“You’re such a slut.”
“He’s white trash.”
“What a retard.”
In a key part of Blackboard Jungle—a film that retains much of its power 60 years after its release—the white teacher at a working class, inner city, “technical” high school urges caution to his multi-ethnic class about directing ethnic slurs at one another, even in jest. What begins in good-natured joking among friends can easily escalate, he tells them, into hostility and even violence.
I mention this to explain why my central takeaway from more than 20 years in academia comes down to a single word: context.
From the meta level (for example, a nonsense word in English is thick with meaning in French) to the most intimate (“Fross,” my brothers’ nickname for me, conflated a TV character’s name with the surname of my 7th grade best friend), words draw their significance from the context in which they’re used.
Quite literally, words never speak for themselves. Their meaning depends on the audience’s and the speaker’s relation to one another, and on the cultural situation in which they interact.
In fact, context seems most irrelevant only when it operates most successfully—that is, when writer/speaker and audience share the same contextual assumptions.
So people who claim that their words can’t be oppressive (because they lacked oppressive intent) reveal not only an ignorance about the nature of racism (prejudice plus power), but about the nature of language.
The meaning of language never belongs only to the speaker.
If no audience finds a word meaningful, that word ceases to be language in any socially functional sense.
And again, the meaning an audience draws always involves the immediate and wider context in which the speaker/writer and audience live.
By any objective measure, race exists as a key context in American culture. Even accounting for other social factors, race clearly influences health, income, education, home ownership, mental health, even sleep.
In the context of racism’s fundamental presence in our culture, what can seem to the speaker like innocuous comments can constitute micro-aggressions, racism by a thousand cuts. See this excellent piece by Andrea Plaid for a list of examples of the many forms micro-aggressions can take.
As in so many cases, the cover-up can exacerbate—or even exceed—the original crime. For examples of that, see the comments accompanying the article mentioned above.
It occurred to me this morning to think of each micro-aggression as a kind of mini cross burning on my daily consciousness.
Of course, I realize that the term “cross burning” itself is inflammatory (pun intended; I’m all for bringing at least gallows humor to the discussion), so let me clarify that I don’t mean the 25-foot cross with the folks in white sheets gathered around. Just a small, marshmallow-roasting size cross. Individually they don’t amount to much. But you might be surprised how, over a lifetime as a person of color (or woman, LGBTQ person, disabled person), the accumulation of thousands of these small fires can generate an enormous amount of spiritual and emotional heat.
Because ultimately micro-aggressions function to minimize the full humanity of the person subject to them. Here are some examples of what they, and the denial of micro-aggressions themselves, communicate:
- I get to decide what’s harmful to you and what’s not.
- I get to decide what should and shouldn’t offend you.
- I get to denigrate and dismiss your feelings when you share with me how my words have affected you.
- I get to question your honesty, your sincerity, your motives, even your sanity just because what you tell me about your feelings makes me uncomfortable.
- I get the luxury of pretending that hundreds of years of racism and cultural oppression have had no impact on me, that I am immune to their effects.
- (This is analogous to the drunk driver pulled over by the highway patrol who insists a few drinks haven’t impaired his driving, forgetting that the first thing alcohol affects is his perception and judgment.)
- I get to dismiss them from history because they don’t harm me, or my children, or my loved ones (unless, of course, you insist on beating that old, dead oppression horse over and over and over again).
I carry that heat around with me more and more each day. You might think that after 54 years it would have diminished, but you would be wrong. And I think about the energy of that heat when I hear criticisms of the aggressive tactics of Black Lives Matters protesters, the inconveniences they cause, the lack of “politeness.”
I think about how those criticisms echo attacks on ACT UP during the worst days of the AIDS epidemic; I recall how the same was said about feminist protests and the migrant farm workers movements of the 60s and 70s, and the antiwar movements. And always the same question: “What are they so angry about?”
The answer is simple: We’re angry about what you can’t see, what you refuse to see. All the little crosses burning in our consciousness. The small crosses you lit and continue lighting. Burning.