*The following is an article I wrote and published last semester. It is based on a speech I gave for a university event on the power of microaggressions and how to manage them.
When I was 19, the summer after my freshman year of college, I fell in love for the first time. And I mean, head over heels in love. He was a 25-year-old, young, white man. At first, everything was perfect. I was swept up in the excitement of that “honeymoon phase.” In the early stages, we rarely ever fought and never about anything serious. But eventually, when the hot-button issues did arise, we’d just tack it on to our “don’t mention it” list. But slowly, those rose colored lenses began to smudge. As he grew more comfortable, trusting that I loved him, the barrage of micro-aggressions began.
It started with little pet names related to my blackness. “Hey, brown sugar!” And naturally, I laughed. Because that’s what you do when someone tells a joke right? You laugh. But it continued, “Ya know, you’re the only black girl I’ve ever dated.” He smirked one day as if I should be so lucky he’d picked me. Like I was a shiny gold token he could wave around to say “hey, look, I caught one!” Being tokenized by strangers, even friends, it never feels good. But feeling like a token to the man you love, there are no words to describe how small I felt.
Then he’d drop the N-word ever so rarely, always with an exaggerated laugh and an “oh you’re just too sensitive”. And in the beginning, I’ll admit that I shamefully let it slide. ‘He’s just too conservative’, I told myself when our political beliefs began to clash. I could just educate him and that would be enough. I thought, I alone could shape his views, and change the ones I found problematic. I was very wrong.
It began to escalate, or rather I should say, he began to escalate. The way he spoke about the poor and those he saw as beneath him, the way he always had some degrading comment to say about every woman he saw other than myself, the rape jokes that made me cringe in disgust and yell in anger, but he never seemed to hear me. And yet I stayed. Because I thought it would get better. I really believed that if he loved me, he would see what he was doing to me and magically change.
And man did he promise, over and over again that he’d change. That he’d be more empathetic. That he’d really ‘try’, and so I stayed. I lived in denial; I hid in my own shame. Until it began to eat away at me day by day. Things just didn’t add up, so I tried every excuse to attempt forcing them to.
‘He treats me so well, there’s no way he could be racist…right?’
‘He treats me like a queen, there’s no way he could be sexist…right?’
Then one day he said it, he said it loud and clear, and I could never un-hear it. I could never go back. “The white race is just superior, but you’re an exception. Of course, I don’t think I’m better than you, I love you! Every race has its exception.”
Months worth of nervous laughter quickly dissolved into panic and tears. Harmless jokes were solidified as damning views. His tongue became a weapon. And his words cut like knives, leaving deep scars across my mind. Ironically, it was my 20th birthday when we finally broke up, about a week after he had confessed to me his desire for an all-White America. For that entire week I ran through all of the different scenarios of how this could have happened. How I could’ve missed it, been so blind, fallen for the very opposite of everything I stood for.
As hurt as I was trying to grasp what had happened, I would be lying if I didn’t admit to the massive sigh of relief after typing the words “we should just break up” and hitting send. It was like taking my first breath after being underwater for so long. I felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. That weight was the weight of his words, the weight of all those horrifying “jokes”, the weight of his now undeniable bigotry, and the weight of not being true to myself. For a long time there was a lot of noise in my head from the lies I’d been fed. I questioned a lot of things, about me, my family, what it meant to be a woman or a minority. I questioned if he could hide it so well, who else could be thinking these thoughts around me? But finally the noise stopped, the silence was blissful, and I was free.
Now, just to be perfectly clear; I do not regret that relationship. I have always believed that everyone and everything serves a purpose, and plays a meaningful role in our lives. So I am grateful that he served his, in mine. Because I cannot begin to count the ways I have evolved since that experience, or the even messier aftermath. Yet, after it was all said and done, I found my peace. I hope he finds his too.
He may not know it, but on my 20th birthday, I gave myself the best present I possibly could, the gift of self-preservation, through freedom from those who hurt us. Since the end of that relationship, I have delved into black culture and embraced my blackness like never before. I’ve fallen in love with my rich heritage and myself, as both an Ethiopian and Arab woman, all over again. My passions for intersectional feminism and social justice have flourished. Not to mention, I have found more reasons to love who I am, where I come from, and my identity as a minority, than I ever knew existed.
If there is just one purpose I’d like sharing this story to have, it would be to serve as a warning to those who both commit and receive micro-aggressions on a daily basis. To be a cautionary tale for those who believe micro-aggressions are not real, or not damaging, or that they are “just jokes”, and that they don’t ultimately stem from deeper roots of internalized racism, sexism, ableism, xenophobia, and the likes. And for those who find themselves constantly facing micro-aggressions but making excuses because they come from a loved one, as a wise woman once said, “When people show you who they are, believe them.” That’s not to say cut ties with everyone who has ever committed a micro-aggression. People are inherently human, and we are all problematic from time to time, in some way or another. But know the importance of speaking up and saying it’s not okay. Understand and embrace the power of your own voice. Don’t be afraid to explain why that joke wasn’t funny or why adding “for a black person” to anything does, in fact, make it racist.
Because it’s not enough to acknowledge the existence of a problem while continuing to remain complacent. What makes the difference is what we are willing to do, and how we are willing to change, in order to solve it. The simplest way to start? Stop laughing along and start speaking up. Don’t shrug it off, but shut it down.
If anything, my experience has taught me the importance of unpacking problematic views, of my own and of those around me, and challenging them before it’s too late. Before what someone once considered a funny stereotype becomes their new, dangerously warped perception of reality. Don’t ever be afraid to call out micro-aggressions. Because a key part in eradicating any kind of –ism, starts with acknowledging all of the ways they are still so prevalent in our society today, and more importantly, within ourselves.