Share this

Over the past weeks I’ve been reading quite a few articles and some books about racism and just how insidious it is, how entrenched in our history it has always been. Two books I highly recommend about that are “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo and “How To Be An Anti-Racist” by Ibram X. Kendi.
I’ve also been challenged by many of these articles and books to think about my own role in supporting the system that keeps racism alive in America. It’s a hard truth to confront as someone who sees himself as an ally in the struggle against racism and oppression of our black sisters and brothers and people of color, and as someone who recognizes the existence of white privilege and how throughout my life I have, knowingly or not, benefitted from it.

Many times, my thoughts over the past weeks have gone something like this:
“Well yes, that’s obviously true! But that doesn’t apply to me! I’m not a racist! I hate racism!”
“This doesn’t apply to me. They’re talking about those other people, the ones who run around waving the Confederate flag and support Trump!”

Those and other thoughts, though, are easy ways to avoid looking at my own actions and those microaggressions white people are especially guilty of.

“Just what is microaggression?” you might be asking.

In an interview on NPR, Kevin Nadal, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who has studied and written about microaggression:

“Microaggressions are defined as the everyday, subtle, intentional — and oftentimes unintentional — interactions or behaviors that communicate some sort of bias toward historically marginalized groups.
The difference between microaggressions and overt discrimination or macroaggressions, is that people who commit microagressions might not even be aware of them.
Someone commenting on how well an Asian American speaks English, which presumes the Asian American was not born here, is one example of a microaggression. Presuming that a black person is dangerous or violent is another example. A common experience that black men talk about is being followed around in stores or getting on an elevator and having people move away and grab their purses or their wallets.
Oftentimes, people don’t even realize that they’re doing those sorts of things. And in fact, if you were to stop them and say, ‘Why did you just move?’ They would deny it because they don’t recognize that their behaviors communicate their racial biases.”

When I read that, I began to think of some instances where I might have been guilty of committing a microaggression and one instance from long ago immediately came to mind. I’ve actually thought about it often over the years, and I’m filled with guilt and remorse each time I do.

It happened almost 40 years ago, I’d say, when I was working in Manhattan for a large retail chain as a manager. I worked on the East side on 28th Street and 2nd Avenue. I commuted form New Jersey by bus to the Port Authority on 40th Street and 8th Avenue and would often walk to and from work across town, especially when the weather was nice. I’ve never been fond of subways.
One evening, when the weather was particularly nice, I took my usual walk back to the Port Authority. It had been a long day and it was already getting dark I had my Walkman cassette player (remember those?) and headphones and wasn’t really concerned about anything except getting to the bus on time. My usual route included walking up 7th Avenue and turning on 40th Street to head to the Port Authority building. On this particular night, I did the same as I always had done. The street wasn’t really well lit as the business and restaurants had already closed. I thought nothing of it, though.
Until I looked up and noticed that there was a group of young black men, probably in their twenties as I was, heading in the opposite direction that I was on the same side of the street. They weren’t doing anything odd. Talking, laughing with each other. They were dressed as most young men in their twenties were: jeans, t-shirt, sneakers, the kind of clothes that to this day I’m still most comfortable in and would be changing into once I got home that night.
But immediately I felt my stomach tighten up and I felt not just nervous, but fearful. Immediately, I worried that they might try to “do something” to me, maybe take my Walkman and rob me. And immediately I crossed the street to the other side and picked up the pace of my walking. They also kept walking on their side of the block and seemed not to pay any attention to me. I didn’t look back to check what they were doing.
But then I felt a tap on my shoulder and I jumped and turned around to see one of the young me. The rest were waiting for him across the street.  I took off my headphones and just stood there. I expected the worst. Instead, he just looked at me with a sort of sad smile and asked, “Hey, man. Why’d you cross the street?” I didn’t know what to say. He continued, “We were just walking, man. We weren’t going to do anything to you. We’re not criminals. You didn’t have to cross the street. You didn’t have to be afraid.” Then he turned and walked away.

Those were his exact words. They have been seared into my memory all these years because immediately I felt ashamed. Of course I tried to make excuses for myself in my mind. It was dark. There were a lot of them. I’d have done the same thing if they were white.  But I knew immediately that none of those held up. So what if it was dark or that there were “a lot” of them? (There were four. Hardly a lot.) And the sad, shameful truth that I knew in my heart was that I would not have acted the same way if they had been white.

That was a microaggression and as I look back over the years I recognize others that I am guilty of. Watching black people as they wandered around the store I managed because of some insidious notion that had been planted in my head and heart by society, by the media, by other white people including people in my own family,  that “they” need to be watched. I always told myself I didn’t believe that , that that was racist and not true. And yet…there I was, exhibiting the same kind of behavior I outwardly condemned.

I could go on about the microaggression I’m guilty of. But I think you get the point. Not all of them are so overt. Some were seemingly harmless, at least to my white way of thinking and I don’t know how much pain or hurt I’ve done to my black friends by making some stupid joke or saying something that I thought was just an innocent comment.

I’ve been challenged, though, over the past weeks to be more attuned to my thoughts and actions. And to be willing to admit when I’m guilty of such behavior.

Perhaps you can look back and find instances in your own life where you have been guilty of those seemingly innocuous microaggressions.

It’s not enough for us to say that we believe that Black Lives Matter. If we truly believe that, we have to be willing to believe that they matter enough for us to listen and to be willing to examine our own words and actions. We can call them microaggression confessions. And as the saying goes, confession is good for the soul.

Both of the books I recommended at the beginning of this blog post have been helpful. I hope you’ll consider reading them and be as challenged as I have been.

Peace and Light,
Rev. Paul