We all know it, we’ve all been there. One moment you’re hanging out with a group of friends or co-workers and the next someone is asking if they can touch your hair or wondering about what country you’re really from. It’s nothing too egregious to set off the full alarms, but it’s not so harmless that it doesn’t sit with you for the rest of the evening (or week, or month). It sticks in you like a needle – -and before you know it, you’ve sat through so many of these casual moments of racism you realize you’ve turned into a human pin-cushion.
How do we deal with these moments? Both immediately when they’re occurring and in the aftermath. How do you signal that these tiny micro-aggression are unacceptable? How do you stop yourself from getting too down, when you fail to push back?
These are questions many people of color grapple with. And we all cope in different ways.
The night after Christmas finds me seated with relatives and friends at my in-laws’ crowded dinner table, enjoying a delicious meal and happily chatting about television — one of few topics that’s nearly always safe to discuss in mixed company. Of the fourteen people laughing and passing laden platters around, only one is new to me. Someone mentions my interview with Constance Wu of Fresh Off the Boat, and this, apparently, is her cue to look up and address me for the first time since we exchanged our initial his and nice to meet yous.
Let’s pause here. How many of us have stories that start like this? You feel relatively safe — in the company of people you maybe don’t love, but perhaps trust. You think maybe, just maybe, your skin or your gender, or who you choose to be or love doesn’t matter in this moment — maybe you’re allowed to just be you. So you let your guard down, you fully exhale. and then:
“Do people ever tell you that you look just like everyone on that show?” she asks.
The illusion is gone — the needle is in. Your senses turn to high alert and you scold yourself for being so careless with your emotions. The slight likely goes unnoticed by anyone else in the room, but it will stay with you long after.
There’s a remarkable level of unfairness in the idea that — with little recourse — someone else’s ignorant words can leave you in shambles for days, weeks, or forever and yet the perpetrator may never give it another thought. You may sit up for nights on end, thinking about how you should’ve handled the situation and what you’ll do differently next time (and there is always a next time). You contemplate writing a letter or an email. You do research and seek out community. Maybe you cut off all ties and vow to never speak to them again. But no matter what you do — it all falls on you. Chung again.
The social pressure on people of color to keep the peace, not get mad, just make sure everyone keeps having a nice time — even when we hear these remarks in public, at our workplaces and schools, in our own homes and from our friends’ mouths — can be overwhelming, bearing down on us in so many situations we do not see coming and therefore cannot avoid. What does our dignity matter, what do our feelings amount to, when we could embarrass white people we care about? When our white relatives or friends or colleagues might experience a moment’s discomfort, anxiety, or guilt?
There are no solutions here. No answer to the frustration you’ll inevitably feel. Just an acknowledgment that you’re not alone. Go read Chung’s full piece here.