Microaggressions can creep up on you at the most unexpected times. It happened to me recently as my daughter and I were enjoying lunch at the local deli. I was filling her cup up at the soda fountain when a woman asked me a question that caught me off guard. I was wearing a shirt with the French words “Ça va?” printed on the front and the phrase “Tres bien merçi” written on the back. In English, this means “How’s it going?” and “Very well, thanks.”
Be that as it may, the woman asked me, rather pointedly, “Do you know what your shirt says?” At first, I thought maybe she wasn’t talking to me. So I turned toward her and found her eyes piercing at me. That’s when I realized that a white woman was preparing to give me an unsolicited French lesson right in the middle of Jason’s Deli. I was being charged up by a complete stranger to see if I was worthy of the shirt on my back. #WTF?
So, with all the polite firmness and with a chuckle of irony, I said, “Of course I know what my own shirt says. I’m wearing it.”
But she did not relent. “Do you know French?” she replied.
Amazed that she was still speaking to me and pursuing this line of conversation, something warmed up inside of me. I looked her dead in her eye and responded, “Je parle un peu de français,” or to translate, “I speak a little bit of French.”
Now, this was not the time to rattle off the near decade of French I took in high school and college. This was not the time to spout off my résumé for the past 5 years where diversity, inclusion, equity, and culture have literally been my line of work and are within my realm of expertise. Nor was it the time to question if she knew that there are plenty of French-speaking people who look just like me from around the globe.
I had a good mind to really disturb her lunch. Maybe it was the Diet Dr. Pepper. Perhaps it was Jesus, but I decided instead to make it a learning moment for the woman and for my 6-year-old daughter. Yes, that woman needed to see that I am indeed the educated woman that she didn’t mistake me for, and my daughter needed to see how to confront bias with the class, grace, and razor sharpness a situation like this calls for.
After we finished our lunch, I decided to step toward the woman’s table. “Ma’am,” I said directly and firmly, but in a normal tone. “I have an English lesson for you. I need you to look up the word microaggression. Look up the word today, because that will help you understand why I did not take kindly to your approach to me. Do you understand?” The woman, mouth full of sandwich said, “I’m sorry.”
I grabbed my daughter’s hand, and we left the restaurant.
Psychology Today defines the word microaggressions as:
The everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. In many cases, these hidden messages may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment.
Microaggressions can happen to you whether you are black, Latino, Asian, a woman, a young person, a senior, someone with different abilities, LGBTQ or some other category in which society places us. And, according to Columbia University professor Derald Wing Sue, these microaggressions at work can kill your confidence. But there are some actions you can take in the workplace, whereas, on the other hand, sometimes confrontation only spawns a denial and downplays of the incident as trivial or even harmless.
In the book Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation, Sue writes that it is important to seek allies within the workplace who can also call out the behavior because when marginalized people do so, they are frequently told they are being too sensitive.
I don’t know all the reasons why the woman singled me out in the deli, but I discussed it with cultural and political journalist and host Jarrett Hill on a recent episode of my podcast The Culture Soup and provided a little more information about the woman who tried to charge me up over what amounted to conversational French on my shirt. Hill categorized this microaggression and other examples like it with more pointed words, but also shared that you don’t have to be white to engage in it.