Privilege, Prejudice, and Microaggression

eye of scientist  and microscopeThis project is a response to “it’s not a big deal” – “it” is a big deal. ”It” is in the everyday. ”It” is shoved in your face when you are least expecting it. ”It” happens when you expect it the most. ”It” is a reminder of your difference. ”It” enforces difference. ”It” can be painful. ”It” can be laughed off. ”It” can slide unnoticed by either the speaker, listener or both. ”It” can silence people. ”It” reminds us of the ways in which we and people like us continue to be excluded and oppressed. ”It” matters because these relate to a bigger “it”: a society where social difference has systematic consequences for the “others.”

But “it” can create or force moments of dialogue.

— from The Microaggressions Project 

Mani and I walked into Supercuts, where I’ve been getting my hair cut and bringing the girls since we left Burlington. Coincidentally, many of the women who work there are gay, and we’ve all had good experiences there all around.

There was nobody else waiting when we arrived, and two stylists were available. One of them, an older woman with a blonde bob cut, glanced over at Mani and then said she’d take me. We both declined the shampoo and went to sit in our respective swirly chairs. I told her I didn’t want to go as short as I did a few months ago, but just to trim up the mess. Mani, on the other hand, was going all out with the clippers.

At one point, the woman commented on the fact that we both have curls. “It’s funny,” I said, “sometimes people even mistake us for sisters.” A moment later, she broke an awkward silence with a comment about giving me a “lady-style” haircut, a phrase she used a couple more times while I sat through the rest of the haircut. She seemed annoyed when I didn’t like the “lady-style” sideburns she thought looked so nice.

None of this sounds like a big deal–I can tell this as I’m writing. In the grand scheme of things, maybe it wasn’t. And yet their was something so palpable about her discomfort and judgment that I couldn’t wait to get out of that chair.

I sat outside on the curb for a few minutes after she finished, then went in to wait. When Mani asked how I liked my haircut, I nearly burst into tears. Not because the haircut itself was so terrible, or even because a terrible haircut would be that big of a deal–hair grows–or even because my period is going to start any minute now, but because I realized that this woman had sized us up the moment we walked in the door and treated us accordingly.

Ironically, “Same Love” came on as we were paying. I cringed at not leaving her a tip, but couldn’t bring myself to. Sitting in the car and telling Mani how I felt, I looked in the mirror and saw that my ears were filled with clipped hairs. When we got home, I washed my hair immediately, mostly to wash off the feeling of being judged.

Today, a student worker in my office and I watched a training video from educator and activist Jane Elliott, who first created her “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” exercise in 1968 and, in her 80s now, continues to lead diversity trainings. I thought about James Byrd, Jr. and Matthew Shepard. I thought about the unreported, daily doses all people of color, queer people, people with disabilities–and the list goes on–encounter and deflect or confront or ignore or absorb or all of these. I thought about the tremendous privileges that underlie my existence as a white woman from a middle-class background, and also of the photos Mani showed me just this morning, Nazi soldiers laughing next to a weeping rabbi and a row of bodies, bins of wedding rings, of tiny shoes.

It was just a haircut. It was just a feeling. It was just a little comment. A look.

How many people who experience racism, sexism, homophobia, antisemitism, and all the other phobias and isms internalize the message that to call these things discrimination is akin to overreacting, reading too much into things, being overly sensitive? For me, this was a pin-prick in the bubble we live in here in the Pioneer Valley, the bubble where it is easy to forget that these things exist. Easy, maybe, for me. Usually.

Later, I spoke with the manager, who asked me to tell her everything. She took notes, and thanked me for calling. She offered me a free haircut and apologized for my negative experience.

But what about when you are one of the two or three Black kids in the class, and the teacher or some of the other kids treat you differently even though nobody talks about race? What about when you grow up in a place where schools are falling apart because they are in poor neighborhoods and don’t get enough funding, and your mom could lose one of her three jobs if she takes you to the doctor when you’re sick? What about being the boy who likes to wear dresses? What happens when all the teasing becomes unbearable?

Who do you call? There is no free haircut, no coupon, no apology. It’s just the way life is. Right?

My intention is not to complain or to vent, but to say: Privilege is real, and so is prejudice, and so is the reality of microaggressions and how tempting it can be to write them off as “no big deal.” Today’s homophobic haircut experience put all of these in perspective.

As Jane Elliott’s website says: “And if you think this does not apply to you… you are in for a rude awakening.”

You can read many examples of microaggression, and submit your own, here.

2 thoughts on “Privilege, Prejudice, and Microaggression

  1. Chris says:

    Thanks for a sobering and thought-provoking post (as ever, your words somehow magically hit the mark). Yep, privilege is real. Power differentials make all the difference. Bless your humanity and generous spirit.

    Like

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