I remember a red-haired boy made a snide remark to the black kids playing at recess. At eight years old, I did not know about microaggression, but now I know this was my first encounter with it. Though subtle, microaggression is intentional or unintentional derogatory actions, words or deeds toward racial or ethnic minorities.
My family had moved from Washington DC to Maryland, Prince George’s County. Living in Maryland was different. A child of the 70s, in DC, I walked to school with my friends, but in Maryland, I had to get up early and catch a bus. It seemed ridiculous to me to travel so far. I was too young to grasp integration efforts that would provide our community a better learning experience. All I knew was I hopped on a yellow bus and rode several miles away, where the students weren’t too keen on me being in their school.
Both groups of students riding the bus and those living within the school zone did not have the communication skills to bridge the gap between us. We all just co-existed. Going to classes together, but separating into our own groups, eating lunch together but sitting at different tables. The lack of interaction was bearable but then my classmate with the red hair crossed the line. We were all playing outside. I am not aware of what sparked the comment. I just know that the 70s axiom, “black is beautiful”, offended him (or more than likely offended some adult in his life who he emulated). A group of us were near some stairs on the playground black kids one place and white kids another when this boy whose name escapes me says with his pronounced lisps, loud enough for all to hear, “If black is beautiful, I just created a masterpiece.” His demeaning comment stung. He obviously thought his statement would get two reactions: First, the black kids would be hurt, and second white kids would laugh at his racially charged toilet joke. Strangely, instead of any reactions, there was dead silence. None of the kids, black or white, said anything.
Reflection and “The Talks”
Looking back, I think I now understand our silence. For those of us who rode the bus, we had already been “schooled” educated in some fundamental “need to know black stuff” info such as: our truth could be twisted by others, people will lie on and about you and people with power who are not like you can harm you and get away with it. Sure, we could tell the principal or a teacher about the rosy-cheeked red-hair boy’s behavior, but our aunties, parents and neighbors taught us we probably wouldn’t be believed. The truth of the matter was our loved ones had just come out of segregation and had experienced things unimaginable, like lynching and the assassination of prominent civil right leaders. They were just trying to protect us as best they could.
As for the white children who had heard what he said, I think they believed it was better to keep their thoughts to themselves and their mouths shut about the matter. If they spoke out either way, words like bigot or the n-word lover would be assigned to them. Either label brought with it its own pound of flesh. Though different from ours, the white kids also carried a weight on their shoulders.
We were already acting out the behavior of the grownups in our lives by social distancing long before Covid-19 came on the scene. None of us knew what to do with the bigotry before us. What a price for third graders still being shaped and molded into full beings to pay.
So, on that playground that day when our classmate skipped into a verbal minefield of inappropriateness, I think the rest of us decided just to be eight-year-old children. We dispersed, some engaging in jump rope or Double Dutch while others got on the swings or joined in playing kickball. On that day we had the same mindset: let’s be kids. The irony of that incident is that what perniciously kept us apart is what united us when it became so conspicuous. In that instance, we wanted to just be children while we had the chance, so we neither took the high road nor the low road, we found the middle ground—the playground. For us, that was the important thing.
Something Has to Change
As an adult, looking back on that entire experience, I only identified my encounter with microaggression during the playground incident. However, as I learned more about this type of discrimination, I better understood the role my school played too, for example, my elementary school did nothing to make us who rode the bus feel good enough or welcomed. I felt like a second-class citizen. Researchers have reported that persons within marginalized groups who have experienced microaggression have struggled with invalidation. They can also have bouts of anxiety and low self-esteem. In retrospect, I better understand now why, throughout my school years and my time at college, I had this inner nagging of not quite fitting in with my surroundings. I now wonder how much of how I felt had to do with being treated like an outsider in third grade.
As a young professional, I remember, I was taking a walk on my lunch break at the Smithsonian mall. I worked in one of the museums. Someone behind me made a not so nice slur about black women. I turned around and said, “What did you say?” The guy smirked and walked past me. As he walked by, I said to him, “You’re not funny.” I thought about that little boy in the schoolyard and hoped that unlike the man that had just passed me, that the little boy had truly grown up and learned that black is incredibly beautiful and so is diversity.
Eventually, as I came into my adulthood, I learned I didn’t have to feel like the bad guy because some folks felt uncomfortable around me. I also learned to challenge some of my own biases because of my upbringing. I hope all my fellow students, especially those who did not have to get on a bus to acquire a quality education, came out of that scenario with lessons learned too. I like to think they became allies and are working to ensure equity by battling health disparities, coming against voting suppression and challenging social justice issues that plague marginalized people.
Today, as many communities are trying to assess what it will take to create an anti-racist society, other communities are protesting courses on racism in schools and universities. In addition, some political circles even believe that there is no such thing as systematic racism or microaggression on a large scale because they claim racist represent a small population of people. What I know for sure is that microaggression is not a small thing. It affected my childhood. I was misled by its subtlety and did not know for years how deeply I was hurt by its impact. We should teach people at an early age that microaggression is a racial attack with major implications and though it appears harmless, there are too many negative outcomes derived from its insidiousness. Where we can be vigilant about inclusion such as in our learning institutions, in our workforce, courts and in our neighborhoods, we should advocate for fair play and acceptance. As a child of the 70s with firsthand experience of bigotry’s influence, genuine efforts toward change are long overdue.