Now this is a story all about how
This world got flipped—turned upside down
I’d like to take a second
Just sit right there
And tell you how racial microaggressions have become commonplace in everyday society and will become even worse now.
---that’s how it goes, right?
Okay, so sue me. I’m not a rapper. Or Will Smith. (Though I did once date a guy with the same name when I was in high school -- true story.) And while that is basically all you need to know about me, let me tell you a little more before we begin this journey through microaggressions and safe spaces and every other awkward party topic by the end of which you’ll probably be begging me:
Let me start by introducing myself and sharing some anecdotes. My name is Neha, and my greatest claim to fame is being able to recite every single line from all three Lord of the Rings movies. A few weeks ago, I drunkenly told a guy friend I’d been crushing on that I wanted to kiss him and he responded with: “Oh, it’s getting late…I should get home.” I once failed to recognize that my emergency brake was on and “drove” for three miles before a very savvy homeless man pointed it out to me. Lastly, and most importantly: I can burp very loudly…. a skill I really like to show off in public. I also spell the word “probably” as “probabaly” 99% of the time without realizing it. #getyouagirlwhocandoboth
And as fun as those tidbits are (yes boys, I’m single), most importantly, I’m a proud woman of color (Once you go brown—you never date down. It’s true.) who is passionate about protecting the lives, rights, identities, and nuances of the increasingly marginalized communities of America.
Which brings us to the fun portion of this post: talking about racial microaggressions!
Here’s the thing: there is no simple way to have a conversation about racial microaggressions. And after spending three years as a teacher followed up by a stint as a volunteer for the Hillary Clinton campaign, I don’t have NEARLY enough money to open up the bar tab that you will inevitably need after reading this. But here is a picture of me picking my nose when I was 5 years old to make you feel a little better:
This post is for the people in between “I really want to have a long, detailed conversation with you about race relations - but first, let’s set norms for this talk,” and “I’m interested in this but I kind of also want to close the browser.” This post is for the people out there who aren’t necessarily #woke but aren’t entirely asleep. The people who truly do not know that they’re being offensive when they make jokes about Apu from the Simpsons or assume that Slumdog Millionaire is my life story even though I was born in Ohio. For literally anyone who has ever said, “I don’t really see color,” without being legally color blind.
I’ll cut to the chase. White people, I’m talking to you. But I’m also talking to everyone who at one point in his or her life has been a benevolent racist without realizing it. Let’s get a collective yas before jumping in:
You might be scratching your head and wondering: what is benevolent racism?
I thought racism was bad and all racists were evil. Yes, true.
But the world we live in is much more nuanced than that.
Benevolent racism is what I define as “well-intentioned but damaging notions about minorities that are pre-conceived and never reconciled truthfully.” Or, to put it in less douchebaggy language: believing things about people of color that aren’t necessarily “bad” and continuing to believe those things despite being proven otherwise leading to a need for people of color to “prove” their “normality.” Sorry, still totally sounded like a douchebag—ugh, I tried.
Let me try again and make this point in a way that might make more sense AND that involves a champagne tower, because who doesn’t love a story with a champagne tower in it? #sorrymom
A little backstory: when I was in college (University of South Carolina- GO GAMECOCKS BABY) I made the decision to rush a sorority--literally one of the best choices I’ve ever made in my life…but also a decision that exposed to me to some particularly poignant moments of the above-mentioned “benevolent racism,” that I probably wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. I should also mention at this point that I was one of two girls of color in my sorority. Yup, I stuck out like a sore thumb.
Being a woman of color in predominantly white Greek life was never something I really thought was an issue; I met great people, went to fun events, and got to sleep through several chapter meetings that really boosted my nap to class ratio. But during a pre-game for a function, it became clear to me just how big of a problem my ethnicity truly was. And the realization, weirdly enough, didn’t hit me until years later.
Let’s get to the goods: we had just popped the final bottle of champagne for the tower and all the girls were lining up in the living room to take pictures when a boyfriend of a good friend of mine—let’s call him James—came up to me and said something along the lines of, “You know…people were originally really offended when you joined Greek life because you’re Indian, but once they found out you were normal, they were totally cool with it.”
Once. They. Found. Out. You. Were. Normal.
If you read that and are thinking, “OMG WHAT A RACIST,” you are correct. If you read that and though “What’s the big deal—seems like a compliment to me,” you are wrong, but not alone. In fact, at the time, I remember feeling strangely flattered.
Because here’s the thing. Being told I was “normal” by a straight, white, conservative, Christian male made me feel like I’d passed some sort of test: having escaped from the bounds of “Indian-ness” to the “cool, normative American” sphere.
