I Love Your Complexion!
Against my better judgment, I was having dinner with a White man. Not a work dinner or a networking thing — a date. Rhys was nice-looking, funny, new in town, and persistent about helping me weed our overgrown community garden. Persistent, too, about taking me to some “jazz club” I was sure to love.
He regaled me with stories of his woke liberal politics (Hillary) and his commitment to equality (Black Lives Matter). And then, as he ordered a second bottle of wine, he delivered the ultimate compliment — “You are such a beautiful woman. I just love your complexion. You could be Italian or something!”
Bad enough that he didn’t know the difference between a jazz band and a swing band.
My life as a Black woman in America has trained me to “feed White men with a long-handled spoon,” as my grandmother would say. I can never relax completely, even in casual interactions. I’m always on guard, always preparing for the assault. And too often, it comes in the form of microaggressions, micro-insults, and micro-invalidations.
Microaggressions include demeaning comments made by well-intentioned White people who may not be consciously aware of the hidden messages.
Microaggressions are “micro” because they’re tiny incidents with massive impact. An insult that sounds like a compliment on the surface, but has as its baseline premise the idea that “Whiteness” is not only the norm, but the standard to strive for.
- “You’re so articulate…” (And this surprises me because Black people are generally not as intelligent as Whites.)
- “Let me speak to the supervisor…” (which couldn’t possibly be you).
- “Don’t take this the wrong way, but…” (I’m about say something bigoted, but any reaction you have I will immediately classify as oversensitive, or accuse you of playing the race card.)
Microaggressions include demeaning comments made by well-intentioned White people who may not be consciously aware of the hidden messages. Even so, just because a perpetrator of racism is clueless (or in denial) about the impact of their words, microaggressions are still acts of violence. Intention is irrelevant.
These are more overt verbal and nonverbal communications that demean my racial heritage or identity. They can be as simple as a Confederate flag bumper sticker, or as complex as getting passed over for promotion.
- “Welcome to our company. We take affirmative action seriously here…” (because clearly that’s the only way you got this job).
- “I don’t see color. There’s only one race — the human race…” (I reject the legitimacy of your racial experiences as a person of color. I refuse to see you outside of my White cultural norms.)
- “Being offended is a choice…” (it’s a choice for me because as a White person, I am free to engage or not with racial issues. And my reality is the one that counts.)
As Black women, we are conditioned to question ourselves and not the perpetrators. We have been too often silenced, ignored, or erased in other settings, leading to a certain amount of self-doubt. Am I reading too much into this? Do I have a chip on my shoulder? Maybe they didn’t mean it that way.
But failing to speak up allows these micro battles to become macro war zones.
The beneficiaries of racism spend more time centering how they feel and how uncomfortable the conversation makes them — instead how much damage has been done to people of color, and how to stop it.
Elegantly subtle, micro-invalidations erase, negate, or nullify the experiences of people of color.
- “Where are you from?” (You’re a foreigner. You don’t belong here.)
- “You speak English so well.” (You appreciate the White norm, good for you!)
- “I voted for Obama, but…” (I don’t feel the need to discuss or criticize other former presidents, but when speaking to Black people, I insist on pointing out how this particular Black man is still beneath me.)
The heart of the matter
What lies at the heart of most micro-invalidations is the norm of Whiteness and White experiences. Dismissing the justifiable anger and frustration of people of color is a dismissal of our realities — a way to ignore the reality of White privilege and White supremacy. A way to make sure that nothing changes.
For many White people, being accused of racism is an affront to their view of themselves as fair, liberal, and spiritual individuals. It’s shocking to be told they have biases, and that their biases have harmed people of color. Sometimes engaging with them morphs into yet another defense of White fragility.
The beneficiaries of racism spend more time centering how they feel and how uncomfortable the conversation makes them — instead of how much damage has been done to people of color, and how to stop it.
How I personally deal with microaggressions depends on whether I think the White person is interested in changing their behavior, or whether I just need to enforce my boundaries.
I asked Rhys, for example, why he thought an “Italian” complexion was something I should take as a compliment. “Why isn’t my particular shade Blackness good enough?” He stumbled a bit, confused. He’d only meant that he found me attractive. Attractive, to him, defaulted to a White norm. I watched his face while the new idea tumbled around in his brain.
Then I ordered an obscenely expensive cognac. But that’s another story.