Microaggressions Pushed Me Into Activism

I advocated for anti-racism policies at my school.

by E.N.

The first time I remember being the target of racism was in my freshman year art class. I was sitting alone, focused on my artistic “masterpiece” with headphones on, which was why it took me a second to notice the group looking at me, snickering in secretive laughter.

“What?” I said as I pulled down my headphones in curiosity. The moment I said something the snickering stopped, and most of them looked back down at their respective drawings. However, one of the White boys whispered, “They were talking about which colored pencil we look most like. You got the blackest one.”

He gave a nervous chuckle and went back to his drawing. My heart dropped. What’s the joke about that? I thought. What’s so funny about my complexion being darker than theirs?

I slipped my headphones back on and gave a little, “Oh” in response, knowing my voice was too low for him to hear. I’d never thought about my dark skin, but I did then. However, I brushed it off as harmless fun and kept it pushing.

Coming fresh out of a predominantly African American middle school, with most students being of a darker skin tone, I wasn’t exposed to microaggressions.

But now that I was in a more diverse high school, I was exposed to racism for the first time. Friends often compared skin tones among the Black kids, asking me, “Who’s darker between you and him?”

These racist comments and behaviors, although infrequent, made me feel really bad. Unfortunately, they were just the tip of the iceberg of racist incidents that I would experience. However, they also moved me and others to action that resulted in changes at my school.

Racial Tension at School

In March, my school closed because of COVID-19. Then in May, people across the world of all races and ethnicities reacted to the murder of George Floyd, including students at my school.

The Black Lives Matter protests empowered Black students to send anonymous emails to teachers with links and screenshots of racist “jokes” and comments that had been directed at them on social media throughout the school year. Some examples included video reenactments of racial stereotypes like kids squinting to portray Asians. There were straight-up racist statements such as, “I don’t associate with n-ggers.” Students also mocked AAVE (African American Vernacular English), and used variations of the n-word (“nibba,” “nilla,” and sometimes just saying the word “n-gga”).

There were also microinvalidations—statements like, “You’re only here for diversity,” and “Oh, wow, it’s such a surprise to see a lot of [insert racial or ethnic minority] in this type of high school.”

In response, several weeks later, the school staff put together a virtual video game event to “ease tensions” and “support togetherness in the community during these tough times.”

I didn’t participate; I felt this did little to address the racial tension inside our school and the plight of the African American community being brought to light by the Black Lives Matter protests.

As Black students continued to make their grievances and experiences public, White students began to respond. This online communication grew ugly. One of the most blatant instances of racism came in a group chat of predominantly minority students. We were upset over the excessive work assigned by teachers at the time. We felt the amount of homework, tests, and quizzes were way too much, being that many people were still grieving over the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others.

One white kid made hateful comments about the “ungrateful” and “lazy” mindset we had by asking for such awareness. He went on to mock the Black Lives Matter movement, asking, “What shall we f-cking do?” in response to the outrage over George Floyd and boldly stating that “people don’t care” about these current events.

Internal Crossfire Too

I felt torn during this month-long period of online chaos within my school’s community. Some of the kids I’d been hanging out with turned out to be racist. I felt I should be siding with the minority I identified with. I was caught in an internal crossfire.

One night my White-Mexican friend texted: “So how’s it going with you and your little girlfriend?!!”

“What girlfriend, bro?” I responded with one detective emoji followed by a nervous laugh emoji, just to keep a neutral vibe.

“Your little Bengali girlfriend you talk to all day,” he said with a laughing emoji. I thought to myself, Why did he emphasize her nationality?

“What about her?” I asked.

“Yk i just don’t see it,” he said.

“See what?”

“You and her. It’s just weird. Bro. She’s Bengali. I’m not sure if you really like her or not but I just don’t see that mix.”

My heart beat faster. “What are you trying to say?”

Then, crickets. My question challenged his racism without confronting him head on. My hope was that I left him reflecting about what he’d said.

