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Microaggression or Compliment?

Author Crystal Byrd Farmer

Today's post is an excerpt from Crystal Byrd Farmer’s new book The Token: Common Sense Ideas for Creating Diversity in Your Organization. Crystal acts as the bridge between majority white organizations who acknowledge the need for diversity but don’t know where to start.

Crystal discusses microaggressions, an unintentionally harmful act toward or statement about a marginalized person and how to recognize when you are committing them, and what to do instead.

Excerpt from the Book

I was at a sex-positive retreat when a new acquaintance asked about my hair. I had been wearing my hair short and natural (just long enough to be nappy) for years. I told the group at my table how Black people often grow up dissatisfied with their hair. Many of us have used chemical straighteners for all or part of our lives. Embracing my natural hair was similar to embracing my sexuality — it was a personal journey, and I came out more enlightened and willing to educate others. My acquaintance was white and wanted to touch my hair. Before I go further, please remember:

Never Touch Someone’s Hair.

I’m not even limiting this to Black people because it’s just common sense. Many “ethnic” people have had the experience of someone wanting to see if our hair was real or comment on how beautiful it was. My body is not here for your viewing and tactile pleasure. I’m not fishing for compliments; I’m trying to survive as a Token.

I let the acquaintance touch my hair, but I told them later that it felt harmful because it was a microaggression. A microaggression is an unintentionally harmful act toward or statement about a marginalized person. If you’re white, you’ve probably been accused of committing a microaggression before. If you haven’t, keep reading. Microaggressions are often the opposite of aggression: sometimes they are meant as compliments. The problem is they usually set the person apart as a Token instead of part of the community.

Once I had training at a machine shop led by older white men. One instructor had a great time teasing me for being a woman and not knowing how to use the tools, but I was used to that. I was not prepared when his buddy talked about having Black coworkers at his plant. “You people are all right,” he said approvingly.

Microaggressive phrases are not bad out of context, and marginalized people understand that you’re trying to connect. Comments like these are often followed up with personal questions about our language, family, or education. Here’s the thing: we didn’t invite you to start talking about our identity. One person’s curiosity is fine. Multiple people’s curiosity overtime is exhausting. When a Token only talks to people about how they are different, they start to feel unwelcome, and they may not come back. Encourage your community members to think before they speak. If you’re interacting with someone and your first thought is to comment on something related to their race, gender, or language, stop. You’re about to commit a Microaggression.

Imagine you are back in high school, and your archenemy has bad acne that makes her self-conscious. One day you decide to needle her and you say, “Your makeup looks great today!” If you can give a back-handed compliment, you know what a microaggression feels like. You can’t pretend you were just being nice if you are already aware of the social and personal implications of a statement (and from now on, you are aware of those implications.)

There’s a thin line to walk with Tokens. On one hand, you don’t want to erase someone’s identity by saying, “I didn’t even notice you were X.” On the other, you don’t want to make harmful assumptions about them based on what you think you know. For me, it’s enough to say, “I recognize that you are Black, and I know that means you may have had a different life than I have. Can I ask you about that?” A respectful question gives them the choice to share or not. Don’t be offended if they’ve filled their quota of curiosity for the day and they say no.

Microaggressions hurt, but we rarely tell you when they do. The reason we don’t tell you is because it’ll hurt your feelings. When it comes to race, that’s called white fragility. It’s not because you, as a white person, are too insecure to talk about race. It’s because you can’t engage on a topic like race without feeling defensive. White fragility turns harmful events into pity parties. When a person of color suggests that a white person acted out of ignorance or prejudice, the white person hears, “You are a bad person.”

Understandably, their nervous system goes into overdrive trying to fix that perception. The conversation may devolve into passionate speeches, tearful explanations, or, worse, trying to extract an apology from the other person. This is not helpful. This is why you can’t just tell your Tokens, “Let us know if anything happens.” When something happens, the person involved may get so upset that it’s not worth the Token’s emotional energy.

Marginalized people point out microaggressions because they want to help people who are close to them. When a Token tells you that your words are a microaggression, they’re keying you in to a part of their world you’ve so far been unaware of. They want you to know that you may have meant it a certain way, but it didn’t come out that way. The appropriate way to respond to someone pointing out a microaggression is to say, “Thank you.” That’s it. It’s OK to feel bad that you have hurt people. It’s OK to feel upset that no one has ever told you. It’s not OK to break out into tears because you feel bad. We already feel bad. For you.

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