Dealing With Microaggressions and Subtle Racism

I never thought much about race when I was younger. Despite growing up in a predominantly white area of North London and attending a predominantly white school, the subject rarely crossed my mind. I was well into my teens before I began thinking more deeply about my identity and how society views me as a black girl.

In the last few years, I haven’t stopped thinking about race. The countless killings of innocent black people by police in America and the UK, racist London nightclubs like Dstrkt refusing entry to dark-skinned black women and the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement are some of the things that have angered/frightened/moved me in ways I’d never experienced before. They also emphasised, for me, the necessity of talking about race.

Since graduating last year, I’ve reflected on my university experience. Of course, I met some amazing people and had a blast. However, I didn’t anticipate the levels of ignorance and subtle racism that I would face when I arrived. Unfortunately, my three years at university were littered with microaggressions that left me rattled and confused. Microaggressions are described as subtle and often unintentional forms of discrimination against people of colour and other marginalised groups.

Sly, subtle racism is deeply ingrained in British society. It’s normalised and widely accepted because it’s considered more ‘polite’ than explicit racism. Both are equally as dangerous, but we like to pretend that racism isn’t a problem in this country.

A few examples of the microaggressions I experienced and witnessed at university include:

  • Degrading anti-black comments and “jokes” about afro hair
  • Reducing black people (especially black men) to racial fetishes
  • Being treated like an anomaly if I don’t live up to people’s stereotypical expectations of black women
  • Excessive use of words like ‘ghetto’ and ‘ratchet’ to describe anything and everything associated with blackness and/or negativity

Issa Rae looking confused/uncomfortable GIF

Most of these microaggressions came from non-black people who I called my friends, and it hurt. They’re the kind of people that think of themselves as liberal, open-minded types. The kind of people that like to tell you they have several black friends, date/fuck black people and love our culture(s) as if that means they could never be racist.

I thought I’d educated these friends about certain things, that they truly understood my culture and had my back. Every time they said something wildly inappropriate, it fucking stung, however well-meaning or unintentional it may have seemed. I thought to myself, “Wow, is that how you really feel about me?”

Dealing with microaggressions on a daily basis at university was long. It still is long. They are hard to confront because they are so subtle and indirect. Whenever I heard someone say something problematic or ignorant, I just didn’t know how to respond, or whether I should respond at all. Honestly, I’ve lost count of the number of times I asked myself ‘Is it me, or is that racist’?

I don’t like confrontation so I usually remained silent. I didn’t want others to see me as angry, or someone who couldn’t take a “joke”. Whenever I hid my feelings to try and keep the peace, I felt disappointed with myself. When I did challenge someone for saying something off key, I felt like I had to smile and choose my words carefully to not hurt their feelings. Articulating my offense or discomfort in the “wrong” way could make me seem oversensitive, unreasonable and intimidating to others for simply speaking my mind.

Kanye West laughing "not funny" GIF I often felt frustrated, angry, resentful and anxious as a result of never-ending microaggressions. It’s easy to sweep seemingly innocent, insignificant comments under the rug and laugh them off but when it happens all the time, it’s exhausting.

Making others feel comfortable doesn’t interest me anymore. If I feel a way about something, I’ll speak up. Experiencing racial microaggressions at university taught me that my feelings are valid. Censoring myself and pandering to people’s feelings in those situations isn’t helpful. As my self-assurance and confidence have grown, I can challenge problematic comments and actions and call out racism more easily. Admittedly, I don’t have the emotional or mental energy to call shit out all the time. Sometimes, I just kiss my teeth and keep it moving. It’s not my duty to educate every ignorant person I come across or explain why I find something offensive.

I’m so over avoiding discussions about race and censoring myself in order to make nonblack people feel comfortable. Obviously, I don’t aim to offend anyone but the comfort of others is no longer my priority when I talk about these things.

If you have an issue with that, that’s OK. You’ll get over it.

Leave a Reply