Microaggressions are not so micro

Illustration by Olivia McCabe

Mya Harrison, Contributing Writer

A few months ago, while working at a grocery store and minding my own business, one of my white co-workers came up to me and ran her fingers through my natural hair. Even though I am Black and live in a predominantly white area, I didn’t think this could happen to me.

“Wow your hair is so pretty,” she said. In this case I knew she meant well because she genuinely liked my hair, but I still felt uneasy. While I laughed and smiled uncomfortably, I was not okay with the situation.

These small comments or actions are microaggressions, defined as “everyday, subtle, intentional and oftentimes unintentional interactions or behaviors that communicate some sort of bias toward historically marginalized groups,” according to Kevin Nadal, a counseling psychologist at City University of New York College of Criminal Justice.

As a Black woman, it’s safe to say that I’ve experienced more microaggressions than one can count. These hurtful comments and questions have made me feel uncomfortable in my own skin many times.

Here is a quick and digestible “DON’T DO” guide when it comes to microaggressions.

1. DON’T ask to touch my hair and do not touch it.

I know when you see my natural hair, it can be interesting to look at. Yes, my hair is kinky, curly, big and perhaps different from what you normally see, but that doesn’t give you permission to touch it.

It invades my personal space, and it gives a perspective that as a Black woman I am just an object to you. By being curious, you are saying my hair is not the “norm” in societal standards and you want to point that out for everyone to see.

My hair is a part of me. It is a part of my Blackness, not a circus act and it is certainly not for you to touch.

2. DON’T say you are surprised how well-spoken I am.

Saying that you are surprised that I am well-spoken exacerbates the stereotype that most Black people are not well-spoken. When you have that assumption in your head, you are undermining the intelligence of the Black community. 

When I was younger some of my close non-Black friends would call me an “oreo,” referring to a person who is Black on the outside and white on the inside.

Being made fun of because I talked and acted a certain way was common. I didn’t act like the one-size-fits-all image they had created of what a Black kid should be, talk or act like.

3. DON’T tell me I am pretty for a Black girl.

To many people, this comment can be seen as just a compliment and nothing more. But saying I am pretty for a Black girl is saying that being pretty and being Black is not a common thing. You are saying that Black women are not conventionally pretty, but I am. I am Black and I am a woman. You are talking about me as well.

On top of these, I am sure you have heard,  “I don’t see color,” “I’m not racist, I have a lot of Black friends” or “You probably got a scholarship to come to this school.” These phrases are much more negative than you might think.

While every marginalized group experiences microaggressions, the Black community is especially affected by them. In a 2020 study, it was concluded that African Americans reported being faced with more microaggressions than any other racial group, according to The Gallup Poll.

Responding to a microaggression can often be hard. According to Harvard Business Law, the best ways to respond to a microaggression are to let it go, respond immediately or respond later. These options are acceptable, but you should also think about what type of situation you’re in at that moment. Pick one that makes you feel the most comfortable. 

I think the best way to respond is to educate the person. I know it can be hard to have to explain something that should be common sense, but going the extra mile can change someone else’s perspective for life. It’s important for all Black people and minorities to continue to stand up for ourselves when faced with microaggressions.

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