Words by Kokayi Nosakhere
Taking advantage of a Spring-like break in Ashland’s winter weather, two Black Student Union (BSU) members distributed fliers outside Southern Oregon University’s (SOU) bookstore to a panel discussion. The subject of microaggressions is scheduled for Thursday, January 24 inside the Rogue River Room.
“What’s a microaggression?” a student asked. Her body language suggested she had somewhere to go. Jacarri Brown (Sociology – Senior year) didn’t have a lot of time to explain himself. He blurted out an answer on the fly.
“The idea for the term ‘microaggression’ seems to me,” Brown said, “to be the small implications of racism. Although, these terms [microaggression and racism] vary drastically, you cannot have one [microaggression] truly without the other [racism.]”
The student folded the colorful flier and continued speed walking to her next appointment.
Racism is an emotionally charged issue/subject in Southern Oregon. With the FBI reporting an increase in hate crimes and recent KKK-inspired activity in Cave Junction, Jackson County’s small population of ethnic persons are being more vocal about their presence.
The BSU filed plans for the panel discussion long before Elder Nathan Phillips and Covington High School students galvanized the national conversation over the MLK holiday weekend. Microsaggressions is not a buzzword googled off the internet and slapped onto an event thrown together at the last minute.
The second part of the promotion team, King Harvin (Business major – Junior year) said, “To me this microaggression concept was born during slavery times. Why? Because over the course of time, when slavery ended, white people were taught to look down on black folks. Some white people eventually came to their own personal experience with some black people, and found out not all of either whites or blacks are as evil as seen in the media. Although the media shows a lot of negative actions from the black community, it sometimes gives white people the idea that black people can turn violent at a moment’s notice. It is saddening to experience this action: just because of my skin – by other race – when I walk down the street. Sometimes, when I speak to a few white people, I noticed, by the way I speak, they would act different and change the way they speak to me. Or, they would behave differently, whether it be well mannered and intellectual, or sympathy for me not knowing certain words that I have yet to learn yet.”
BSU President, Bathscheba Duronvil (Political Science – Freshman Year), gave the most extensive answer.
“The best way I can define microaggression is through a short YouTube video I watched by Fusion Comedy,” Duronvil said. “Microaggression is like a mosquito bite. Some people may get bitten once in a blue moon; while others get bitten all the damn time. And when I say “bitten,” I simply mean: comments that misinformed people might think are harmless, but actually are quite harmful. For example, I’ve been told and asked many times, ‘Oh, but, where are you really from?,’ ‘Is that your real hair?,’ ‘You’re so exotic?,’ ‘My best friends Black,’ ‘Can I touch your hair?,’ ‘My girlfriend is actually Black,’ ‘Can I touch your hair?’ ‘Wow your English is really good,’ ‘My sister’s boyfriend’s cousin’s niece, who has an uncle, is Black,’ ‘I’ve never been with a Black girl before,’ ‘You know you’re actually really pretty for a Black girl,’ ‘So my son wants to wear cornrows,’ ‘Are you from Africa?,’ ‘Are you from Chicago?,’ ‘So is that a weave?’
I remember a story my sister told me once, where she was walking through downtown Ashland, minding her own business. All of a sudden, a car swerves to an abrupt stop beside her. A white, short middle-aged woman comes dashing out of her car flaring her arms yelling, “Hey! Hey!” My sister did a double-take at this woman thinking one, ‘Is this woman serious?’ and two, ‘Are you talking to me?’
The white woman caught up to her, huffing, and when she was finally able to catch her breath she said, ‘I’m so sorry, Aretha Franklin died.’ Really? I’m not sure where the concept of microaggression comes from, but it is definitely something that has been here for a very long time.”
How is the term microaggression controversial?
Because microsaggressions are rooted in human interactions, it is easy to mistake them for a lack of interpersonal skills, rather than an element of racism.
