Opinion

Are we overreacting? Let’s talk about microaggressions

When the murder of George Floyd was attributed to a flour shortage by a student at Christ Church, I just about lost faith in humanity. As a biracial woman, seeing the number of white students dismissing this incident as a ‘harmless joke’ was disturbing. 

That ‘joke’ has 400 years of oppression behind it. It has the UK’s institutional racism behind it. It has Oxford University and Christ Church’s bigotry behind it.

So it’s not a “joke”: it’s a microaggression. These are brief, commonplace interactions that transmit hostility to a person because they belong to a stigmatised group. Though subtle, these every-day occurrences are deeply harmful, often escalating into much more covert forms of racism.

To be clear, my only purpose here is to analyse some of the microaggressions I have been subjected to. If you’re not a perpetrator of the following microaggressions, then this article is not addressed to you. So, if you start feeling attacked, there’s probably a reason why.

1. Why your ‘subtle’ snubs demean my racial heritage

Last Trinity, I had my contract law tutorials at Christ Church. These tutorials were held during the college’s opening hours, so there was always a flood of students heading in and out. For context, I’d usually be wearing a summer dress, a pair of brown loafers, tortoiseshell glasses, and a University tote bag. I’m not sure how you can blend in and look any more ‘Oxford’ than that.

But the first time I approached those revered, pearly gates, the strangest thing happened. The porter leapt up like a pogo stick and fought his way through the crowd, dodging students left and right as he hurried to flag me down. He stopped me in my tracks and told me, very sternly, that he needed to see my Bod card before I could go inside. 

Why isn’t he asking everyone else?, I thought. At the time, I just assumed that the porter could somehow tell I wasn’t from Christ Church. Maybe he had laser vision, I didn’t know. 

I wasn’t safe after the initial check at the gates, though: I was stopped a second time by the porters in the quad, even as every other loafer-clad student was granted free passage. Maybe this was still protocol? I soon realised this wasn’t the case when I was stopped and checked every single week.

Reality really hit home when I asked the white students from my college about it. None of them had been stopped. Not even once.

It only got worse when my mum (a black woman) came to visit and wanted to see the land of Harry Potter. We were chatting to a porter and my mum happened to mention that I was a student at the University.

Cue the wide eyes and gaping mouth. 

 “You’re a student?” spluttered the porter.

“Yeah.”

“At this University?”

“Yeah.”

“At Oxford?”

“Yeah.”

“What college?”

“Exeter.”

“Well,” she said, looking between me and my mum, “If you were a student you would have a student card.”

“Yeah. I’ve got a Bod card.”

“No, no. An Oxford University Bod card. For students here. Like this one.” She proceeded to take out her own Bod card to show me, just in case I was confused. I told her that I knew what a Bod card was, at which point she almost started hyperventilating.

So why are so many black students ‘Portered’?  The obvious answer is that they simply assume we don’t belong here. But when the colour of your skin has historically been associated with unintelligence (a stereotype originating from colonialism), acting on that assumption becomes more than just a ‘snub’—it becomes a microaggression.

 So, stop singling us out: your inner racist is showing.

2. Why you don’t have the authority to nullify my experiences

A while ago, a University Society committed some microaggressions against a friend of mine. Because of this, I liked a Facebook post critiquing the society’s intersectionality. Initially, I didn’t think anything of it. But then one of the committee members messaged me. 

Paradoxically, they said that all the constructive criticism in the post was unfair, and then asked me to give them more constructive criticism. Since I really don’t like educating people, I declined to comment.

The society’s behaviour then escalated to what an Exeter junior dean called harassment: committee members at another college admitted to ignoring me, and one member even filmed me inside my accommodation without my knowledge.

You don’t want to know the number of white people who liked the same Facebook post and came away unscathed. I won’t focus on the potentially illegal activity, here, however. My focus is on the fact the society thought the post about diversity was ‘unfair.’ Again, I want to reassert that this is not an attack; most microaggressions are completely unintentional. I’m going to employ a (necessarily) dreary analogy.

Imagine you’re suffering from cancer. One day, you tell someone (who has never had cancer) that you’re in pain.

Suddenly, that person starts laughing. They say you’re overreacting.

You’re a bit shocked, but you try to explain that it really does hurt. So, they pause to consider this… and then promptly declare that you’re not suffering from cancer at all. And they would know – they’ve just read a medical journal. 

Now you’re properly offended; it’s really not their place to say that. So, you explain that to them. Finally, it seems like they’re starting to get it…

But then they ruin it by saying they know exactly how you feel, because their mid-week hangover is just as bad as your chemotherapy.  

What this person is missing is that, without ever experiencing cancer, they will never know what it feels like. Every time they pretend to know better than you, or take over the narrative with their own experiences, they are invalidating your pain.

The same principle applies to racism. As a white person, you will never feel the institutional force of it. If anything, you actually profit from it. 

So, please stop invalidating genuine criticisms of something you will never understand.

3. Why your defensiveness, ‘jokes’ and silence are part of the problem

Sometimes, the more we point out your problematic behaviour, the more you tend to start playing the Who’s More Oppressed? game.

I want to remind you that oppression is not cool or edgy. It is humiliating and traumatic, and I’d rather not live it. It’s so deeply ingrained that it has existed for generations. It existed when my Jamaican grandfather (once a proud estate-owner) was promised new opportunities in return for rebuilding this country as part of the Windrush generation, only to end up trapped in a modern-day ghetto. It existed then, and it still exists now.

Those of you playing the ‘Oppression Game’ do not have this family history. You don’t even have the modern experience. You feel oppressed because Facebook has turned on private school kids? 

Try being called a n*gger and a terrorist. 

Yeah, one guy liked calling me those names as a ‘joke’ in sixth form. The ‘terrorist’ idea is particularly interesting.  It likely originates from the stereotype that all people of colour are dangerous. Funny how we seem to have forgotten the IRA there.

Now, I’m not saying that all white people are that covertly racist. But you’re not innocent, either. When you’re not arguing over who’s more oppressed, you’re either staying silent on the issue, or awkwardly mumbling things like: ‘they didn’t mean it. It was just a joke’

Come back to me when a joke made about you has 400 years of genocide behind it. Then we’ll talk. 

So, what’s the upshot?

Microaggressions contribute to a system of oppression that has stigmatised us for 400 years. I have shown this. George Floyd, Stephen Lawrence and Christopher Alaneme have shown this. How many of us have to be singled out, invalidated, joked at or murdered before you realise this?

And believe it or not, every time we are associated with all things bad, you are reciprocally associated with all things good, which allows you to blend in as the norm whilst we are singled out as other, to put on the blackface that reduces me to a caricature, to idolise your privilege in your statues of ‘businessmen’, to prance about Oxford University in your KKK costumes, to call us ‘coloured’ and ‘n*ggers’ but God forbid we remind you that you were once barbarians, to walk the streets secure in the knowledge that your whiteness is not your death sentence, to do all this and more under the guise of freedom of expression, and yet you deny us that same doctrine when we demand equality and not revenge. 

That is your privilege. 

You want to see my Bod card?

Pick it up off the f*cking ground.