So often when we think about racism we think about overt acts of racism such as verbal and physical violence against BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), as well as systemic racism that shows up in mass incarceration, unequal access to higher education and certain jobs as well as the long time legacy of red lining which impacts current access to wealth. I heard someone say post-election "now we can go back to regular racism".
As a Black female presenting person who grew up in a two-parent middle class home in New York/New Jersey I experienced few overt acts of racism. Though my parents were from Haiti and came her in adolescence and young adulthood they quickly were indoctrinated into the hierarchy of race in this country. They raised me to shy away from African American culture because of the way it was negatively regarded, and they worried that any association to it would create more barriers to success. I have gone to schools in predominantly BIPOC areas as well as predominantly white areas. I have been reflecting on the stress of navigating predominantly white areas for much of my life. I have many white friends and for the most part have been very kind to me and polite and yet until the last decade there were few meaningful conversations about race.
Colorblindness was what I grew up in and was the norm for many decades. I can remember people in high school not describing me as black even though that would have been the best descriptor for me if you were going to pick me out in a crowd. I blended. Blending was my survival strategy. Blending and becoming the model minority is pretty common. Many BIPOC people are so good at this that White identifying people do not realize that BIPOC people have transformed themselves into a version that can assimilate into predominantly white spaces. That assimilation translates to: not appearing threatening, being professional, not adhering to any stereotypical assumptions about the marginalized identity, not being fully seen.
The question is what did it take for me to blend, to assimilate into predominantly white spaces. What parts of myself did I have to leave at the door? What was the consequence when I did bring more of myself to work? What was it like to not see enough magazine covers, tv actresses, book characters, dolls reflect my skin color? It led to me internalizing some anti-black notions around standards of beauty and what kinds of occupations black presenting individuals could have. When I did see black characters on tv and movies they often inhabited stereotypical roles that I could not relate to. What are the long term consequences of internalized racism and/or colorblindness?
What are the many ways that racism shows up in daily life. Microaggresions are much more subtle and common experiences of racism in the world. Gerald Wing Sue does a lot of research on microaggressions. Microaggressions are subtle verbal or nonverbal insults, microassaults, indignities, and denigrating messages directed towards an individual based on their marginalized identity. It is often done by well-intentioned people who are not aware of their implicit bias (unconscious stereotypes and assumptions about others). Some describe microaggressions as deaths by a thousand little cuts. The person experiencing microaggressions often is caught off guard and wonders if they heard correctly. There can be doubt as well as uncertainty about how to address the microaggression because the comment or behavior is usually subtle. There may be worry that addressing the microaggression might give the appearance of being too sensitive or emotional (i.e. I don’t want to be seen as the angry black woman). Often these microaggressions are suppressed and yet still can cause a stress reaction and accumulate over time. There is a risk no matter what. You either risk environmental response by saying something or risk losing part of yourself by not saying anything. Chronic voicelessness can lead to rage, shame, grief, depression, disconnection with how you really feel, lack of authenticity as well as physical health problems.
How do you begin to uncover your own unconscious biases so that you do less harm to others who hold a marginalized identity? If you hold a marginalized identity, how do you care for yourself in ways that honors your full self and feelings. What is the harm of raising another generation of White people who are colorblind, lack racial literacy, do not have the language to talk about race in a meaningful way, and continue to commit microaggressions?
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Nathalie Edmond is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of trauma from a mindfulness based and somatic approach. She is also a yoga teacher and anti-racism educator. She lives with her family in New Jersey.