AND THAT RIGHT THERE IS BENEVOLENT RACISM. The fact that despite being a Little Big Town-listening, Game of Thrones-watching, sushi-eatin’ girl in the same sorority as all of my friends, I was singled out as not being “normal,” because of my skin color. That if this guy had gotten even a whiff of the fact that I helped my mom cook rotis at home and listened to Indian music in my car all the time, I wouldn’t have been granted this honor he bestowed upon me. The fact that somehow validating my existence felt necessary for this dude, as if I weren’t perfectly validated before—all because I looked different than what was the expected “normal,” in Greek Life.
Let me be clear. There is no such thing as “normal.” The very idea of “normal” says to me and many other people of color: “Hey, I like you mostly as you are but the things I don’t understand need to go in order for me to really consider you kin.”
I’m talking about my white friends who were totally cool with me listening to T.I. in the car but who would look at me and deadpan say: “I just don’t get it” when I put on a remarkably similar Indian song. It indicates to me that the minute I jump the fence between the different aspects of my identity, everyone “normal” is watching from the other side…until something becomes easy and relatable like Bollywood or Mindy Kaling.
This lengthy period of judgment isn’t fair at all to people of color because it metaphorically forces us to “stop and go,” “pause and wait,” until people, mostly White people, get around to accepting things that they don’t see as “normal,” or “American.” And it’s understandable that things that are different always take some time to understand or process, but the uncertainty of whether or not my own “normal” is accepted by the dominant culture can be a real bitch when you’re just a 20-something trying to figure your life out.
Holding people of color to a “normative” standard of identification is not only ridiculous but reiterates racist stereotypes for future generations. My parents had to assimilate to prevent discrimination. Now I have to do the same. At some point, my children will have to as well.
As people of color, we are not allowed to be whole in the identities we were born into because it isn’t seen as “normal” or “American” thereby forcing us into a bastardization of who we truly are. We are either wholly Indian or wholly “American and normal.” We are not granted the privilege of being allowed to exist within both identities.
I call this the fishbowl vs. snowglobe theory. Both are spheres of glass but one is rigidly stiff and unmoving, while the other holds different species of fish all swimming and doing their own thang. It’s cool to tell me about Bollywood if you also ask me what my students are up to or why I thought giving myself bangs would be a good idea; that’s recognizing me for all that I am. It’s not cool to push me into one rigid idea of what you know me as and then keep me there.
Look, I’m not totally uncompromising. I love knowing when people have seen Bollywood films before and make it a point to tell me. It’s okay to recognize someone’s collective identity; what’s not okay is to ONLY recognize that person’s collective identity. Yes, I’m Indian-American and yes, I appreciate that you saw a Bollywood movie…but that should never be your opening or the only thing you talk to me about. You should never start a conversation with me by saying, “Namaste,” in the same way that you shouldn’t begin a conversation with someone who is African-American by asking if they like rap. That’s assuming that as minorities, we are only tied to the aspects of culture that you have been exposed to.
Even further, that’s also asking us as minorities to do the work in revealing to you how “normal” we are, as opposed to you taking the time to research unfamiliar things and reconciling them with who we are and recognizing a new normal. Microaggressions ultimately come from laziness nothing else and the only way to really deal with them is to unlearn, research, and relearn.
Addressing micro-aggressions might not seem important now since our incoming President has himself used terms of actual aggression toward minority groups and women. But if we are seeking to truly live in a post-racial society, we have to trim the these smaller notions before they grow into full fledged rose bushes. Because here’s the thing: we still live in a world where minorities will constantly have to prove how “normal” we are. How despite the fact that I say “y’all,”—I will still have to be scared when going through a security line at an airport. If you really want to help your friends of color, start by treating them automatically with a blank slate…not with the preconceived notions that you have of them.
So don’t be that douchebag at a pre-game that tells someone who doesn’t look like you how normal they are. Just don’t do it. Instead, watch these videos below and ask questions about things you don’t understand. You will get a lot of “it’s not our responsibility to teach you’s,” and a lot of “Jesus, what don’t you get about this, already?” but KEEP TRYING. If you really want to hold hands with communities of color (which seriously now that Trump is President-Elect, we could all use), try to reach out from beside us, rather than above us. Let’s start spreading the love instead of the various shitty covers of “Jai Ho,” that are out there:
Many thanks to Mary Catherine for letting me take over her blog for this post. And if you want to (metaphorically) picket my house or show up with (verbal) burning torches to my place of employment, my email is: ParthasN334@gmail.com