There’s nothing micro about microaggressions

The visceral long-term impact of racially motivated snubs, slights, and singling-out

Lovely JB and I stayed in last night and spent the evening catching up on Blue Lights, the BBC’s excellent new police drama set in Belfast. Midway through episode three, I felt my dinner start to curdle in my stomach. Main character Grace’s son Cal, who is mixed race, is in a corner store with his friends. The shopkeeper is seen eyeballing him in a way that all people of colour know only too well. After Cal pays for his purchases, the shopkeeper insists on checking his – and only his – bag ‘in case he has stolen something.’ When his white friend tries to step in, he’s told to ‘keep out of it’. Cal is innocent, and the shopkeeper is forced to let him go. While his friends are supportive, he is visibly shaken, and a few scenes later tells his mother that he wants to leave Belfast for university, citing London or Manchester, which he believes to be more accepting, cosmopolitan places to live. My heart broke for Cal, because, as everyone whose eyes are open to the current state of the world can see, these days nowhere is safe.

Microaggressions like this trigger hyper-anxiety, panic attacks, depression and PTSD. And they don’t just hurt, they can kill. They can kill in a myriad of different ways – from early deaths related to mental and physical repercussions of stress and anxiety to suicide, the end result is the same. Names do break your body.

This kind of bullying is a constant chipping away at your mental health, and when it happens over and over again, the constant feeling of unsafeness, of being on edge, of having to scope out every place that you go, consider everything that you do and say and how it will be perceived within the context of your skin colour can be just too much to bear.

Whether you’re being singled out for unprovoked harassment, singled out and ignored, subjected to crude stereotyping, unfairly dismissed and insulted or simply being eyeballed – given a clear signal that you do not belong in a space, it weighs on you. And the more it happens, the heavier it weighs. The more you try to outrun it, the more you are forced to change the places you go and the things that you do, even the places you live, to find a safe space, the more you are aware of the difference between your life and the lives of white people and the more psychological anguish you are subjected to.

At Cal’s age, I still believed that I could find a safe space, a place where I wouldn’t have to keep looking over my shoulder and modulating my voice. At the age of 43 I can assure you that such a place does not exist. It does not exist, because while there are many ways to enforce an implicit colour bar, see all the microaggressions cited above, there is, in all my experience, no effective way to enforce a racist bar. And all it takes is one racist, one microaggression, for a space to become unsafe. And once it’s unsafe, for a person of colour, you are triggered back on that long dark road of PTSD, feeling every other time that you’ve been singled out, abused, ignored, laughed at and glared at and not only do you want to leave, sometimes you just want to leave the whole fucking world.

Your brain tilts wildly, every spark of joy that you’d been experiencing previously to that moment evaporates, and suddenly you feel completely naked and exposed, the only crystalline knowledge in your head the fact that this has now happened and there is absolutely nothing that you can do about it. Absolutely nothing.

You can’t call the police. Aside from the fact that these days they would most likely be sympathetic to the perpetrator, unless you can prove that you have experienced a deliberate racial attack, you don’t have a leg to stand on. Your friends can try and intervene, but the perpetrator will either ignore them or extend their abuse in their direction. No one, nothing can be done to undo what has happened, and like all the assaults before it, it will sit inside you, this fizzing ball of hate that lets you know you cannot go about your daily business with the simple freedom that a white person can, and you never will be able to.

It’s that ‘never’ that really gets me. Growing up, my daily encounters were fraught with exchanges like those Cal experienced. I would never have imagined that all these years later, I would still be experiencing the same thing to the same degree, if not worse. Moving to Austin felt safe. The liberal Texas capitol where hippies have been roaming free for decades. After the obscene and relentless level of racism I’d experienced in the UK in every single area of my life, I couldn’t wait to feel safe, to feel normal. To let my guard down and just live. Somewhat inevitably, it wasn’t to be. Ironically, while I gird myself for difficult encounters when we leave the city and venture into self-proclaimed Trump-land, it’s been in the heart of hipster Austin where I’ve been spirited back to the place that Cal found himself in – eyeballed with suspicion, singled out and quietly humiliated in casual displays of power and superiority designed to show me very clearly that these were spaces a woman of colour was not welcome.

The first time it happened here was at a then-new hipster bar called The Far Out. I remember lovely JB and I looking at each other, both thinking ‘is this actually happening?’. After the incident, we contacted the management, who were exceptionally responsive and the person concerned was fired. Unfortunately, this did not set a precedent for things to come. After an incident at Home Slice pizza, the management responded defending their behaviour, citing the need to be ‘overcautious during Spring Break.’ So overcautious that the only person in the restaurant denied service was a woman of colour – clearly far too old to be on Spring Break – asking for a second beer, not the large groups of young white hipsters drinking freely. Most recently, at Barton Springs Saloon, I was refused service while between a white man slumped over the bar and a group of young white girls giggling and saying how drunk they were. All were served. When my husband (the sober designated driver and first person to say if I am ever three sheets to the wind) questioned the barman’s decision, the manager came out, physically assaulted him, and called him an English cunt. Not even any pretense of being anything other than racist. Not even trying to pretend that we just were not wanted there.

Most upsetting in many ways was when I was at my favourite karaoke night at local (now shuttered) venue Indian Roller, performing, only to be asked to leave because my performance was too enthusiastic – clearly indicative of drunkenness. When my husband noted that a drunk person can’t leap around the stage in 6inch heels, he was also asked to leave. Never mind the multiple white people who could barely stand up in the room, the fact that I was enjoying myself performing in their bar clearly upset these people so much that the only solution was to take my fun away. And that’s what it often comes down to. Having the power and ability to deny the right to relax and have fun to someone whom you consider to not deserve them. When recounting this experience to a friend (also of colour) she commented, “ They looked at you and thought, she’s not allowed to be so free.” So they used their power to take my freedom away – because they can, and they enjoyed it, just like the shopkeeper in the show enjoyed watching Cal squirm, singled out while knowing he hadn’t done anything wrong.

At venues, I’m regularly body-searched while white patrons walk straight through the metal detectors. I am now self-conscious when dancing at shows here, waiting for that tap on the shoulder, and I can’t bring myself to go back to karaoke. I feel stung, bruised and it has to be said, lesser. If I can’t act with freedom, express myself without fear, I feel I’d rather not do anything at all. Yes, that means they have won, but I’m just so very very tired.

After these situations, we look up the reviews of these venues and more often than not there will be other people saying they have experienced racial harassment. So, before I go out am I supposed to check reviews for every location I visit? Does this not smack of the days of the Green Book? How is this a way to live?

Every day we see international politics shifting further and further to the right, the perpetrators of these behaviours finding themselves vindicated by the media, celebrities and politicians, no longer shy or afraid they are increasingly out in the open and rubbing their hands together at their new freedoms to express their racism and bigotry, knowing they will be protected by social and legal structures that are in the process of validating their views.

I love going out, and I don’t want to change my life or my lifestyle, but always having to look over my shoulder is a grim and painful burden, and the weight of it can outweigh the joy that I’ll have in certain social situations. I sometimes go out and see other people of colour like me, looking around the room, checking there are others of us there, that this is a safe place, a place we can relax. A look sometimes passes between us. We have numbers, we’ll be okay. If I see a person of colour serving, I become less physically tense. But life should not be like this for anyone.

The fundamental understanding that all human beings are the same, have the same rights and the same worth is so totally absent in our society right now that I couldn’t promise a real-life Cal that things would get better in his lifetime. That he won’t always have to watch his back, check his surroundings, and be prepared for hostility, abuse and the pain and misery that come with them, wherever in the world he goes to. I wish I could, but I can’t.

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