When I was completing my dissertation, I became intrigued with microaggressions as they are often a common occurrence in the life of a minority. My interest developed into a lecture that I presented to school counselors at the 2019 Florida School Counselor Convention in Orlando. The presentation was entitled Microaggressions: The Smallest Things Can Have the Biggest Impact and it was well received among my colleagues. What was even more affirming was that quite a few individuals made comments that they were guilty of using several microaggressions and had never considered that their words would be viewed in a negative light. That is the weird Catch 22 with microaggressions, because they are often committed blindly and unknowingly by well-intentioned people. I know of someone that often compliments immigrants on how well they speak English, but this is actually a microaggression. That is how easy and carefree it can happen. I decided to write this article, because I have been seeing a lot of people say on Facebook that they do not see color. Initially I started with a simple post, “Be careful of those that say they don’t see color, because it means they really don’t see you.” Then after thinking about it, I realized that this may fall on deaf ears as many people will not even understand the depth of these words. It is probably not something that should bother me, but right now we are in an interesting contentious social climate at the moment. Just to give you a little idea, about four months ago Ahmaud Arbery was gunned down in the middle of the day running down the street. The murderers claimed that he looked like a suspect in a rash of burglaries in the neighborhood, although there are no records of any burglaries that were reported. However, this incident took a rather long time to come to light, because they were trying to keep the whole controversy very under the carpet since one of the suspects had former ties with the district attorney’s office. And just about three weeks ago, George Floyd was brutally murdered at the hands of a sadistic cop, again in the middle of the day. What makes the murder eerily poignant was that the cop sat there with his knee on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, slowly squeezing out the life of this man as he begged for his momma and exclaimed with all his might, “I can’t breathe.” To make matters even more sad and ridiculous is the fact that a crowd of people begged the officer to let him go, because they could see his life slowly slipping away. But he sat there unflinching, unfazed, unmoved with a stoic almost pleasant look on his face like he enjoyed torturing this man in this brutal fashion. And the common denominator behind both these brutal acts of violence was that the victim was a black man and his predators were white.
“……filtered through our cultural lens and shapes how we view experiences…”
However, this piece is not about those insanely familiar incidents that we have become all too familiar with as being a common occurrence in the United States. I am merely setting the scene and the backdrop so you the reader can understand the anger, rage, and despair that a person of color might be feeling at this moment. Now that you understand the chaotic climate that has enveloped the world at this time, you may understand why this article is of the utmost importance. So, what does it mean, “Be careful of people that don’t see color?” You may be asking yourself, “Who would say such a ridiculous statement?” Of course, everyone sees color except a blind person and for the people who are not totally blind, even they can still at least perceive the difference between light and dark. Usually when someone makes this statement, it is primarily a white person who thinks they are being so chic, so woke and in tune with what is going on that they really do not understand the incredibly insulting essence that this phrase conveys. This article is written for this subset of people for they really do not mean any harm. Honestly, many of them think it is a compliment to utter these words, so in a way we must try to excuse their ignorance and take time to educate. Think about it, you are having a conversation about racism and bigotry and they come back with, “I don’t even see color.” Sounds fancy and impressive when you think about it, but I will explain why this statement is so out of touch with reality. This article is also written for members of the minority community that are not really sure what to say when someone utters these very words and they are left speechless unable to communicate how and why they feel insulted, but don’t want to offend this person who might be a friend. I hope this gives you the courage and guidance in how to move forward when confronted with a color-blind individual.
My background is not in racism or studying cultures, but I have taken a few courses on these subjects and have acquired a certain amount of knowledge. Now I do not profess to be an expert in this area, but as a licensed mental health professional I have come to understand the significance of race and culture and how they impact a person’s lived experience. As mental health professionals we are supposed to avoid imposing our own values and biases on our clients.
It is imperative that we learn about diverse cultures and be open to the different experiences and perspectives that our clients bring into the therapeutic relationship. Learning about different cultures opens our eyes and gives us access to different viewpoints. Our everyday experiences are filtered through our cultural lens and shapes how we view experiences to give us our personal perspective. Someone who is from Egypt, a Muslim and gay, will have a completely different perspective than a straight man from Italy with a Catholic upbringing. When you speak the words “I don’t see color”, you are ignoring the basic elements that contribute to the makeup of this individual. In essence to not see color is to not see the person, because it completely ignores the aspects that make us uniquely different.
