White People Need to Start Standing Up Against White Supremacist Microaggressions
I was sitting at a high-top table in a tavern in Wyoming with a poet and rapper from New York named Amanda. She was visiting Wyoming for the weekend in order to perform and also to lead two workshops on spoken word poetry/rap — one at a school for students who receive extra educational support, one for the literary arts organization I work for.
While we were having drinks and appetizers before her performance, a middle-aged white man came up from behind her and put his arm around her. Amanda startled and before either of us could say anything, he said “Can I ask you a question?” She was visibly taken aback. She was probably one of less than ten black people currently existing in this small town in Wyoming at that moment in time. Wyoming, in general, is a white-washed state, and Amanda was the only African American PERSON in that tavern that evening. This was her first time in Wyoming. She continuously remarked throughout the day how she felt out of her element coming from New York, and she was visibly uncomfortable when a STRANGER put his arm around her while she was seated at a table in a restaurant.
The man, who probably had had a few already, looked surprised when I answered for Amanda, firmly but civilly, “No, you can’t ask her a question, walk away.”
He said, “Wait, wait, wait,” and held his hand up to me to silence me, as if to say “get a load of this.” Then said “How long does it take you to do your hair?” as he held up some of her waist-long braids and let them slip out of his hand.
Amanda furrowed her brow. I lost my mind.
I stood up out of my chair yelling “DO NOT TOUCH HER!” removing his hand from her hair.
He scowled and stood up to me and started shouting “Now don’t get pissy, don’t get pissy!”
I stood firm and met his shout with my own: “DO NOT TOUCH HER AGAIN. WALK AWAY. WALK AWAY. WALK AWAY.”
I was not backing down, and I would have stayed there shouting at this man until I was removed from the restaurant. (A guy I had been on a single Tinder date was there, and I imagine he was feeling like he had dodged a fucking bullet as I was shouting “WALK AWAY” over and over in this man’s face.) Finally, perhaps after realizing that he would have to murder me in cold blood in front of everyone before I was going to let him speak another word without being interrupted by “WALK AWAY,” the middle-aged white man threw his hand in my face with a disgusted look and said “You know what? You’re nothing but a god damn bitch!”
Yes, I am!
Imagine if I had done nothing, though. If I had just sat their uncomfortably, not causing a scene. What would my unwillingness to have a confrontation for the sake of intrinsic comfort have told Amanda?
What’s Wrong With Touching a Person’s Hair?
If the person with the fabulous hair that you want to touch is not trying to physically harm you or another person, you should not touch that person, not even their hair, without their permission. Full stop. This is preschool level information. Consent 101. Going up to a stranger and touching them, even their hair, means that you believe you are entitled to that person’s body. If you go up to a person, particularly a person you don’t know, and you put your hands on them in any way, you are telling that person that you own them because they are yours to touch without having to ask. They are on display, for you. They are yours to examine, to explore, to pet.
“That definitely sounds like an exaggeration. Just because I touch someone’s hair doesn’t mean I think I own them.”
If you think it’d be okay to touch someone, even their hair, because you’re “curious” or to make “a joke™” even if your desire does not come from a place of intentional dominance, this still demonstrates the systemic problem of society’s objectification and collective ownership over women’s bodies. YOUR DESIRE TO TOUCH SOMEONE DOES NOT TRUMP A PERSON’S RIGHT TO NOT BE TOUCHED WITHOUT THEIR CONSENT. Accept that you don’t always get (and shouldn’t always get) what you want, and WALK. AWAY.
Why Did This White Man Want to Ask How Long It Took Amanda to Do Her Hair?
Because he knows NOTHING about black women. African American women are so under-represented in media, in government, in leadership, and black women are few and far between in Wyoming. It was so unusual for this white man to see a black woman in the tavern in his town. He had to point out how he didn’t think she belonged there by asking his idiotic question. He had to make comedy out of her braids, her appearance, her existence, to point out her “otherness.”
I will never know what it’s like to be black in a white community. I can kind of relate because I do know what it’s like to be queer in a straight community. I do know what it’s like to be chronically ill among individuals who do not have chronic illness. I have witnessed what lack of access looks like for my friends with different abilities in an able-bodied world. I know what “otherness” feels like, although with far less frequency. I don’t know what chronic “otherness” feels like or what navigating daily microaggressions — or “unintentional” acts of discrimination — feels like.
We all unknowingly carry the trauma of our ancestors with us as we experience life, but white people do not carry racial trauma. It is impossible for white people — including this man and including MYSELF — to understand the historic racial trauma that people of color and black people carry with them throughout their lives, to really know what that feels like. And so white people have a habit of committing microaggressions toward POCs and black people, which further perpetuate racial trauma. White people then act (if their microaggression is pointed out) like their microaggression is an isolated incident — isolated in their lives and isolated in the life of the person they’re committing it against.
HEY, WHITE PEOPLE! OCCURRENCES OF RACIAL DISCRIMINATION — EVEN UNINTENTIONAL OCCURRENCES — ARE NOT ISOLATED!
They occur regularly and compound over time, sending the message that women, particularly WOC and black women, are not entitled to their own self-agency, that their objectification, critique, and “othering” is expected, normal, and okay. Death by a thousand cuts.
And instead of trying to come up with excuses for why our microaggressions “aren’t racist” or don’t uphold white supremacy in someway, let’s just OWN IT and DO BETTER. Defending microaggressions is upholding white supremacy. As Ijeoma Oluo wrote “…White supremacy is [white people’s] construct, a construct [white people] have benefited from, and deconstructing white supremacy is [white people’s] duty.”
When the white man skulked away from our table after calling me a god damn bitch (I hope feeling ashamed, though public shaming would be frowned upon by self-help guru, Brené Brown), I apologized to Amanda, saying I was sorry if I interjected when she could have handled the situation on her own (I admit that I lost control and was running on auto-pilot). She said “No, it was good, thank you. I felt like I was on an episode of ‘What Would You Do.’”
And I plead to all my readers, please please PLEASE be nothing but GODDAMN BITCHES in the face of white supremacy, prejudice, and oppression. When someone feels ENTITLED to a STRANGER’S body, when they feel they have the right to go up to someone they don’t know and touch them without permission, please advocate for the violated person. Even if they can advocate for themselves, add your voice to theirs. Let people like this entitled white man know that it’s not just one person who thinks he’s wrong. It’s at least two people. Or more!
WHAT WOULD YOU DO, AMERICA?
WHAT WOULD YOU DO, WORLD?
I hope the answer is BE A GODDAMN BITCH!
Because we all have to work together to deconstruct white supremacy — one brick at a time, one racist at a time, one microaggression at a time. And, white people — you have to get your skin in the game too.
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