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Microaggressions as Overt Racism: Self-education is a necessity in anti-racist work

By Mitzi Luna Ceballos, Junior English Major

In this day and age, it is incredibly easy to convince yourself that you’re woke. You can make a few Facebook posts, wear a safety pin or have a conversation with your friends about racism. If you’re especially dedicated to the illusion, you can even learn another language or take classes in Mexican American or Refugee studies.

These things alone should not be mistaken for anti-racist work. Because after meeting the acceptable quota, it is also incredibly easy to hang up the social justice warrior suit and make a joke to your Mexican friend where the punchline is that she’s the angry Latina. This is what makes your anti-racist image an illusion.

Behaviors and language like this are often excused by utilizing the label, “microaggression.” A microaggression is defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary as, “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group.” Because the intention was good, and no harm was meant, I am supposed to forgive the incident and move on. It was just a joke. Nobody meant to offend me. Don’t be the angry Latina. But microaggressions pile up. The same person who made the joke will also inform me, in a condescending tone, that “language and culture are connected,” as if though I, a bilingual Chicana—or Mexican-American—were unaware of this. Somebody else will compliment my English. The list goes on. After a while I could care less what the intention was; these comments still reflect a mindset that views people of color as inferior.

This is because those comments are racist. Racism is the everyday manifestation of deeply-set patterns, not just a series of aberrations like supporting the KKK or advocating for a wall. In order to truly advocate for anti-racist work, it is necessary to evaluate our own thought processes and behaviors. Don’t be afraid of being educated. If your message is ill-received by a person of color, consider their point of view. Consider that you might not be as woke as you think you are.

This sentiment is nothing new. In his 1967 book, “Where Do We Go from Here,” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.” This narrative can’t be moved out of until the rhetoric of the microaggression is shifted so that it’s called out for the racism it is, and until it is accepted that education is necessary.

This is not to say that white guilt should be confused for political activism. Chicana feminists Gloria Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga write, “Guilt is not a feeling. It is an intellectual mask to a feeling. Fear is a feeling— fear to losing one’s power, fear of being accused. Fear is real.” My point is not that people of color need an apology. Apologies also contribute to the illusion, because they aren’t followed up with critical thinking or change.

As a woman of color, I cannot absolve anyone of their racism. I cannot accept apologies on the behalf of my race. I can only explain—in a calm, polite manner—why I find the comment offensive. Every attempt at this has been met with resistance. The person thinks I should know them better than to assume ill-will on their part. Or they claim to respect my opinion without realizing that they don’t even respect my existence. “I don’t want to offend you, but,” they say. If you believe yourself to be woke, examine your logic and behaviors. If your POC friend is telling you you might not be, listen. Only after this can true anti-racist work begin.

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