucks coffee shop. They sat a table. They hadn't ordered anything yet. The manager asked them to leave. They refused. The police were called. They were forced off the premises. Another customer videotaped the altercation. The two men spoke out about the incident. 

In another part of the world, on the same day that Prince Charles became the next leader of the Commonwealth, he had this little exchange with a British Indian journalist.

When he asked her where she was from, Anita Sethi replied, "Manchester".

"Well, you don't look like it!" he replied.  

Let's put this into context. The leader of a group of states that date back to when Britain (forcibly) ruled most of the world, tells an Indian woman she doesn't look like she's from England. 

Over seventy years since India gained independence from his country and British royalty is still, "You can't sit with us"? 

The question is rhetorical.

In her article in The Guardian, Sethi wrote: "That the mooted next leader of an organisation that represents one-third of the people on the planet commented that I, a brown woman, did not look as if I was from a city in the UK is shocking." 

The word you're looking for is microaggression(s). Cutting, hurtful actions, words and slights; easy little gateways to racism, sexism and various problematic behaviours.

What Sethi, the men in Starbucks, women, and people of colour face routinely. Every day. In a million different ways. 

Microaggressions are so routine in so many of our lives that it's futile to combat every single one. Who has the time and energy to fight every fight, right? 

But, as with Sethi's story and the two men at the Starbucks, if they hadn't resisted the aggression, we would never know their stories.  

This is the ingenuity of microaggressions; the clue is in the first part of the word: micro. 

Small, petty, and meaningless, so you brush it off, choosing to believe it was a joke.

Or, you shouldn't be so sensitive.

The person didn't mean it in that way.

And this is where we do the aggressor and ourselves a disservice. Like all types of untoward behaviour, microaggressions become substantial when we pander by not calling them out. We allow it to thrive.

It becomes one more, "I'll just deal" or "I can't".

Yes, you can.

And you should. 

Microaggressions become macro-sized when we let them slide. They become normalised and soon, like every good Stockholm Syndrome survivor, you just go along with the disturbing flow. Microaggressions grow into incidents like a black woman being thrown to the ground at a restaurant by police, her breasts exposed to all. For good measure, she's told her arm will be broken if she refuses to cooperate. Yes, that actually happened recently in Alabama, America.

But first, they get there by being so subtle and passive that you're left questioning your interpretation. Microaggressions are those understated moments that belie an ethos or belief about the person on the other end.

It's never about you, until it leaves you feeling a certain type of way. "It's those everyday slights, indignities, put-downs and insults that people of colour, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalised experience in their day-to-day interactions," is how psychologist Derald W Sue explains it.

It's when someone furtively clutches their bag closer when you sit down next them. It's in the patronising pat on the back for doing a good job. The coded language of, "Is that your real hair?" The disturbing connotation behind, "Are you sure you're Indian? You have light skin." An ugly significance in the: "Your accent is… so different." And that's just the pettiest of petty ones. 

How do you confront walking into a store while black and hearing the store assistant tell her colleague (in Afrikaans), "Watch out for this one"?

Or, being the only woman in a meeting and having all the men look at you expectantly, "Will you take notes?"

What about being told by a man, "You should smile more"?

Or the one that never gets old (for women): "Don't be so emotional!"

All these. Times a lot. Every day.

Aren't you tired yet? Of not fighting back?

- Charlene Naidoo is a content producer at

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    racism  |  discrimination


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