I love Cesca Leigh’s Shit White Girls Say To Black Girls. Can’t get enough of it. It so eloquently addresses micro-aggressions.

Micro-aggressions are described by Chester M Pierce as: brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of other races.

I’m not a comedian, per-se, but I am a storyteller and I often find myself sharing a stage with comics. So I’m pretty comfortable getting in the ring and slugging it out with big, loud racism or sexism, or ability-ism (please tell me the right word for this if you’ve been to a liberal arts college more recently than me, which is to say anytime since the industrial revolution). I’ve cheerfully burned a few professional bridges by standing up at the mic and saying, “Hey, you’re an asshole and here’s why…” I have fond memories of an evening during which a woman stood up ahead of me and told a story in which the humor depended on the collective assumption that she should be horrified that her internet date turned out to have an adoptive kid with special needs. I followed and took it upon myself to point out that I could see why she was staying single.

But micro-aggressions are often more confusing. For some that I face regularly, I have memorized responses (He’s so lucky. No, we’re lucky.). But when I’m caught off guard, I often don’t know what to do.

For instance, I was recently in a doctor’s office getting ready for the painful removal of a surgical dressing, when he told me a story that involved a “big black guy” coming to his door at 6:30 at night. You know- someone who just didn’t look like he, “belonged in the neighborhood.” And I sat there with my mouth shut and didn’t say a thing. My friend in the waiting room heard the whole exchange. She put a picture of Tariku in my face when we walked out the door and said, “You know this is going to be the big black guy who doesn’t belong in his neighborhood, right?” And I was like- sue me. I didn’t want to have a big confrontation with the guy about to rip a bandage off my face, okay?

But then I was at a reading a couple of weeks ago and another reader began by describing a “dark lady with a mustache” on an airplane and I knew we were in for it. He went on to mock her accent and her eager friendliness, calling her “Gunga-din.” And again, I sat silently. I meant to speak to him afterward, but I was talking to readers; I was signing books. Then I had to run out so I could get home and let the babysitter go. I told myself there simply hadn’t been time. But there probably had. I was just overwhelmed with everything going on. I didn’t have the right words.

There isn’t always a mic in front of my face. And even when there is, the situations are sometimes delicate, the offense subtle. I can’t always find the right joke with which to counter. And those are the kind of moments that haunt me for days. Why did I stay silent? Was I being cowardly? Opportunistic? Should I have said something? And if so, what?

I don’t think there’s a way to get this perfect. But I’d like to get better at it. I think that opening up a dialogue is always a good start.

I’m fantasizing about doing a “Shit People Say to Trans-Racial Families” video (with all my spare time, but what the hell). Who’s with me? Leave a comment and tell me your pet-peeve micro-aggression. And if you’re in the LA area, let me know if you want to be in it!

I’ll start…

Is he yours?

This is T with Kristen Howerton’s kids, btw. Man, I love those peanuts. I’m totally recruiting them for the video.

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43 thoughts on “Micro-Aggressions

  1. This is great Jillian. And you should DEFINITELY make a “sh*t people say to trans-racial families” video.
    Having said that, I will make an shameful admission, a couple of years ago I was telling a story at a party and was on a glorious comic riff and out of my mouth popped a “funny” phrase that in retrospect I realized was completely racist (it involved the word “cerveza”). The room got quiet (good for them) and I then “got” how horrible what I’d just said was. I was mortified. I wanted to be able to somehow take it back. But of course I couldn’t.
    I grew up in the 70s in a multi-ethnic neighborhood (Van Nuys CA) and, yep, just like the cliche, most of my friends were Latino, and now I dance tango so many of my friends now are Latino as well, and there I was making a racist “joke”. Plus, I’m Jewish and have been on the receiving end of racist comments myself, so it was even more mind-boggleing to me that I could make a racially offensive “joke”.
    Why am I saying this here? Well, I think because this conversation is a very important one. If even people like me–self-professed “bleeding heart liberals”, can spout hateful stereotypes–well, it’s just very clear to me on a personal level how much further we as a society need to go.