Earlier in the article I mentioned the word microaggressions and I gave an example, but I did not really delve into the meaning. Microaggressions are the commonplace everyday slights expressed toward any marginalized group that are either intentional or unintentional that communicate derogatory, negative, or insulting messages. Race, gender, sexual orientation, class, and disability are just a few of the commonly abused groups of people that are targeted with microaggressions. When you think of microaggressions, think of subtle and unconscious behavior. Microaggressions are a complex topic and there are different forms of microaggressions.
Some of the different forms are microinsults, microassaults, and microinvalidations. To give you a little idea about the differences, microassaults are like old fashioned racism and more overt, but usually performed under the guise of some type of anonymity, in a group of like-minded people or when the person completely loses control. Remember that anti-Semitic tirade that became synonymous with Mel Gibson? Microinsults are verbal or nonverbal snubs that convey rudeness, stereotypes, insensitivity or demean a person. Remember the example of the friend I used earlier that compliments immigrants for speaking English well? Think of the white woman that may clutch her purse when a Black or Latino are in the vicinity. Or asking a man if he has a girlfriend, which totally disqualifies the chance the man may in fact have a boyfriend. Wow, look how easy it is to commit this form of a microaggression! Microinsults are slightly less overt and committed more unconsciously than microassaults. Microinvalidations are characterized by verbal or nonverbal communication that exclude or negate the life experience of an individual. The phrase “I do not see color”, would fall into this category. This article does not seek to explain microaggressions fully, for that would take a lot more attention and a far more in-depth analysis. If you would really like to delve into the complexities of microaggressions, check out the book Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation by Dr. Derald Wing Sue. However, I hope I have at least given you a foundation from which to understand the basics of this complex phenomenon.
Now that we have discussed the basics of microaggressions and you have formulated an understanding of what qualifies for this designation, let us talk about the reasons why they are so damaging. At this point you might be thinking to yourself, “Yeah, I understand what he’s saying, but my friends know I don’t mean any harm.” Well this right here ladies and gentlemen is one of the key reasons why microaggressions are so insidious and dangerous. When an individual receives a microaggression, they can often be confused by the true intentions by this message. On one hand they may consider you a friend or a colleague, yet they feel hurt by your exchange in communication which can contribute to the development of mixed feelings. In some instances, someone who is overtly hateful, or demeaning can be easier to digest, because you know the true intentions of this person. With a microaggression, this can leave you questioning the very nature and fabric that sustains a relationship.
When someone receives a microaggression, this puts them in a particularly difficult position because now they must decide whether they will even address the slight. They do not want to be overly sensitive, yet they want the person to understand how their words or actions may have negatively affected them. In deciding how to address the situation they are conflicted with the fear of how the offender will take their criticism, as they do not want to give the inference that they perceive them to be racist, sexist, or any undesirable classification. Microaggressions are also a common daily occurrence. It is for this reason why they can be so impactful on someone’s psyche. At first, it may be easy for someone to brush it off. Let us look at the scenario of a typical day for someone confronted with microaggressions. In the morning while they are buying their daily coffee someone says, “I can’t believe you speak English so well.” In the afternoon during the weekly meeting, they may hear, “Wow, I can’t believe you are doing such a great job.” After work, when they go to their local corner store, the store owner may be following them around very closely. At a dinner party with friends, someone might say, “I can’t believe you are really going to eat that.” And after dinner, while enjoying a night cap someone cleverly utters, “I don’t even see color, I just see you as a person.” In the course of a day, this person has just weathered a barrage of microaggressions, that continues to build and build on each other. They start to question themselves; they start to doubt themselves, and they start feeling like they are less than their fellow counterparts. When giving a presentation, I like to demonstrate microaggressions by putting a tissue on a volunteer for every microaggression that is received. This gives the participants a visualization of how the microaggressions build on one another and weigh them down. For this person does not just carry one microaggression, they carry all of them, which is why they are so impactful and damaging on an individual. The great Maya Angelou likened them to small murders.
In looking at the precipitating microaggression “I don’t see color”, this would fall under the category of microinvalidation. Being quote on quote colorblind is a failure or denial to see color. This message conveys that the other person’s experiences are not important to you. It gives the impression that you feel this person should assimilate with your culture, for their culture is of no importance because it does not exist. And most importantly, it denies the power, privilege, and benefits that the majority group holds over this person. For when you do not see color, you do not see how this person is different or the challenges and struggles that this person has endured. In actuality it is the ultimate slap in the face, so if you are an offender I urge you to stop it right now. At this point continuing to use this phrase after you have learned the damaging impact this can have on a person would in effect be cruel and unusual punishment.