That conversation and the previous experiences pushed me to act. I was tired of letting kids like him get away with these comments and actions. So I stopped speaking to him and others with a history of these microaggressions. I made acquaintances with kids from minority backgrounds through extracurriculars and group chats where we spoke out against the racism that we were seeing and experiencing.

As for the friend who’d asked about the girl from Bangladesh, I noted some changes in his behavior from afar. He participated in Blackout Tuesday on Instagram for example. Whether it was me or other voices at school influencing him, I was glad to see some spark made him more race conscious. This made me think people can change.

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Working Toward Resolution

Eventually, something had to give. School is supposed to be a safe space for all students to feel comfortable in their own skin, and now that wasn’t the case.

About two weeks after the incident with my friend, I was scrolling through a group chat of minorities in my school. I came across a Google document called “Student Manifesto.” Underneath the document, someone wrote: “Guys, we are coordinating some type of plan of action to address the racial issues in our school. If any of you would like to help with the construction or information in the document, feel free to edit the document as you feel it necessary.”

The manifesto was a collection of the complaints and anecdotes from the people of color in our school. Its purpose: to empower all minorities and raise awareness to both staff and students of rampant racism. This was what I had been waiting for.

Here is an excerpt from my contribution: Unfortunately, our school community has faced HEAVY racial tension, and just blatant racism that cannot be solved through wishful thinking. Our staff has become complacent with putting these issues on the backburner, in an attempt to ignore the calls for help by the inflicted minorities in our school. And as a person of color myself, it hurts to feel neglected and completely abandoned by the leaders of my school.

I have been exposed to an overwhelming amount of implicit bias, prejudice, inequality, and just blatant racism that has reached a point of extremity beyond measure. I have never experienced such bigotry, and the way our staff has dealt with this can be described as no less than a complete disservice to our community.

My purpose for sharing my opinions is not to bash the leaders of our school, but instead to spread awareness to the injustice they have committed by failing to address…ANYTHING. I hope my message touches the hearts and minds of our community leaders and helps spark some change for the betterment of our community as a whole.

Our Teachers Hear Us

After this, the adult staff organized a town hall with student leaders. The staff acknowledged their negligence and assured us that our voices would be heard. We expressed our concerns and together we came up with consequences for racist behavior. For example, initially, there would be a mandated discussion with the student, their parents, and the dean. The punishments start with a one day in-school suspension and then the suspension levels become progressively more severe depending on the racism that took place. It was the end of the school year, so an email went out that summer with the new rules.

When school re-started in September, there was an orientation reviewing them. The school also hosted mandatory events about bullying, cyber bullying, and racial awareness to prevent racist behavior. Other positive changes that came out of the town hall. The history curriculum was shifted to be less Eurocentric. We learn about how inaccurate and missing coverage of Black history perpetuates racism today.

We also get thoughtful messages from school leaders and teachers. One teacher wrote to the whole school, “Right now, so many people are speaking up, spreading awareness, and going out on the streets to demand justice. We are all feeling the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement. These protests are a result of years of oppression and feeling unheard emotions that are commonly expressed by students of color in the classroom.”

BLM news and resources are now part of every school announcement, along with info about awareness groups at school and in the community that students can participate in.

Before, I had not been outspoken about racism. I’m still kind of shy and have some social anxiety, but I’m a lot more comfortable now and able to express myself better, whether verbally or in writing.

I want readers to know that your voice can be valuable in ways large and small. Speaking my piece to some of my peers exposed their ignorance, which changed something, even if it was on a small scale. I brought awareness, and rebuked that racism in my own little way, while also being a part of bigger change.

Discussion Questions

  1. If you were the writer’s friend, how would you support them during this time?
  2. At the end of the story, the writer discusses making change on a small scale. How can making smaller scale changes still lead to a big impact?
  3. In what ways do you resist or fight back against racism?

One of the White boys whispered, 'They were talking about which colored pencil we look most like. You got the blackest one.'
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