  2. Jillian!

    Love this post and think the video is a great idea.
    A pet peeve of mine that I don’t really encounter these days (because I live in a bubble in Long Beach) would happen quite frequently when I still lived in Las Vegas. That town is known as sin city to the world, but growing up there, it’s actually very small town minded and trashy, yet conservative. That’s me being nice about it.

    That said, here’s the dealio.

    Stella’s “biological” dad (sperm donor?) is half black, half white, with blue eyes. I’m as pale as they come, blue eyes. Long story short, Stella basically looks like a white girl with blue eyes who tans well and has awesome dark curly hair. What would always frustrate me is that people assume she’s white and because of this, they seem to think we’re all part of some bullshit white club where they are free to speak as they please. Calling people words like “Ni***r” is generally unacceptable to me period, but I’ve always wondered if degrading another race in front of me would be seen as “acceptable” to these white people if they knew Stella’s full story. I too have been in these situations where I’m horrified at what’s been said but unsure of the appropriate way to respond – especially without flipping my shit which is generally my first instinct, ha.

    It’s probably not as big of a deal as the things you’ve encountered but I couldn’t help throwing in my two cents on the matter. I try to live my life as throw race doesn’t matter and in some ways that’s really easy because overall as a city, Long Beach is pretty damn accepting of people. I find it’s when I’m elsewhere that this type of ignorant bullshit tends to come up.

    I think we’re lucky to have the kids we do and they teach us as much as we teach them. I hope that at the VERY LEAST, us being the kind of parents we are will give the world at least two more people who know better than to even think the type of comments they are subjected to, let alone say them out loud.
    Ok I’m done rambling now. Hope you and your family are as well as can be. Please give hugs to your little man!

    • Hi Sierra- I just read an amazing book called “Where did you Sleep Last Night” by Danzy Senna that you should totally check out. Miss you!

  3. Excellent post and idea for an educational vid. I learned a lot while in an interracial romantic relationship in the 80s. People said crazy and messed-up stuff to us (together and respectively) ALL the time. (What’s it like to kiss a black guy? Why can’t you find someone of your ‘own kind?’ Why are white women stealing our men? No one will mess with you, since you’re with a ‘big black guy.’) I did not know it was called microaggression. Perfect term.

  4. Jillian,

    You are one of the most caring people I know. You don’t always have an obligation to teach or train others. Many are unteachable anyway in my experience and many say things like the lady who commented before me that slip out before their brain filter kicks in. As a mom to special kid I have had to learn to just not take it all so personally or expect the rest of the world to “get it”. I would rather accept that others are different from me. Different experiences, different backgrounds, different families all makes us unique and wonderful…warts and all.

  5. When you do the video, I can play all the nasty old people. I do that well, the innocent bungler playing the snarky insult masque.

  6. I love this idea. Here are my 3 most annoying and repeated comments:

    Do you know Brad and Angie?
    How much did he cost?
    And my all time fave,
    He sure did win the lottery!

    I would like to add one that simultaneously annoys me and makes me feel really good at the same time:
    He looks just like you, only black.

    For the most part, I would like to add that people (ie, strangers) have been kind, curious and come from a place of genuine warmth and goodness. Most of the comments and questions I have had to deflect are more about lack of knowledge about international adoption than anything else.

  7. “OMG what are you going to do about that hair?”

    “Where did you get them from?”

    “So wait, are they real siblings? No, you know what I mean, like real real…”

    “Why didn’t their mom want them? Was she just doing it for the welfare checks?”

    “Oh you know how those Africans just pop out babies and expect that Americans will come take them!” (oh yes, the checkout lady at the grocer did say that. and I did report her to her manager. because that shit is just straight up ignorant.)

    • oh my gravy to the last two — i am a foster momma (currently have two gorgeous lil’ ones who happen to look as if they could be my biokids)… but hearing people say stuff about how some people should be “fixed” makes me cringe – b/c i KNOW they would consider their mom one of “those people” and my babies wouldn’t exist!

  8. I recommend HOW TO RENT A NEGRO by Damali Ayo. It is a book in which she both hilariously and breathtakingly unpacks micro-aggressions, among other careless (and often weirdly well-meaning) forms of racism. She’s brilliant.

