Microaggressions with major repercussions at university
Growing up with a very pro-black father, I was frightfully aware of racism and its effects from a young age. We’d often spend our evenings together sat in bed learning about the ways in which the world worked through brutal stories and anecdotes. These often were not happy tales, but I enjoyed this time nevertheless. My father was a funny, eloquent storyteller who could make the most horrific tales of injustice sound like soothing lullabies and at that age, I was a sponge; eager and ready to learn. In the evenings, in that dimly-lit bedroom, he was not only my dad but my educator. He taught me greatness; my history, my heritage, my family. It was also in these moments that I got my first taste of injustice through stories of genocide, structural violence and oppression. I found comfort in knowing – for it was this that made me powerful.
Unlike the other children in my predominantly white middle-class primary school, I prided myself on knowing what phrases like ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ and ‘institutionalised racism’ were and vaguely how they worked. I would smile smugly to myself, sat amid my year three literacy class – basking in the fact that I was probably the only one who knew these ‘grown up’ phrases. Armed with this new-found knowledge I looked around my classes full of suspicion, curious as to whether anyone else was aware of these phrases and the realities that they were describing. It was highly unlikely. White people didn’t need to know these things and often didn’t. They were mine and mine alone and that revelation was both burdensome and freeing. It was my little secret.
We all know the mantra that knowledge is power and I carried these gems as if they were weapons – held securely in a holster of pride that I kept with me at all times. Although I knew of ‘institutionalised racism’ and other theories relating to it, I found comfort in knowing that didn’t happen at my school. I had never experienced it so, in my eight-year-old mind, it didn’t exist.
This was my first mistake.
To me, my primary school was the epitome of fairness. As one of the only black girls in my year, I was top in all my classes and fairly popular. Although I was a quiet, awkward child in the classroom, my teachers had managed to see through my awkwardness and continued to encourage me in my academic career. For the most part, I benefited from my educational experiences and as a result, I would sometimes get defensive whenever my dad would label my school as ‘institutionally racist’, “No.. but,” I would reply, getting hot and flustered, “my teachers are really nice!”.
This was my second mistake.
My positive view of my primary school was based on the belief that racism is something that is harboured by mean-spirited individuals. Racism was something dark and nasty and this certainly wasn’t even remotely evident in my smiley, well-intentioned teachers. Because of this, I didn’t consider the ways in which racism is in fact embedded and legitimised within the educational system, and made to seem normal and neutral.
I often think of this when I hear stories of the tensions around racism and microaggressions within Bristol University because there are some who (admittedly, unintentionally) make the same mistakes that I used to. The first was thinking that because I hadn’t experienced the effects of racism, structural or individual, it didn’t exist. The second was seeing racism as being solely individualised.
Students attending UoB – white and people colour – often disregard the effects of microaggressions because they are considered to be insignificant or because the perpetrator was well-intentioned. Language becomes hugely significant here. ‘Racism’ is a loaded term that is seen through an increasingly individualised lens; our collective imaginations of racists depict them as backwards, mean-spirited and hateful. ‘Microaggressions’ are interpreted as being an attack on the character of the perpetrator or an overreaction. Like the caring, smiley teachers at my primary school, you don’t have to be mean or ignorant to be complicit in structures that work to oppress minority groups of colour. It is possible for you to identify as black or have black friends and still simultaneously devalue the lives and careers of black students at UoB. Although they may seem small and insignificant, microaggressions help uphold the systems of oppression that deem POC invisible, incapable and inferior.
Ignorance is a real problem at Bristol – among all of us. We need to reframe our thinking to show how the small interactions are connected to much larger forces of oppression. We need to consider the racism of the well-intentioned and the well-meaning together with the structural barriers that people of colour face.