Sunday, February 8, 2015

Just A Little Bit

"I have learned in recent years about the concept of microaggressions (first named by Derald Wing Sue), which can occur when your statement to or about another person or actions, even if entirely well-intended, causes hurt. A classic example is telling a person of color 'you are so well-spoken!;' on the surface this may sound like a complement, but in fact has the underlying message that because of the hue of his/her skin, the fact that he/she speaks good English is surprising or notable. There is an underlying negative stereotype being communicated."
Mama, what is THAT?” a guide to microaggression
I, for my part, have been on the receiving end of "you are so well-spoken" (although the actual term that most people use {and have used} is "articulate") since I was in grade school. And have been told, countless times, of the underlying negative stereotype there. But only twice has it been by someone who actually subscribed to said stereotype - and both times, it was to admit that they'd held it out of ignorance, and that they were wrong.

When I was young, I would bask in the compliment of being told how articulate I was. It was what everyone around me wanted and expected of me. My parents, my teachers, my aunts and uncles - all of them remarked positively on my academician's command of the language, and family members were especially quick to show it off to others whenever they could. They taught me that it was a Good Thing and the mark of someone who was a cut above ordinary. That is, until White strangers began to take notice. As, when I was in Junior High School, the circle of adults that began to interact with expanded beyond people my family directly hoped to impress, the compliments started to come from people who were unfamiliar. And my parents and other family members were no less vigilant about Stranger Danger than anyone else. And that's when they began to teach me about the code.

As a pre-teen, the well-meaning adults in my life began to teach me that the compliments of Whites were often false - that many only commented on how articulate I was because they expected worse, much worse, from me. The "underlying message" was introduced into my reality. Suddenly, the very compliments that I had spent so much time carefully collecting became daggers, wielded by wicked people who hated in secret and spoke in a vicious code. Everything became a competition and the color of one's skin marked which team you were on. Many of the people who would say to me, or to whichever adult I was with, "you are so articulate" seemed to be nice, polite, well-meaning people. And, I was told, not all of them were vipers in human skin. But you never knew which ones. And so every one of them was suspect. And as much as their compliments were veiled criticisms, intended to remind me of my place, their criticisms were also driven by racism, spiteful lies hatched to maintain their sense of racial superiority.

And so, I was told that it was the words of other people like myself that counted. Their compliments were genuine, and their criticisms not driven by animosity.

But in my first year of college, at a Historically Black University, there were few compliments. The way of speaking and interacting that I had been taught to value immediately became a liability. Almost all of the other students, drawn from mostly urban backgrounds, saw me as snobbishly affected - "acting white" - and made their anger at my rejection of them clear. I answered in kind, sneering at their lack of erudition.

In short order I was left with nothing but the understanding that Whites only complimented me to put everyone like me down and other Blacks felt betrayed. The facility with language that I had worked so hard to acquire was worthless.

And so, rather than pride, there was hurt. But that hurt was not caused by people who were well-intended, but ignorant. It was caused by people who saw the compliments paid to me as coming at their direct expense, and demanded that I pay, too. It was caused by the well-meaning, caring people in my life who taught me that marginalization, embarrassment, stereotyping, silencing and disempowerment were the norm between people who were unlike one another and to not expect this at all times, no matter how nice, polite or complimentary someone was, if they were Other, they could not be trusted. It was caused by people who sought to protect my self of sense from being torn down but wound up cutting me off from the majority of sources that would build it up. Looking back on it, that's where the unintended, and mislabeled, "aggression" lay.

I've said this before - the answer to our feelings of "you're different, and that's bad" does not lie in forcing those whose opinions of us we feel matter to bow to a carefully curated way of speaking to and about us. It lies in freeing ourselves from the idea that those opinions, in and of themselves, matter. If Jim Crow is truly dead, then the opinion of among Whites that we don't command the language as well as they do will not resuscitate it, and if it is not, shielding ourselves from the knowledge that others think poorly of us will not keep the coffin closed.

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