  9. Oh, it is so, so hard when you’re caught off guard…I don’t know what to say to the mom at school who calls me Angelina Jolie to my face — she is too dumb to get it, no matter what I might say. She also said, “What’s up with your kids’ names, anyway? Can you just name a kid anything” because I didn’t replace their beautiful birth names with “American” names like Morgan, Brittany and Justin. But if you want a more generic question for your video, how ’bout “Where did you get them?”


  10. I will start by stating that I hope you dont think that I am a creppy stalker ….Thought I would share….. I have been a fan of yours since Some girls and I follow you blog daily (and when you post videos of your son my 2 year old son thinks he is sooo funny)…..Anyways… I am a mother of 2 and I am a bit submissive when it comes to defending my kiddos…. I am from Los Angeles but now live in a VERY conservative area of Arizona. I find that when I am confronted by someone that has something negative to say about my kids/parenting I am at a loss for words and after the fact I have the perfect come back but at the time I am silent…..Anyways….This is somthing I need to work on…..Here comes the creepy part….. for the last 2 months or so I (at least 2 times a week) have dreams that you and I are on a play date with our kids… story time at the library….lunch at the park…etc… and a 50-60 some woman is trying to talk down to our kids and I am silent with no response and you are my BFF in the dream and always have the best response to shut her down and save the day…You are always the face to my Super hero alter ego in my dreams…. Not sure why ….Kinda creepy but after readibg your last blog thought I woul;d share that although you may not always have the right response to peoples response to your son. In my odd dreams you are the kick ass mom who has the best come backs. i wish all the best to you and your beautiful family.

  11. Thank you for writing this! I am always amazed at some of the things that people say to me and my son (or about us).
    Here are a few:
    “Oh I didn’t think you were his mother! I mean, he is so dark! I assumed you were his babysitter…or something!”

    “What happened to his ‘real’ parents?”

    “Don’t you want your ‘own’ kids?”

    “For being half black, he’s is DARK! His dad must be REALLY dark, right?!”

    “Weren’t there any black kids here you could have adopted?”

    “So are his folks dead?”

    *These are just a few. While I know that some people just don’t know the proper jargon about adoption and are curious about our family, others are just strait up rude!

  12. I HATE “he is so lucky”. Also the assumptions that his first mom is a drug using worthless drain on society. “oh is she a druggie?”. Really? I live in orange county. I’ll totally be in it! 😉

  13. Haha I thought of some more! “where is he from?” “irvine” insert look of shock and surprise…. Black people come from IRVINE?? Not just rich white suburbanites? Speechless. Also ” he’s so much like you I almost forget he’s black”. And “why can’t you just raise him to be white? Why do you focus on his ‘culture’?”. This is a great topic and fun to get these off my chest!! 😉

  14. yes, do the video! i’m a new foster mama and have already gotten

    “how much did you pay for your baby?”
    “where in africa is he from?” (he’s from la)
    “is he….mixed??” (while wincing and in a hushed voice)
    “do you have any real kids?”

  15. Glad I stumbled over here! I love that Chescaleigh video. I saw her on “Anderson” talking about the video and asserting that nothing she mentioned (the micro-aggressions) were racist. That gave me pause because I think a lot of them are.

    (and since you asked, the word you are looking for is “ableism”) 🙂

  16. My heart is breaking right now as I look at your beautiful kid . A recent tragedy happened near where I live. In Sanford, FL an unarmed boy was shot because someone thought he looked suspicious. I look at your kid’s face and I don’t want it to be his or anybody’s future where people judge by skin color. The man who shot and killed the young boy hasn’t been arrested, but I hope they end up charging him. I don’t feel safe in a world that would allow something like this happen and do nothing about it.

  17. Jillian,
    I live in the midwest, Kansas City MO, and just want you to know the questions/comments seem to be the same everywhere.
    My most unfavorite is, “She’s so lucky.” No she’s not. I’m the lucky one. If they knew the circumstances of why she was adopted, there’s nothing “lucky” about it. My second most unfavorite comments or questions have to do with her biological family and the circumstances surrounding her adoption. I understand people are curious, but it’s her story to tell when she’s older. It’s heartbreaking and what I wish they realized, so they wouldn’t ask that question, is that the absolute joy in my life started in brokeness and sadness for her life. I wish I could say I always have eloquent, perfect replies, but I don’t and I find myself telling more than I want sometimes!

