Microaggressions, Missouri and what have you

Several times this week, I missed the UPS driver who was trying to deliver some wine to my house.

He or she tried three times, but never at the same time of day, to deliver the box. Someone 21 or older needed to be home to sign for the delivery, but the sticky note left on our door never gave me a sense of when the driver would return.

Three days in a row, I second-guessed wrongly. On Thursday, the note left behind warned there would be no more attempts.

So I called UPS and found out I had five days to hoof it to the customer center in Kansas City’s West Bottoms to pick up my parcel. Mama needs her wine, so I went on Friday.

Which is what brings me to my post today. I presented myself and my government-issued ID and asked for my box o’ wine, please. There were two middle-aged (and by that, I mean my age) white dudes working the counter. One pleasantly told me he’d go find my box.

The other gave me the once over and left the room, too. But I could hear him in the next room, talking to a third person whom I never saw.

These guys proceeded to make small talk, which revolved around a woman pulling a gun on a man in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Then one guy started talking about his own concealed-carry class, telling a story about a woman who was in the class with him.

He launched into a narrative about the “black lady” and mimicked her accent while the other guy laughed. I couldn’t quite get the point amid all the laughter.

I guess someone else walked by back there, because the first guy then said clearly, “I cannot stand her. Dragon lady. She really thinks she’s something.”

To which the other gent replied: “Well, she’s the chosen one. So you’d better watch out.”

And those, my friends, are examples of microaggressions.

Much has been said about microaggressions in light of the recent protests at the University of Missouri and elsewhere regarding how minorities are treated.

Mu protests

Sure, as a society we’ve come a long way since 1950, the year black students first gained entry at MU. By and large, we don’t have lunch counters that won’t serve minorities or separate drinking fountains. On paper, we have integration everywhere from schools to churches to neighborhoods.

But the reality is that it’s the everyday, casual racism that’s gnawing away at the progress our parents and grandparents made and that threatens to create massive unrest across our nation.

If you’re white and middle class (and male, especially,) you might not recognize a microaggression. It’s a term coined by Columbia University Professor Derald Wing Sue to describe “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.”

Like this one that I’ve encountered personally, aimed toward me, when I was a young journalist: “A female reporter? I don’t get it. What does a woman reporter do?”

I was so shocked at the question that I couldn’t come up with a snarky comeback.

Or how about this one, asked of me during a job interview at a major metropolitan newspaper by someone who now teaches journalism at my alma mater: “So you’re interviewing for the night cops reporting position. What does your husband think of that?”

Who the hell cares? And why would that ever be any of that guy’s business?

Those are egregious and pretty obvious. My friends of color encounter many more subtle microaggressions, such as being referred to as “articulate” when he or she is able to succinctly and intelligently express himself or herself. Or someone expressing surprise when he or she finds out a person of color’s parents went to college. Or are married.

In her excellent essay about her days at MU, Mashable.com political editor Juana Summers describes her attempt to gain entry into a white social sorority. She matriculated at Mizzou 20 years after I did, yet that bastion of college life still had not opened its doors to people who looked like her. She was made to feel that she was the wrong person in the wrong place.

If you’re a member of a marginalized group, you learn you can’t become angry at every slight. To do so would drive you completely nuts. You’d become paranoid. So you brush them off, you work harder, you tell yourself you don’t care what others think because you are better than they are.

But every little microaggression hurts, like a tiny drop of acid rain on the hood of a shiny new car. After years and years of rain, the finish gets worn. You get tired. And you don’t want your kids to have to go through the same things you have.

That’s what students are protesting about at the University of Missouri and Yale University and Claremont-McKenna College and Southeast Missouri State University and colleges everywhere.

Click here for a two-page guide to recognizing microaggressions.

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A tale of two sons

Display_with_Racist_Quote_from_Murderer_of_Emmett_Till_-_National_Civil_Rights_Museum_-_Downtown_Memphis_-_Tennessee_-_USA
Display with a racist quote at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. (Credit: Adam Jones, Ph.D. (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons)

Today marked my oldest child’s first day of college classes.

I intended to blog about my ambivalent feelings, sending my firstborn into the world, how I’m happy for him that he’s chasing his dreams but sad for myself because his departure means that a certain phase of my life has passed.

Over the summer, my mind raced, trying to decide if my husband and I had imparted all the wisdom we needed to give him to make it on his own.

But today, as I ruminated on those themes, it seemed like so many first-world worries. Woe is me, the white suburban mom sending her privileged kid to college, while across the state the mother of another 18-year-old boy was planning a funeral.

A Ferguson, Mo., police officer shot Michael Brown on Aug. 9, a Saturday. That day, my husband and I were helping our 18-year-old son, Joe, pack for college. That night, while Michael Brown’s family grieved, my parents and inlaws joined us for a special send-off dinner for Joe.

On Monday, Aug. 11, we packed Joe and our other two kids into the car and headed for the small liberal-arts college a few hours away, where Joe now is a freshman. That was the day Michael Brown was to have started classes at Vatterott College, a technical school in Ferguson.

