I would like to start off by stating that when I am vocal about racism, sexism, and other problematic language; I am NOT to be dismissed as just another “feisty Latina”.
As a Latina feminist, living and going to college in DC, I live in a place predominantly surrounded by liberal individuals who understand the dangers and evils of prejudice. This complicates the way in which power dynamics are viewed, discussed and how their role in my life, and the life of the individuals with whom I interact, is interpreted. In a predominantly white, higher-to-upper middle class, social-justice-oriented institution, it is sometimes hard for me to explain my experience of the subtle, insidious effects of sexist and/or racially-charged microaggressions.
The word “microaggression” (Click Here to Learn More About Microaggressions) was coined by Chester M. Pierce in the 1970s, and several psychologists have since worked with the term. More recently, Derald Wing Sue defined microaggressions as: “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people.” Microaggressions are usually said without negative intentions, by people who have the privilege of not being aware of how or why their words are hurtful. Peggy McIntosh expanded the conception of privilege- the exploration of how groups can either be systemically advantaged or disadvantaged from gendered discussions to racial discussions. In her working paper, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack’(1989), McIntosh acknowledges her own discovery of her privilege when she writes: “As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something which puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.” A particular sore spot is the mentioning of white privilege (see “White Privilege the Invisible Backpack” for more information) and extensions of it, which come in the form of offhanded, offensive language. Microaggressions are usually casually brought up, with no intention of being insulting- they are, however, offensive, even if they are unintentionally so.
As McIntosh mentions, it is hard for people to recognize their own privilege. This leads to people perpetuating racism or sexism in ever-so-insidious ways, even if they do not intend on being offensive. The fact that microaggressions are not intentionally offensive makes it hard for those who are less privileged, or who are triggered or insulted by them to explain how or why they feel their identities being belittled, challenged or otherwise insulted. At this point in history, it is increasingly rare for people to say blatantly racist, sexist or homophobic slurs without natural social sanctions serving as consequences for those statements. However, the mainstreaming and generally privileged nature of “whiteness” in American society still allows for the perpetuation of racial and/or sexist stigma through the use of microaggressions- most of which come from the oversimplification of or the same ignorance of the complex nature and connection of race and identity in communities of color, that fuel racism.Personally, as a Latina, my experience of being a minority is new, and has been limited due to the fact that I was brought up in Miami, FL. In Miami, I was surrounded, mostly, by Hispanic people like myself. At the time, I did not recognize the privileges that came from being a member of the demographic that was a local majority.
In an environment in which I am new to being a minority, and some people are not used to minorities, or Latinas, it is difficult for me to pinpoint and express the ways in which I’ve been affected by microaggressions. Recently however, a friend who actively tries to understand me and my culture offhandedly called me a“feisty Latina”. I laughed at this, because I am proud of my reputation of speaking up for what I value, and I am proud of my heritage. I was not directly hurt by the statement- but it did make me more conscious (and self-conscious) of my identity contingencies. Identity contingencies, as described by Claude Steele in his book Whistling Vivaldi, are “the things you have to deal with in a situation because you have a given social identity”. Steele argues that identity contingencies affect us when they are compounded by stereotype threats, which are instances in which you are aware of a stereotype about one of your identities and refrain from doing things that would affirm those stereotypes. This played out, in my personal life, later that night.
Alex, his friend John and I went out for a late-night dessert was when I discovered just how insidious the effects of microaggressions can be. At the shop, my friend Alex and I were looking at books together while John was browsing in a nearby section. Then, some man came up to us, looked at me from head-to-toe, pointed at me, and told Alex he had a “hot friend” (me). The way the stranger looked at me, with a perverted look in his eyes, and then didn’t acknowledge me infuriated me. I could not believe how he could simultaneously pour over my body so intently and act as if I don’t exist; it felt like objectification at its most revolting. I wanted to coolly tell him that it was not acceptable to be disrespectful. I wanted to yell at him that he was being a misogynistic ass. I wanted to say something- but I didn’t. The first thought that raced through my mind was to make sure I wasn’t overreacting or just being feisty. That identity contingency, which I usually ignore, rendered me unable to respond to this strange man’s disrespectful behavior. THAT is the threat that microaggressions pose- they are so subtle that they go unnoticed, but ultimately lead to self-policing behaviors. Racism is not as overt as it once was, but it is pervasive. Racism has become so ingrained in our society that although we may know there is more genetic difference between people of the same “race” or “ethnicity” than between people of different “races” or “ethnicities” we still divide people along those arbitrary lines. We still assume that the “feisty Latina” and “angry black woman” stereotypes have some validity. Racism looks differently now, it is systemic, ingrained in our thought and is usually a result of self-policing which results from the fear of validating negative stigma about one’s own race/ethnicity.
What I learned from it all:
I was NOT being a feisty Latina. I was being a human, who was angered by racist and sexist language.
Sue, Derald Wing; Capodilupo, Christina M.; Torino, Gina C.; Bucceri, Jennifer M.; Holder, Aisha M. B.; Nadal, Kevin L.; Esquilin, Marta. Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice. American Psychologist, v62 n4 p271-286 May-Jun 2007.
McIntosh, Peggy, ‘White privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack’,Peace and Freedom (July/August 1989), 9-10; repr. in Independent School, 49 (1990), 31-35. http://people.westminstercollege.edu/faculty/jsibbett/readings/White_Privilege.pdf
Steele, Claude. Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do. W. W. Norton & Company, 2011. Print.