You are allowed to feel pain without being sensitive. That word is the reason why there are barriers in our discussions, in our definitions of masculinity, femininity, in our interactions. You can express yourself and your discomforts without being likened to an open wound that seizes every time it’s touched.
Racism became more apparent to me when I realized that acknowledging prejudice didn’t mean I was sensitive. Growing up, it was difficult to confront blatant racism. One of my friends in high school told me I “spoke so white”. At the time, it made me feel like I belonged. I felt a desire to be “one of the boys”, although in my case it was “one of the whites”. I wanted to blend in and I was willing to abandon my blackness, my heritage to do so. Being white was the biggest compliment, the best end to any joke. I was called an oreo, black on the outside but white on the inside. I laughed, embraced the label as my own and wanted more than anything for my “whiteness” to seap and blend into the color of my skin.
The racist jokes just seemed like a fact of life. I was told that my ACT score immediately went up two points because of my race. I was told that it was okay that I dropped my language class in high school because of affirmative action. I was invalidated over and over again and I said and did nothing. God forbid I’m viewed as sensitive.
The fear of being seen as sensitive has seeped into every discussion in our current political scope. Minorities, or those disadvantaged, have to explain why their feelings matter. Why saying the n-word or the r-word is destructive to their sense of worth. What’s worse, instead of acknowledging the issues with what they said, some people dismiss the minorities brave enough to call them out as sensitive. The ignorant turn their faults into a question of the oppressed’s strength.
There are so many racist actions embedded in Stanford’s everyday life. To me, racism is a series of actions that suppress the individuality and well-being of an oppressed race. The term microaggression was coined by Columbia professor Derald Sue to refer to a “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” Microaggressions color our everyday conversations: “No where are you really from” or “You don’t act like a normal black person”.
A microaggression is racism, though it is often brushed aside as a product of American culture or over sensitivity; it’s the perpetuation of racial stereotypes in everyday conversations, interactions and communities. The most common microaggressions I’ve experienced at Stanford is a lack of sensitivity–there are so many racist actions, words, or movements, some not always obvious; students may not always be aware of how offensive your actions may be. Once they are made aware, however, they do little to rectify their actions.
I have not experienced much blatant racism at Stanford, though there have been microaggressions peppered in my everyday life. Some Stanford students–and I think this can be said for people anywhere–have allowed their ignorance to develop into a very basic lack of empathy. The microaggressions I’ve faced have been ingrained in a sense of correctness–the person perpetuating this form of racism believes themselves to be right, that the way they think is an accurate portrayal of a certain race. This ignorance leads to backlash when called out on. Because these are microaggressions and because they aren’t what’s defined as outwardly racist, the people that are offended must be “sensitive”.
The use of the word articulate directed towards people of color is a common microaggression I’ve heard around campus. This form of racism is often brushed aside because the white person that offered the “compliment” wouldn’t be offended if someone called them articulate. They don’t understand that sometimes when directed towards a person of color, the word articulate is held with a tone of surprise. There is an ideal in our society that to be articulate is to be white, and by being labeled as articulate you have done whiteness well. It perpetuates the idea that it’s “impressive” when a POC is able to sound like a white person, even if they’ve grown up in this country their whole life, even if english is the only language they know, even if they attend Stanford. That’s lacking empathy. Just because you don’t get it doesn’t mean you can ignore it.
The continued use of racism both on campus and out in America leads to the continued presence of the “other”. Microaggressions constantly point out the differences between groups of people–not just among those that have the racism placed onto them and those that do the placing, but those that notice and are affected by the presence of microaggressions and those that don’t care.
On the way to a party thrown at the Black Community Service Center one night last quarter, I overheard a white boy say they “wouldn’t feel comfortable going to a place like that”. He didn’t think he’d feel welcome. I wanted to scream. I don’t feel welcome around him, living in east campus. Being surrounded by people that don’t look like me, that ask me where I’m really from, that applaud me on being articulate. The presence of microaggressions makes me feel like my presence is the punchline of every joke, my skin color the reason for my admission. Every one of those microaggressions makes me feel like I don’t belong at this school.
The use of the word articulate is just one example. Calling natives Indian because the same society that has worked to erase their voice and replace it with the image of Pocahontas doesn’t see the issue shows a lack of empathy. So many people in our country don’t see the problem with calling an entire race unattractive; our society doesn’t get it. That doesn’t mean it’s not racist. Being culturally obtuse because it’s easier isn’t fair; it’s still offensive. Imagine parts of your identity being mangled and deformed by everyone around you. The pieces that you and your family hold most dear to yourself are decidedly not worth remembering or respecting. Racism comes in so many forms, ignorance in even more.
This is important: once someone realizes that what they say may hurt, they should stop saying it. Passing off the blame to the person they unknowingly hurt is unacceptable. No one understands everything. You don’t need to be well versed in the issues and sensitivities of every race, gender or sexuality. But you do need to accept when people say they are made uncomfortable by the things you say or the way you act. Perceiving one’s actions as sensitive without knowing what it’s like to live their life, spend your life being known as the other, not feeling welcome in your own body, living in a home that doesn’t feel like yours, is misguided and dangerous. It’s not a matter of sensitivity. Ever.
Contact Natachi Onwuamaegbu at natachi ‘at’ stanford.edu.