Brown answered that question, “The term ‘microaggression’ to me is controversial due to the acknowledgement that overt racism doesn’t exist; it isn’t commonly accepted among some communities and cultures, including a very liberal area like Ashland, Oregon. So, persons with this affliction, then, have to fall back, or rely upon the microaggressions that they can inflict upon persons who do not fall under their racial image/culture.”
Gaslighting is the nearest common idea for White students to grasp. Southern Oregon only boasts of 1% Black citizens in Jackson county out of 217,000 residents. A reason for that exists. It isn’t racism on the part of the 20% of the population persons of color make up.
“I’ve never mixed my experiences of being Black with politics,” Duronvil said. “I don’t view my life as something that should be up for debate, and neither do I with microaggression. When I say something like, ‘this security guard just followed me all over the store,’ I don’t want to hear, ‘They do that to everyone. You’re taking it too personally.’ Or, when I get offended by a racist comment, I don’t want to hear people, who aren’t Black, try to tell me what I should, or should not, find racist – as if, miraculously, they are walking the Earth in this chocolate-coated skin as well. Microaggression isn’t controversial, it’s ‘harmless’ comments of my brown skin, my kinky hair, and my articulate way of speaking.”
Brown explained further, “The term to me is only valid because, it can be distinguished from the term racism. Other than that there is nothing ‘micro’ about what has been done to our people, what continues on today, as well as, the stigma or image that society(specifically the white man) has put on the African, African-American, and/or Black population.”
“Indeed,” Duronvil agreed. “I think it’s a perfect way, to sum up, what it means to be a person of color, LGBTQIA+ member, a woman, Muslim, migrant, etc. From my experience, to the stories I’ve heard from other marginalized groups of people, is that this [microaggressions] happens almost every single day. But claiming blissful ignorance, to the people who are on the other end of the stick, just isn’t good enough for me. How can we dismantle something that so many people find harmless? ‘They’re just comments,’ ‘I’m just asking a question, what’s so wrong about that?’ Well, microaggressions can carry traits that can put people in a continuous angry and depressing state of mind, like me, or it can one day kill you. Ask Michael Brown, Aiyana Jones, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, and Tamir Rice, Black men and women who were murdered because of blissful ignorance.”
What are the desired outcomes for the Microaggression panel discussion?
“To invite people to the table for this very controversial conversation regarding microaggression,” Brown said. “To open a few eyes to the truth of what minorities face everyday. And to get and hear opinions in order to have a real discussion that touches basis with everyone present in one form or another.”
Bathscheba is of another mind. “If I’m being honest, I don’t really have that many desired outcomes for the microaggression panel discussion. When coming to Ashland, from Minnesota, one of the many things that stood out to me about this town is the townspeople’s desire to learn. I was merely in shock of how many community members were willing to sit and listen to my stories regarding incidence I’ve experienced for being Black and female. I’ve faced numerous microaggressions in town. I can’t even walk outside without someone looking at me as if I’m just some new ‘foreign’ artifact hanging up in a museum that they want to touch. Sometimes this town just makes me mad. I don’t enjoy biking anymore or walking downtown anymore, like I did when I first came here. I feel like I’m suffocating. Every day, I’m reminded that I’m Black: as if that’s something I should be ashamed of. I can see when people turn their heads to look at me as they drive by in their cars, or how tense they get when I walk behind them, just so I can get home from class. I feel unsafe around the police. I either over-think, and fear that I have to act ‘less Black,’ in hopes that they [the police] don’t walk up to me; or under-think. I have to remind myself that it’s unsafe to walk around: thinking that my skin color won’t cause a police officer to slow down as they drive by. And after all of this, a lot of the Ashland community members would still listen without a ‘but’ or a ‘you’re taking it too personally’ come out of their mouths. This is something I’ve never really experienced before (people willing to listen that is) so I guess the only goal I have out of this panel is: I hope the Ashland community continues to listen and understand as Black SOU students tell their stories of what it means to be Black in America.”
The event is schedule for Thursday, January 24 from 5 pm – 7 pm inside the Rogue River Room.