An effigy of the president hung with a noose, a blackface Halloween costume, and blackface make-up antics preserved and shared through social media: these are the kind of things that are easy to identify as racism. They are overt, public and clearly cross the line. In the study of racism, they are considered macro-aggressions.
The links between the lynching in this town and others, and hanging a human figure wearing a mask with a black man’s likeness is pretty obvious. Less obvious perhaps is the implications of blackface. Many of us have never been taught about the history of blackface minstrels. White performers dressed in blackface and portrayed African Americans in exaggerated, stereotypical and demeaning ways. The historic use of blackface used humor to reinforce black inferiority. It was offensive then and remains so now. Blackface resurrected as innocent humor still carries the sting of historic oppression, just as the hung effigy does.
As offensive as these incidents are, they are not our biggest obstacle in Duluth to an equitable, welcoming environment. There are two other forms of racism that, because of their pervasiveness, are even more destructive. They are micro-aggressions and systemic bias.
Micro-aggressions are the daily slights that send a similar message as the macro-aggressions, though less overtly. Micro not because they are insignificant but because they are easily overlooked, at least if one has not developed a lens to see them. Importantly, micro-aggressions are measured by the impact on the recipient, not the intent of the sender.
So what does a micro-aggression look like?
It is being asked where you are from, and when you reply Duluth or Virginia or Cloquet being asked, no, where are you really from? For a person of color the meaning is pretty clear: “You can’t really be from here; you aren’t one of us.”
It is having retail clerks routinely put your change on the counter rather than in your hand as they do for other customers: “I don’t want to touch you.”
It is having heads turn and stare when you walk in the room when that doesn’t happen for white folks who enter afterward: “Who is that and what is she doing here?”
It is not being invited to lunch at work: “You are not one of us.”
It is being followed by sales staff when you shop in stores: “Can’t trust any of them.”
It is being asked to speak for all people of your race in meetings: “You are a racial group member and not an individual.”
I have heard each of these experiences recounted in various forms by community members and co-workers of color. They occur regularly in this community.
Some will ask, “Do white people always have change put in their hand?” Is every white person invited to lunch? These events are distinguished from identical experiences directed toward a white person by their frequency and pervasiveness. When one experiences a series of such events, day after day in many areas of life, they build up like pressure in a soda can that gets shaken. At some point the can experiences one more shake than it can stand, the top is opened, and the unfortunate person who delivered the last shake gets showered with the pent-up results of multiple agitations. Each shake is less dramatic than an effigy or blackface but together more powerful because of their frequency, cumulative effect and the fact these slights are delivered with a smile: “Have a nice day, and pick up your change on your way out.”
What’s systemic bias?
Systemic bias is similarly pervasive but instead of being delivered unintentionally by individuals, it is built into the fabric of the policies and practices of our institutions. When the biases we are socialized to believe are shared broadly, they often become a part of how our systems operate. Health care, employment, education, housing and law enforcement all reflect built-in biases. Being thought of as less able to learn, more prone to crime, less reliable or trustworthy, or less committed to taking care of one’s health results is a qualitatively different response from the providers of those services. Research has demonstrated that call-backs for job interviews, mortgage rates, arrest, conviction and sentencing rates all are influenced by one’s racial identity.
There was a time when federal and state laws endorsed such differential treatment. The thinking that justified it then unfortunately has not gone away. Instead, it has been infused into our ordinary way of conducting business.
So should we denounce ugly, overt acts of racism when they occur? Absolutely. But we should also examine when we might be present to or unintentionally participating in more subtle forms of exclusion in our everyday actions and civic and corporate policies and practices. Undoing our collective socialization is long-term work, but it is work we can do together.
Kevin Skwira-Brown of Duluth has been a co-facilitator of workshops focusing on understanding white privilege.
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