I stepped into the store and this friendly white woman asked: “do you want to sit on the bench?” She was in her forties and was really excited to not have to stand in line. I thanked her but declined. She then struck a conversation with an older white gentleman in his sixties standing in front of us. He asked her:” where are you from? I hear an accent”. She responded “a place in Europe” (I am omitting the specific country for privacy sake). I joined the open conversation and asked whether the reports about her country being a beautiful place to visit were true. She confirmed and asked in return: “you are military right?”. “No, I am not. I am not as brave as the men and women in uniform “I responded with humor. “No! you look military!” she shot back. “Maybe you would have been stationed near my country I was thinking” she followed. “No, I am not” I smiled back, uneasy, a bit annoyed and conflicted.
Within an instant, a swirl of emotions and thoughts emerged in me as I helplessly got lost in them and shut down as a result.
· First, I felt uncomfortable and belittled by the fact that she labeled and boxed me into a social category because of my skin color. This sentiment was worsened by the fact that she was insistent.
· Second, the exchange triggered the memory of past occurrences of similar exchanges when well-meaning people, store clerks or strangers assumed that I was in the military because of my skin color even when the clothes I wore had nothing military about them. The regularity and frequency of these interactions made me feel as though this stigma was inescapable.
· Third, I wanted to tell her as respectfully as possible my frustration; press her to unpack for me what made me look military so that she realizes her indiscretion; tell her that not all black people in Olympia are in the military. But I did not have the will, the wit nor the energy to enter this rabbit trail in a public space and with a total stranger.
· Four, I did not want to make a scene; say something that could reinforce and make me an instance of the stereotypical irritated black man who makes a big deal out of an innocent comment.
· Five, I also understood her. I recognized that her assumption was perfectly reasonable. Based on interpersonal neuroscience, this was a logical neural pathway for anyone to travel. The prevalence of military families in the area and her past experiences most likely conditioned her to make the association and inference. How could I be upset at her for this? Yet, it still did not feel good to be boxed in once more.
Then I began asking myself the following questions:
· Could I have handled the situation differently? Should I have?
· Am I/are we too sensitive in the USA around statements or interpersonal exchanges that are socially acceptable in other parts of the world?
· Was I guilty of the same thing I was offended by when I asked her about the presumed beauty of her country?
· Was she potentially offended or irked too?
· Is it realistic to expect people from different walks of lives to suspend their basic human tendency to default to what they have seen or experienced thus far as they converse with each other in a process of mutual discovery?
Then I thought about the 10,000 people, mostly women and children (1 in 200 Palestinians) killed in Gaza by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) as it launched a retaliatory war on Hamas following the unprecedented, surprised attack of October 7th that killed 1200 Israelis, many of whom were civilians including children and women.
Then I thought about the world worst humanitarian crisis; the more than 5 million people currently displaced from the Republic of Congo, due to decades long intercommunal conflicts fueled by the stigmatization born out of the influx of refugees from neighboring countries, a poor rule of law, further exacerbated by the expansion of the mining of natural resources such as cobalt needed by big Tech to satisfy our western lifestyle of renewable energy.
These thoughts gave me perspective and helped me realize that although frustrating, this woman stigmatized me from a place of genuine desire to connect rather than to dehumanize. And while it was poor form, her intent counted for something. This distinction was freeing and I let it go.
Microaggressions impact many on a regular basis. Yet they are bound to happen when people genuinely seek to engage with others as they are and based on the stories they have experienced thus far. How are we to navigate a multicultural society where we simultaneously encourage curiosity, yet develop awareness, empathy and communication skills to prevent harm and to support communities that experience stigmatization regularly? This story was my opportunity to wrestle with this connendrum. Many might have responded differently but my hope in sharing it is to increase awareness about the nuance and complexity of this issue.
As i bring this post to an end, I leave with the following questions:
As people how can we:
Equip ourselves and our communities with communication tools to effectively engage a multicultural society in a way that a) minimizes occurrences of harm and b) responds constructively to such harm, when they occur?
Educate ourselves to be aware of the cumulative impact of stigmatization on various groups, especially minorities?
Build relational stamina by practicing engagement from a place of curiosity ?
Learn how to entertain complex and nuanced perspectives all at once?
Hold space and provide mental health resources for communities with a history of repeated stigmatization?
Remember that while impact matters most, intent also matters?
Extend grace to one another as we genuinely learn from each other?