I am a woman of color, who has been learning (and un-learning) to be unapologetically brown. Growing up in Virginia as a daughter of immigrants there were so many times I heard “Where are you actually from?” despite the fact that my first and most fluent language is English and I speak with a distinctly American (and in my younger life, also Southern) accent. Getting asked where I am from always made it clear to me that I wasn’t seen as American even though this land is the only home I know. When I was a kid, it confused me because I wondered why someone was asking me this when I was speaking the same language in often the same tones and inflections they were. Should I explain that we are Indian American? And then further explain, “not American-Indian, Indian-American; my parents are from India and immigrated to the US, but I grew up here.” How much would I have to explain? The reality of growing up in the South also meant that sometimes it wasn’t a microaggression, it was more explicit; sometimes, I was scared when someone asked me that question. Are they going to hurt me? Do they hate me? How much should I say in response?
In my adult life, I learned about microaggressions, and I realized I saw them everywhere and experienced them so much in my own life. Experiencing a range of intentions behind words used in microaggressions also led to my understanding that they triggered me. As an adult, I’m not scared or confused by them, I get angry. It’s pretty infuriating that I have to explain myself to a white person because they are wondering where I’m from because they can’t fathom an assumption that brown people are Americans. Why, WHY must I clarify your misguided assumptions? My point: microaggressions, whatever the intention, have a real and lasting (sometimes triggering) impact. Often for me, that impact looks like anger.
After some time though, I had to question that anger. How was it serving me to get angry? Most of the time, the anger made me spin in my head and rarely was I able to formulate a thoughtful, articulate response. Following Audre Lorde’s advice on “The Uses of Anger”, she says “I have tried to learn my anger’s usefulness to me, as well as its limitations.” I decided to do a few things to handle my own triggers and reactions to racially driven microaggressions (also known as racism!):
1. I accept that it makes me angry, and I release the anger in constructive ways.
Sometimes, this means speaking to myself with intention: “Uma, you just experienced racism. You really did, and it was really not okay.” Acknowledging it for what it is–unapologetically–is really powerful. It’s not in your head; you are not overreacting. It was harmful whether that person meant to be hurtful or not. You deserve to know that. And sometimes, the release of anger looks like an unfiltered chat with my best friend, describing the experience in detail so that we can both acknowledge it. Sometimes it helps to feel seen and hearing her say to me “That is SO f-ed up!” does the job for me.
I learned that microaggressions make me angry; I unlearned that expressing anger always has to look aggressive and loud.
2. I know that intentions do matter, and having grace & compassion matters. While it’s a fair assumption that most racial microaggressions are racist, it’s not a fair assumption that they are driven by racism. The reality is that not all white folks are trying to be racist. How do I know? Because I make plenty of mistakes from my own points of privilege. I am a cis-gendered, gender conforming woman. I know for a fact I have committed plenty of microaggressions toward the people in my life who identify as transgender and gender nonconforming. For example, I have mispronouned friends who have informed me of the pronouns they use, and I’ve done it to them multiple times. I wince thinking about it, but I know that’s my own guilt that is wincing. What happened in many of those painful moments, is that my friends were generous with me. They were patient in correcting me and never made me feel like I was doing something hurtful, even though I know that it is.
Building genuine relationships with people helps to see the intentions behind words. I know some of my white friends don’t intend any harm even when their words or actions are hurtful. Sometimes I can articulate that to them, and it deepens our friendship–especially when I can see that those mistakes occur less frequently over time. I know there is a positive impact in taking the risk and the time to talk through microaggressions.
I learned that having grace and compassion helps me deepen relationships; I unlearned that honest mistakes are final and conclusive about who I am, or who anyone else is.
3. I engage based on the level of my own energy at any given moment. The days when I can come up with thoughtful, articulate responses to microaggressions are victorious for me. I feel immensely proud of myself, pleased that I could deepen a friendship with an honest and caring conversation. The days that don’t feel victorious are the ones where I let it (the well-intentioned but harmful microaggressions) happen to me without saying anything. To be honest, these days are more frequent than the victorious days. I’ve decided that’s okay. How I engage with the experiences I am confronting is up to me to decide. Microaggressions can be frequent; there will be more opportunities to have courageous conversations. And, having those conversations take a lot of energy (that I don’t always have), skill (that I don’t always have), and time (that I don’t always have).
I learned that deepening relationships is a process that continues over time; I unlearned that every microaggressive moment is THE moment to do the hard work.
4. There are a lot of places white allies can show up to confront racism. While I don’t always have the energy to have courageous conversations, I also don’t need to feel the responsibility to direct those conversations either. There is a role for white allies to play when you see things go down. True allyship can look like: 1) Recognizing the problematic moments and microaggressions that occur and 2) Addressing them from your point of privilege, every time. As someone who has been the recipient of many microaggressions and intended racism, it is a refreshing experience when a white ally sees it and confronts it on their own. Further, it’s important to acknowledge that while it’s commendable for me to enter a courageous conversation, it doesn’t always go well. Sometimes, the conversation gets confusing and can lead to more harmful impact for all involved. It can simply be more effective to hear an honest and direct message about your problematic behavior from someone who shares your identity; it is less about blaming and more about naming and learning. The conversation can be more about learning when it’s not loaded in trying to figure out the “right” responses or drowning in your own guilt and shame.
White folks, it is your job to confront racism. Learn how to recognize it, but don’t stop there. It’s not enough to know; it’s your job to learn the skills to confront it and to thoughtfully do so every time. True allyship is about leveraging your privilege to make real progress. Challenge yourself to show up for racial justice, and show up every time.
I learned that I don’t have to take on the full burden myself; I unlearned that I know how to do it best every time.
Being a lifelong learner is exhausting, and that’s the truth. One thing I know for sure is that learning and un-learning, more than anything else takes commitment. The benefit to this commitment is that you can see change and transformation within you and in front of you. This change, well– that’s just beauty and joy that you can’t describe. All I can do is encourage you to stay in these movements because it’s 100% worth it.