A white man tells an older black woman to move to the back of the bus. Californian newspapers portray Mexican American zoot suitors as violent criminals. The United States government attempts to exclude those of Chinese origin from America. These are examples of blatant racism. A concept that most teens today, especially upon education about and exposure to other races, find completely repulsive. A concept that seems obsolete in urban societies and university environments.
A college student, in an attempt to compliment a new Latino acquaintance, commends her on her excellent American accent. A high school student, frustrated by college admission process, comments on how much easier his African American friend has it, citing the policy of affirmative action. An undergraduate mistakes a third-year medical student, wearing a doctor’s coat, for a cafeteria worker, because of his skin tone. These instances do not exemplify racism in its purest form, as the perpetrator is not consciously trying to subjugate the minority group. Instead, these are examples of microagressions: unintentional, nevertheless harmful when experienced over a long period of time, discriminations, a kind of leftover racism from centuries of division.
Microagressions may take the form of subtle stereotyping or subconscious devaluing of other cultural experiences. Many of the words, phrases, and comments characterized as microagressions are, unfortunately, not conspicuous enough to elicit a response and, as a result, largely go unnoticed. Sometimes, however, through repeated instances, perceptive individuals pick up on these patterns of discreet marginalization. In fact, an entire website, called The Microagression Project, exists for anonymous submissions regarding such incidents. And these types of projects, demonstrating the amount of ignorant and unintentionally racist questions or comments made, have cropped up in several major universities. Most recently, this past March, African American students at Harvard University expressed their frustration with the system of stereotypes by writing an original play exposing the racism faced daily and publishing a photo campaign called “I, Too, Am Harvard.” The effect of this campaign rippled into many other black communities, who also felt discriminated against by their peers, and they created similar campaigns with the same title, specific to their university. Despite the high level of attention that these microagressions received in the university setting, where change is ripe and every action seems to be a revolution, however, they still exist to a great extent in the media and public opinion.
Some of the most prominent types of microagression are not even propagated by the use of phrases and direct comments. Most of these attacks lie under the surface and find a place in everyday language. Words used to stereotype can be as obvious as “twerk” or as subtle as “nude.” In fact, the use of the word nude, which is used to describe clothing that matches with a white skin tone, was so subtle that it has taken years for individuals to even realize the extent of its racism.
Nubian Skin was launched to address the small, albeit significant, need for nude-colored underwear that matches the skin tone of darker women. As the company’s website observes, in the opinion of a woman of color, “My nude isn’t the nude I see in shops.” Although the company’s mission, establishing equality through colored underpants, seems laughably trivial on the surface, there is much more to this novel idea than simply a lingerie line. Nubian Skin calls to attention the industry’s neglect of the colored woman’s needs, in matters as essential as undergarments. This problem arises in a variety of products, including nude-colored clothing, nude makeup palettes and nude high heels. Not only do brands, either deliberately or unintentionally, exclude colored women from use of their products, but the word “nude” itself exposes a deficiency in the English language. Nude, when referring to color, clearly signifies a peach-tan color, matching the skin tone of a Caucasian individual. A simple Google Image search is enough to prove that. More significant, however, is its implication.
By characterizing nude as a natural color, applied only to a select portion of the population, the unseen assumption is that women of color are unnatural. Although this type of reasoning may seem like an exaggeration, through constant exposure to advertisements and corporations, which subtly equate the nude skin tone to physically natural and pure, the notion of colored skin as impure is engrained into the subconscious. These notions, coupled with their reaffirmation in television shows, magazines, and novels, take a psychological toll on the minority group. Additionally, these industry marketing strategies are predicated upon years of blatant racism, during which companies advertised to a market that regarded stereotypes as a matter of pure fact.
And, this is eruption of social fury is all over one word. How many words like “nude” exist in our daily vocabulary, making us racist without our knowledge? How is it possible to reverse the millennia of racism, especially when it is as minute as an off-hand remark or a judgment passed before meeting someone new? Can we monitor our every action, word, and thought for traces of racist origin? Although it may seem cumbersome to attempt to end every single microagression faced, we must understand we cannot overcome racism in one full leap. Change can only come with that knowledge that by harboring the concept of racial stereotypes, we, without any real knowledge of the individual, attribute racial characteristics to them and neglect their status as a unique individual. And this knowledge can take years, decades, even generations to permeate. In the words of Nubian Skin, “It’s an uphill battle, but every revolution starts somewhere.”
“»About This Project ».” About This Project Comments. The Microagressions Project, n.d. Web. 08 Sept. 2014.
“About Us | Nubian Skin – Nude Hosiery & Lingerie for Women of Colour.”Nubian Skin Nude Hosiery Lingerie for Women of Colour. Nubian Skin, n.d. Web. 08 Sept. 2014.
Vega, Tanzina. “Students See Many Slights as Racial ‘Microaggressions’.”The New York Times. The New York Times, 21 Mar. 2014. Web. 08 Sept. 2014.