Office of Inclusive Excellence

Calling out Linguistic Microaggressions

October 28, 2021

By Ondine Gage, PhD, Associate Professor of Education

When I told my son I had been invited to write a piece answering “What Changes are Necessary to Advance Racial and Social Justice in the United States?” he replied, “Maybe you can bring peace to the Middle East too!” His glib humor masks a daunting reality; we are consumed by fear of the other, which will cause us to self-destruct if we do not name it. To name it, we must engage in meta-cultural activities—we must place ourselves in cultural contexts which allow us to step outside our cultural comfort zones and affinities and reflect on what it is to be on the other side. It is only through reflecting on and grappling with the dissonance of another’s reality that we can learn about ourselves and advance racial and social justice for all.

When I was a little girl in the 1960s, I rode on my father’s shoulders during the famed Civil Rights marches and attended the first bussing schools. Living in Oakland as a White girl, I participated in the social experiment of integrated schooling. I lived in a world where Black was beautiful, or at least people said so. Recently, I watched a 1969 interview of James Baldwin by Dick Cavett, which encapsulates the cultural climate of my childhood. Cavett, representing the White majority (87% of the population), asks Balwin (representing 11% of the population), “Is there hope for the Negros in this country?” Balwin’s patient and paternalistic response: “It isn’t a question of what will happen to the Black man, it is a question of what will happen to this country.” Some things have not changed. Like many (perhaps well-intentioned) White people, who were only schooled in the sanitized history of the nation, Cavett’s questions reflect the ignorant perspective of the White majority, which has been perpetuated by erasing the history of the lived realities of marginalized communities. The insurrection of January 6, 2021 has much to do with this ignorance.

With life comes many lessons and opportunities to see the world through another’s eyes, if we have the stomach to endure it. While studying overseas, I was exposed to historical accounts completely neglected in my U.S. education, but personal stories always seem to haunt me most. In the 1980s, I was the only White girl working in an office with 3 Black women, whose safety in numbers may have been why they revealed their stories. One spoke of how it terrified her husband to observe White women spooked, when they saw him in a parking lot. Another, who was my age, had also been a part of the social experiment of integrated schools in Florida; yet, at her school, the Whites had thrown rocks at her. The narrative of my “Black is beautiful childhood” continued to erode, as I later met Candice, a Black classmate from 6th grade, who shared that she had been particularly scarred and diminished by one of our teachers. Reconnecting on social media with other classmates from elementary school, I learned that not many of the Black boys had survived. In fact, one of the smartest boys in my 6th grade class, Kevin Williams (a pseudonym) had died in jail. As the mother of a son, I felt particularly destroyed thinking of Mrs. Williams, who was a memorable force of nature and frequent room mother in my 6th grade class—the class I had shared with Candice. Perhaps that was why Mrs. Williams was a frequent presence? Maybe I understood her pain a little better because I had raised an Arab-American child after 9/11? But as my son always reminds me, “I pass as White, Mom. Don’t worry about me.”

In the spirit of 1990s multiculturalism, I had raised a bilingual and bicultural son, skirting the linguistically ignorant public school language diversity questions that ask whether anyone in the home spoke a language other than English. I knew that if I had answered, “Yes,” it would mean my son would have endured a barrage of language proficiency assessments. This questioning of language proficiency is yet another form of linguistic microaggression which leads children to sublimate their multilingual heritage. Instead, he proudly invited his head-covered Syrian grandmother, whose 1950s style black purse was a veritable candy store, to circle-time. His translations of grandma’s ancient rhyming children’s stories, which she had told to countless generations, were always accompanied by gifts of confections from her purse. I had hoped in some small way that those American children might carry through their life an association of hijabed Arabic speaking little old ladies with sweetness, as I did. Fortunately, grandma passed before the war; her city passed during the war; and her descendents, who survived, are scattered in the diaspora around the world because of war, like so many immigrants today.

The uncomfortable truths which life’s lessons have uncovered are that in spite of education, in spite of racial mixing, and our efforts to blur lines, as Kendi has written, “the dueling White consciousness has, from its position of power, shaped the struggle of Black consciousness.”I saw this in my son’s Black kindergarten teacher who reprimanded the top reader in the class, a Black child, and told her to repaint her rainbow to look like all the other rainbows in the class, because “black and brown are not colors of the rainbow.” I realized then that my privilege as a White girl was to see Black as beautiful. When we fail to name the microaggressions in our society, we perpetuate damage. When we teach only about the holocaust, and do not atone for the sins of our forebears, we perpetuate the lies. We may not have chosen how we got here, but regardless of our pureness of heart, unless we name the fears, and recognize the legacy of our forebears, we cannot heal.