Whose Body is it Anyway?: On Microaggressions and the Degradation of the Black Body

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by Jessica L.

Growing up in primarily white institutions, there was a certain ambivalence imparted in regards to my race. Race and cultural differences were unspoken, masked by the debilitating notion of “we’re all human.” Growing up as a black face in a white crowd, I naively clung to the post racial/colorblind hope, that I could exist outside of my skin tone; that the box society has created has long been dismantled by marches on Washington and by brave souls who refused to give up their seats on a bus. These ideals were (and still are) forcefully rendered on the psyche – from the teaching of racism as a thing of the past to the refusal to allow ethnic studies to be taught in schools and the insistence that ethnic studies promote a resentment toward a race or class of people to exclamations that “black people no longer have anything to complain about now that we have a black president.”

The reverberating notions that race no longer matters or that “since old white guys are dying racism is getting better” is the opiate of the masses, meant to sedate black and brown populations. These beliefs are diametrically opposed to what I, as a black woman know and live everyday. Every time some utters the ill-fated phrases “colorblind” and “post-racial,” it invalidates my everyday experiences and those experiences of other people of color. For while many can take comfort in hiding behind these phrases, there are many ways, both obvious and subtle, that I am constantly reminded that this notion of America as a post-racial, colorblind paradise is a myth.

For a workshop that I’m participating in, I was tasked with thinking about violation of boundaries, the definition of which was left up to the determination of each individual in the workshop. This assignment got me thinking about the ways in which my boundaries have been violated; specifically the ways in which being a black women operating in primarily white dominated spaces, the devaluation of my body and black bodies more broadly is fodder for everyday conversation. That despite progress made in the realm of relations, black and brown bodies are still deemed as “the other.” And despite the protestations that racism is a thing of the past from the greater society, the microaggressions that my black female body are subjected to not only exist as violations of boundaries but as a reminder of continued marginalization.

For much of America’s history, black women existed outside the scope of “true womanhood.” “Judged by the evolving nineteenth-century ideology of femininity,” Activist Angela Davis observed, “black women were practically anomalies.” The historical denial of black womanhood has not subsided with the passage of time, more broadly, the inferiority inscribed onto black bodies is consistently reinforced throughout everyday minor interactions. When grappling with the concept of violation of boundaries, it was these “innocent” transgressions, rooted in the stereotypes and racist imagery surrounding black bodies, which came to mind. All this to say, that while times have changed and the mechanisms have been altered, the racist tropes regarding black bodies still manifest in daily interactions.

Just recently, I made the decision to go natural. I grew my hair out without relaxing it for about five months before I got tired of dealing with two different textures and cut off the relaxed ends and was left with a teeny weeny afro. While at the salon, a white lady upon seeing my hair exclaimed, “Ugh, please don’t do that to me.” I was flabbergasted. Here I was making a big decision to cut my hair (which for me despite not wanting it to be, was a big deal), only to be insulted by an unknown woman who could keep her opinion or ignorance to herself.

In two completely unrelated instances I remember a time when I invited a friend from college over to my house and upon arriving the first words to leave her mouth were “I’m so happy that you don’t live in the ghetto” or the girl who thought it was appropriate to tell me about the black people who come into her tanning salon saying “*clucking of the tongue*.”

Recent studies have documented what is being called the racial empathy gap. Researchers find that people assume black people feel less pain than white people. Operating alongside this racial empathy gap, undergirding these interactions is the inferiority assigned to black bodies. In all of these interactions my body was deemed unworthy of common decency or unworthy of the display of manners. White privilege allowed the perpetrators of my boundaries to assess that their feelings were worth more than mine and rendered them unable or unwilling to see how offensive and borderline racist their speech was. Instead, these violations are rooted in the continual degradation and dehumanization of black women. The inability to see as fully human renders us the receptacle for their ignorance and bigotry at the cost of your mood or in more extreme cases at the cost of your self.

In my thinking about violation of boundaries the question arose of: in public (mostly white dominated) spaces for whom does my black body exist for? In bars, my black body is relegated invisible until some white dude decides it’s funny to back it up on me or to twerk in front of me. Or is it expressly for people to use to exert and reinforce white supremacy? The situations I conveyed above illustrate the ways my race and gender intersect with white supremacy in public spaces – granting white people supposedly implicit access to my body through which devaluation occurs. My body is used as a space to enforce white centric beauty standards (“ugh, don’t do that to me” in reference to my hair), to enforce fear of the inner city and by extension a high concentration of black bodies, and to continue the long history of the over-sexualized black woman. These “casual,” “funny,” “innocent” comments contribute to the devaluation of my black body by reducing to stereotypes and limitation society holds specifically against black women. Thus, perpetuating the notion of black womanhood and personhood as a monolithic caricature; denying me the individuality automatically granted to others.

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