Two 18 year olds. Two young men on the cusp of adulthood. Two sets of parents.

Two very different stories.

At times like this, I am intensely aware of my whiteness.

My husband and I chose to raise our children in a neighborhood that’s less affluent than some in the Kansas City area, among families who are not all white and middle class. We’re smugly proud of that choice and quietly judge those who flee the urban core and inner-ring suburbs for the greener pastures of exurbia.

But are we really much different? We still enjoy certain privileges that come merely because our skin doesn’t have as much melanin as that of others.

The advice I gave my son as he left home was so pedestrian. It was along the lines of making sure he doesn’t mix reds with the whites when he does laundry and to ask for tutoring help as soon as he has questions about what’s going on in class.

I’ve never had to sit either of my sons down and tell them that people are going to be afraid to enter elevators if they’re the only ones in there. I doubt many people will cross to the other side of the street if either of my sons walks down it.

I don’t have to impart to my sons the lesson that if the police stop you for any reason, keep your hands visible at all times. And God forbid you’re wearing a hoodie.

As I watched coverage of the ongoing problems in Ferguson today, I realized that I didn’t send my son out into the world with those words of advice because it’s likely he’ll never encounter any situation in which he’ll have to use them.

I don’t know if Michael Brown robbed a convenience store early in the day on Aug. 9. If he did, was his killing justified? I don’t know. I don’t think so.

This is what I do know – he was 18. He was starting life, just as my 18 year old is. He had dreams and aspirations, just like my boy. He had a mother and father, just like my son. He had a life.

And now he doesn’t.

Use Paula for good

paula

Paula, Paula, Paula.

What were you thinking?

Clearly, Paula Deen wasn’t using her brain when she talked to that attorney who was deposing her. I mean, she definitely didn’t spend a lot of time working on spin.

Otherwise, pretty sure she would have come up with a better answer than the one she gave when the lawyer asked whether Ms. Bacon-wrapped Doughnut ever used the N word or any other racial slur.

“Of course,” she said, and the country erupted in riots all over social media.

At least give Paula points for honesty.

This situation presents an interesting opportunity for the rest of us to engage in dialogue about race and language and understanding, but the cynic in me thinks it’s doubtful any real change will come about because of Paula Deen’s racist utterings, be they past or present. She’s lost a dozen business deals in the last two weeks, as businesses from Wal-Mart to Smithfield Ham to the Food Network drop her like a twice-baked shrimp-stuffed baked potato.

But here’s the thing, people. This whole deal, erupting like a chocolate volcano cake, shouldn’t surprise anyone who either grew up in the South or pays a modicum of attention to race relations in the United States.  Just because Americans can elect an African-American president does not equate to the end of all racial issues in the United States. We aren’t “over” racism because it’s so insidiously present in most aspects of American life.

For parts of this country, it’s not so readily apparent. There’s a lot of political correctness going on all over the place, a lot of righteous indignation. But while everyone’s up in arms over Georgia restaurant-owner/TV chef/cookbook author Paula Deen performing a mea culpa, the Supreme Court of the United States basically threw out the Voting Rights Act. Which one of those acts does greater harm to minorities?

Not that I’m minimizing the whole Paula thing. I’m just not surprised that she said and did those things. I’m not condoning it, but it doesn’t destroy my image of the Southern-fried cook because I just assumed she thought and acted that way.

I’m basing that, naturally, on my own experiences growing up in the mid-South.

I grew up in a small town in southern Missouri. There were equivalent numbers of whites and African Americans living there, but society was anything but equal. When I was a kid, black families only lived in certain parts of town. Schools had not been integrated for too many years when I started kindergarten. When my parents moved there, a nice older lady sent her black maid over to my parents’ house to help my mom, and then advised Mom to hire her own maid so everyone would know what rung of the social ladder she occupied.

Folks of different races got along in that town, and still do, but for many, it’s an uneven relationship. It’s paternalistic, magnanimous, a landowner-sharecropper situation. Not unlike how Paula Deen herself no doubt feels about many of her African-American employees. She likes them, she respects them, but she really doesn’t consider them her equal.

It’s easy for those in ivory towers to say that slavery ended more than 100 years ago – get over it. But it’s hard to get over it when the oppression is so much a part of the system, and this is what drove Paula Deen.

It explains why she didn’t put any spin on her honest answer to the attorney who deposed her for that discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuit. She can’t understand how she is part of the oppression.

For that, I feel sorry for Paula. She really doesn’t understand how just by virtue of being born white, she enjoys privilege. I believe her when she says she never meant to hurt anyone’s feelings or offend anyone and that she’s appalled that others think she would act that way.

She didn’t and doesn’t make racist comments to be racist. She has said them because that’s so much a part of her Southern identity, just like corn casserole and fried chicken.

It doesn’t make it right. It will never be right.

The better response for all those companies who are firing Paula Deen? Band together to mount an educational campaign. Teach those who’ve never lived it up close about systemic oppression and racism.

Fight ignorance with information and teach America a few things.