I’ve recently had the pleasure of rereading Octavia Butler’s Kindred. The novel follows protagonist Dana as she is transported back in time by some unknown force to the antebellum South to guarantee the birth of her direct ancestor, Hagar, and by proxy must protect her white slave-owning father. Time and time again, Dana’s identity as a Black, educated woman from 1976 is disrupted and endangered by what it took to ensure her survival; her humanity was questioned and her lived experience invalidated by those around her.
Dana’s story reminded me of my own experiences — both out in the world and here at Mills — where I’m forced by others to question who I am because of what I am. Often times racism and other forms of identity-based discrimination is dismissed and brushed aside if it isn’t an overtly aggressive act; but the subtleties in our verbal and non-verbal languages can be aggressions in and of themselves.
Derald W. Sue, a psychology professor at Columbia University, states in an article by the American Psychiatric Association that are three subcategories of microaggressions: microassualts (deliberate derogatory actions intended to hurt), microinsults (unconscious communications that demean marginalized people) and microinvalidations (disregarding the thought and experiences of marginalized people). Although the physicality is immensely different, a microaggressive act can carry the pain of a bullet to the heart. After all, aren’t they both fueled by a willful ignorance that’s allowed the hatred of difference to shapeshift its way through time? That same ignorance puts people of marginalized groups in a place that forces us to relive our traumas over and over again for the sake of “education” and “understanding.”
I’m taken back a few weeks ago to when a professor of mine emailed all the visibly-distinguishable Black students in the class, asking us to facilitate an experience-based discussion following the assigned reading of an anthology of Black, queer fiction. I was stunned and taken off guard. To me, it didn’t matter what place this professor was coming from. It didn’t matter that this was one person of color coming to another group of people of color. All I could think about was the tangibility of my emotions in that moment. I felt anger that this professor thought they had the right to learn from my pain, anxiety at being blindsided by memories I didn’t want to relive in the presence of my classmates, and pure unadulterated fear at — once again — being put up for display to be poked and prodded against my will while my traumas are dangled in front of me f0r a live audience.
So the next time you feel the urge to sing Kumbaya and celebrate a colorblind approach to racism, don’t. You are actively erasing the experiences of people of color and ignoring the structures in place to ensure our oppression. The next time you feel so inclined to make a generalizing, faux-feminist statement, don’t. You are actively erasing the intersectionality of identity and invalidating the lived experiences of marginalized people. It is up to each and everyone of us — myself included — to take a pause, check our privilege and take charge of our languages so we may use them to create spaces of trust and sensitivity. Because if our education and success come at the expense of a fellow student’s well being, we have a problem.