  18. This is such an awesome conversation. I am sorry to say that I have been guilty of asking some of these questions, and I just want to add that when someone who hasn’t adopted a child sees a family that clearly has, sometimes the questions like “did you adopt?” and “where is he from?” are genuinely curious and interested because we think it’s AWESOME and we’ve been wondering about doing the same thing ourselves, and it’s so exciting to meet people who have actually gone down that path… When I first met a dear friend in her driveway one day with her gorgeous Chinese daughter bicycling up and down, my first question was “Did you adopt her?” because we were thinking of adopting from China and I was so excited to find someone to talk about it… and I said all the dumb things like “she’s so lucky” and “you’re so great to do that” because I was trying to celebrate and acknowledge the enormous gift this woman gave and GIVES her daughter daily, and how lucky she IS that her adoption happened, and of course NOT meaning that the parents, too, aren’t lucky… you know? And not negating that her daughter’s beginnings weren’t tragic, and sad, because OF COURSE they were. So some of this is innocent, and can get filtered too much through the “these questions are always aggressive and thoughtless” when they really aren’t… it’s sometimes done in a spirit of enthusiasm and excitement, and wanting to honor the situation and give the parents a spiritual “high five” about it all.

  19. I have brown skinned babies and I am a fair skinned mama. People are mostly well meaning, but sometimes I get comments that blow me away and are we more like macro agression, like, “have you thought about who they will marry.” or “wow, they are so beautiful and have such fine features like us”.

    My least favorite version of the classic, “where ate they from?” was, “where did you get them at?” I did not hold my tongue on this occasion.

  20. When my son was little and his special needs were less obvious: “Wow! A boy! But I thought they only threw away girls in China!”

    Now: “You are a saint for adopting a boy with special needs” (we didn’t know about these needs, we are not saintly, have compassion for adoptive parents of kids with special needs even if they knew about them all before adoption)

  21. Do you tan your baby?
    What kind of baby daddy does that one have?
    What’s up with that one?
    He seems to love her just like a sister.

    Then there’s the snarky assumptions about getting pregnant really fast by a lot of different dads.

    All actually said to us.

  22. Mostly I get the “stare” you know the one, that is disapproving and a bit curious. I have had them all, “is she YOURS”, “where is she from” all the hair comments. But the one that kills me is the comments about her birth mom. “how do you deal with her FAS/crack addiction/ADHD (etc) because her Mom was a crackhead”. Seriously??
    I have two standard responses that I have MEMORIZED in case I start to lose my mind. 1) Do you realize the caucasians aren’t too excited to have you on the team?? and second
    2) Do you think all black women are crackheads? (I like to say that one kind of loud)
    I may not be educating anyone, but sometimes you just need to shut them up to protect your little one.

    • I saw Alec Mapa’s comedy show and he calls the stare the WTF triangle- where they look at your kid, then you, then your partner. Repeat, repeat…..

  23. oh man… where do I begin?? Some of these are repeats from others but these are the ones we hear the most of or that have stuck in our minds the most.
    1) “So… she’s a drug baby/crack baby, right?” (thankfully only asked of me twice but I wanted to rip their heads off- it riled me up unlike any other question)
    2) No joke- at a dinner party last week this actually happened to me. I still can’t believe it. A couple I have never met before came late and joined us all at the table. In the middle of talking about who knows what, the guy says loudly and emphatically ” Can we just deal with the HUGE elephant in the room???” while looking straight at me. I was like “huh?”. He then says “You did adopt her, right??” while pointing to our daughter. As if realizing that he just made that all very awkward, he then proceeds to joke that it could just be that I slept with someone else other than my hubby (which at the time I kind of wished was true only to make him even more embarrassed about the way he was reacting towards our multi-ethnic family). Oh man, then he went into a long explanation as to why he and his wife aren’t going to adopt (because so many people get into confession mode after learning we adopted and proceed to tell us their many reasons why they can’t or won’t adopt- umm, we never asked and you don’t owe us some awkward explanation).
    3) “So how do your kids get along?” Umm, like brother and sister- this is made funnier by the fact that the people asking this question know that she has been with us since birth and joined our fam when our boy was 2 so they don’t know any different. It makes me laugh like they expect me to say that my kids somehow see each other as anything less than brother and sister because their skin color is different.
    4) “Is she yours???’ asked by the same grocery check out clerk at least a couple of times a month (I avoid her line now ;O) ).
    5) “Is she mixed???” She’s not a dog breed peeps, she’s a little girl.
    6) “What country did you get her from?”

    if I can think of more, I’ll post them later. You really need to do a video!

