Monday, July 25, 2011

Appreciation, Appropriation, and Micro-aggressions

Okay, so I have been thinking about this for awhile, mostly because my work on these issues and because of what I see as a growing trend of those with white skin privilege: at what point does “appreciation” -- the recognition of the quality, value, significance, or magnitude of people and things -- become “appropriation” -- the act of setting apart or taking for one's own use (personal, commercial, cultural, etc), often without the consent of the owner? And does racialized and cultural “appreciation” and “appropriation” blind us to the racial micro-aggressions –“everyday insults, indignities and demeaning messages sent to people of color by [the] well-intentioned who are unaware of the hidden messages being sent to them”, as defined by Asian-American Columbia University psychologist Derald Wing Sue, PhD – that people of color regularly experience?

Now, bear with me here . . .

We see racial appropriations all the time. They are like the air we breathe, the water we taste: expected, unnoticed, and necessary. From TV shows who use hip hop and other music to emphasize story lines and the actors in them as being "cool" and "hip" and "street smart" and "dangerous" -- and other adjectives that are racialized as the cultural norm -- while only using white actors as the lead characters; to young white suburbanites who are the major purchasers of hip hop music; to these self same youth who easily purchase and walk around decked out in the hip hop styles that Afrikan Descendant youth can't afford; to the white people we see walking down the streets in dreadlocks and who will argue that dreadlocks are not an indigenous style from the loins of the Afrikan Diaspora but is instead a "lifestyle choice" found naturally in all cultures (free tip: don’t fall for that. . .).

Appropriation – otherwise known as being a “culture vulture” (someone who not only racially appropriates but makes reputation and money off that appropriation – for example, Elvis Presley, Eminem, and Quintin Tarantino are names that are often mentioned. . .) -- has long been part of the American Narrative. And although one could debate the degree to which America in 2011 finds its Afrikan descended citizens palatable – despite the election of President Obama – there can be little credible argument regarding the role of America’s racial appropriation and white-washed assimilation into the white cultural narrative the cultural markers of Afrikan Descendants.

So now here we are in 2011, and because of what has become the “norm” in the American Narrative as racial appreciation and marketed and prostituted through racial appropriation, we have normalized more than ever racial micro-aggressions.

In other words, we have people – acting individually or under institutional authority -- who feel free to act out their racial biases with unconscious abandon. Think about the debate that percolates just under the surface (and in many cases, on top of it) about whether it is “racist” for white people to say “nigger” since Afrikan Descendants say it in rap songs. Or whether pulling a college student off a plane and arresting him because of an originating complaint about his pants not being pulled up – while letting a white man dressed in ONLY women’s lingerie regularly fly with the same airline without complaint or incident is “racist.” Or commemorating the Civil War and “celebrating” soldiers on both sides while divorcing the national narrative of the war from the horrible crime of enslavement and 100+ years of American Apartheid (how must that feel to Afrikan Descendants?). Or a rising-in-popularity party that has as almost an anthem the phrase “take our country back” within the context of the country’s first Afrikan Descendant president?

When conversations such as this one are raised, many say that folk are being too “sensitive” and just need to get over it.

But Sue and his colleagues are building upon the works of African American psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce (who first coined the term racial micro-aggressions) and African American Stanford University psychology professor Dr. Claude Steele (who is known for, among other things, his groundbreaking work on stereotype threat) to explore and document how the societal normality of these “psychological slings and arrows” erode mental health, the quality of social experience, identity, and even job performance.

"It's a monumental task to get white people to realize that they are delivering micro-aggressions, because it's scary to them," Sue asserts. "It assails their self-image of being good, moral, decent human beings to realize that maybe at an unconscious level they have biased thoughts, attitudes and feelings that harm people of color."

Sue is developing a theory and classification system to describe and measure this slice of American life that is as old and familiar as our national apple pie. He first proposed a classification of racial micro-aggressions and how they manifest in clinical practice in the American Psychologist (Vol. 2, No. 4). The three types of current racial transgressions that he notes there are:

Micro-assaults: Intentional actions or slurs, such as using racial epithets, displaying swastikas or deliberately serving a white person before a person of color in a restaurant.

Micro-insults: Nonverbal communications that subtly convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person's racial heritage or identity. An example is an employee who asks a colleague of color how she got her job, implying she may have landed it through an affirmative action or quota system.

Micro-invalidations: Communications that subtly exclude, negate or nullify the thoughts, feelings or experiential reality of a person of color. For instance, white people often ask Asian-Americans where they were born, conveying the message that they are perpetual foreigners in their own land.

Social psychologists Jack Dovidio of Yale University, and Samuel L. Gaertner, PhD, of the University of Delaware, have also conducted studies that established that many well-intentioned whites who consciously believe in and profess equality unconsciously act in a racist manner, particularly in ambiguous circumstances. This often unconscious pattern -- one that is not necessarily grounded in any white supremacist ideology but refers in part to the aversion of whites to being seen as engaging in racialized thinking -- especially given the conscious belief of these people in the adherence to racial equity principles (these are the people who will triumphantly crow or quietly beam that they “marched with Martin Luther King”; or that they have Black people in the family [“my son/daughter is married to a Black woman/man. . .”]; or that they have “given my life to the struggle”) -- is called “aversive racism."

Because whites very rarely-to-never are held accountable for incidents of aversive racism or micro-aggressions, and because the impact to people of color in the face of the same is that they are left dealing with the emotional baggage and confusion or social condemnation if they call a white person out on the behavior (as surfacing such behavior will lead to denials that such a thing took place, as well as the onus being turned on the person surfacing such behavior as being "the problem" while the micro-aggressive attacker is treated as the one being attacked), it is important to understand aversive racism, micro-aggressions, and the whole vocabulary. Surfacing and understanding these prevailing types of racialized manifestations in the 21st Century provides us all with education, protection, and a base of empowerment when it (inevitably) occurs.

Moving Forward,