  24. Heard this one at gymnastics: “Ohhhhh! We’re thinking about adopting too, and we’re…um…ya know, not picky.” It took me a minute to realize she was trying to say they were open to race. If I would have been thinking quicker I would have said “really, I was picky.”

  25. I’m also in Los Angeles and usually feel lucky that we’re in an area where transracial families seem to be everywhere. Although sometimes I feel like we always have to be on our best behavior as the “poster family” for adoption. We get all the usuals mentioned above – where did you get them?, are they related, I mean really related?, etc. When I’m alone with my youngest, I’ll get a long stare then “What’s his dad?” I like to say, “Human.” The one that kills me is “so what’s wrong with his/her parents?” Um, you mean me? I have anger issues that you’re about to experience first hand. I know a lot of people are well meaning but please stop asking this crap in front of my kids! And don’t even get me started on the hair questions! If you do decide to do a video, I’d be happy to participate.

  26. Great post! I have two biracial boys and one of the comments I hate most is “where did you get them?” As if I picked them up at Meijer on sale or something!

  27. good idea……

    here’s some things that people said to me when my daughter was very young.

    how much did she cost?

    what dose she call you?

    who are her real parents?

    where are her real parents?

    how much did she cost?

    and this one is great, if they see I have an asian last name.
    she must have gotten all her good features from your husband!

  28. I’m half Japanese, half Caucasian. I’ve had my fair share of these “microaggressive” comments (the best one was when I was told that my being a “half-Asian war baby” was “in style right now” and she was “resigned to the fact” that one of her sons was going to “marry someone like you [me] someday” (note that my parents marriage was not war-induced in any way)). That being said, save for a few (not pleasant) cases, I think most of these comments (even the war baby one) were coming from a place of these people trying to connect with me and not really knowing what to say or how to say it. I think a lot of times people want to talk about what it’s like to be of mixed heritage, but don’t really know of an appropriate way to talk about it, so they pick the most obvious things (“I LOVE your slanty eyes!”).
    Granted, there are plenty of rude things said by people who are intentionally being racist/demeaning/rude, but I think there are also a lot of people who are just coming from a place of ignorance and would be horrified to know that what they were saying was considered anything less than friendly.

  29. As a high school teacher in a suburb of a small city, I hear so much talk about how “bullying” in our schools must be stopped. But as the parent of a gay daughter who graduated from this school I am here to tell you that we are WAY off the mark on bullying. Most Americans seem to think that “bullying” means knocking down a smaller kid and stealing their lunch money. But in my 20 years of experience, the real harm is micro-aggression. As teachers we should be trained in recognizing and responding to all forms of micro-aggression! Now that I have a term for what I see happening, perhaps I can find more information and persuade more educators to become aware… we educators love our terminology!
    Thank you and all of your responders for the term, for your honesty, for the awareness and for the insights.

  30. I am late to this conversation, but glad to see it now. I am also glad to have the term micro-aggression in my repertoire.

    Hope you do make a video. Here are a few of the things that have been said to me in front of my own child Haven’t read all the comments yet so I may be repeating (I suspect that lots of these are commonly said to parents):

    “Where is he from?”
    “What is he?” (Our answer: “A human. What are you?”)
    “Where did you get him?”
    “Where are his real parents?”

    and (if they learn that our son was originally our foster child):
    “Was his mother on drugs?”
    “He is so lucky”

    Also just lots of inappropriate questions. I do feel that I need to cultivate a more matter of fact way of addressing this kind of question, either by gently calling the asker on their assumptions or perhaps just keeping my cool so my kid can have good modeling when he gets the inevitable onslaught. It is particularly hard with clearly well-meaning acquaintances. Harder than with strangers who are just downright rude.

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