Andrea Boyles
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Imagine we have two groups of high school students existing in the same school. One group is commonly thought of as popular and cool, and everybody knows them, everybody likes them - I mean, seriously, though, you know the group. And so, these students are all that, and some, meaning they, their clique, is believed to be everything, and they tend to be generally favored by everyone in that environment. And so, I mean, you can see it, right? And there is this informal understanding within the school's culture of who they are, and so these students present themselves as empowered, bold and confident, often holding down lead positions because they are almost guaranteed to run and win school offices. And so, maybe their clique is known by the style or way they dress, whatever they wear, or do, for that matter, is seen as the best. Or perhaps it's in the way that they talk, dropping little nuggets here and there, no biggie, really, but that keeps the "others" reminded of who they are. After all, these are the cool kids. Now, let's think about this "other" group. Yes, the kids who have been "othered," and who are often viewed as the exact opposite of the cool group, and not because they chose to be, but because that's how they have been labeled, grouped, and altogether thought to be. And by who? Well, let's think about this, because distinctions have to be made, right? After all, the stellar reputation of the cool kids depends on it. And so, the unpopular ones, or the "others," don't just wake up one day and say, "Oh, my gosh. I would absolutely love to be the weird one, today. The one that knows I will be so fronted on and embarrassed should I ever find myself in 'their' - meaning the cool kids - in 'their' huddle of friends." No, that's totally not how that works. And so it is then the decidedly cool kids that define the others. And so then, keeping in sync with how the others are often thought about or treated at the same high school, there's really not a lot to say about them other than, "I don't know. They're just different, and for whatever reason they just don't seem to fit in." And so, generally, they receive very little attention, unless negative, and, instead, they are just kind of tolerated, put up with, or clearly understood as who not to be if you want to be accepted. And as long as they stay out of the way or flow of the cool kids, then usually, everything's peachy. And so, like I often say to my college students, many of whom not long out of high school, themselves, that now that you have this picture and this kind of interaction as a point of reference, let's think about this critically, because this high school is just like our society, our cities, our nation, our globe, even, and all social structures and institutions that fall between them. Where there is a historically clear way of communicating and understanding who's who, meaning which group is in, which group is out, or perhaps, which bunch is normal and which folks are not; under this same group arrangement, along with verbal and non-verbal exchanges, marginalized populations come to be "othered" or experience what can be referred to as microaggressions or microaggressive behaviors, where many marginalized persons risk being exposed and reminded of being a sign to the "other" group, and are therefore left feeling vulnerable, uncomfortable, and altogether uneasy as if the last or least desired kid picked to be on the team. Translation: In any place, any time, any given situation - at a bus stop, a museum, or perhaps while out shopping, even - marginalized populations come to be publicly humiliated or identified as the "other" through presumptuous statements and questions like, "Wow, your English is pretty good. So where are you from?" which is often code for, "Somehow, you don't look American to me." And as a sidebar, critically thinking, what does that mean? No, really, what does "looking American" mean? In any case, the assumption is then they are not, and really, whether they are or not, can we understand how they were just "othered" from the huddle? Kind of pointed out as, I don't know, maybe appearing unordinary, perhaps? Or how about asking someone, "So, what are you, exactly?" as if the answer is a prerequisite for interacting with them, all the while assessing their eyes, or perhaps their skin complexion, because, see, once again, there is this seemingly unwavering need to assign people to categories. Or just maybe exposure or othering come through statements that somehow suggest you as being special, like, "You're the different one, okay?" So let's go with it. Different how, exactly? Like, what does that mean, right? Sounds just like what happens with the cool kids versus the "other" students at the high school. In any case, these are microaggressions; seemingly well-intended statements and questions, and behaviors, really, that are insulting and condescending, with very racialized coding attached to them. In essence, when I speak of microaggressions, I am speaking of a concept coined by Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Education at Harvard University, Dr. Chester Pierce, that refers to what I will describe as "below-radar behaviors" that, whether intended or not, act as dog whistles for racism and xenophobic exchanges. So while, in this talk, I am speaking to racial and ethnic interactions, likewise, you should know that microaggressions can also be applicable, experienced and understood with other group dynamics regarding gender, sexual orientation, religion and so forth. That said, let me reiterate a few things. One: microaggressions can be subtle, and more often than not occur with seemingly well-intended folks. Two: facial expressions and body language can be equally telling and impactful, and so it is important to know that the huffs and puffs, rolling of eyes, shifting bodies, eerily gawking at someone or refusing to make eye-contact altogether and instead the whole "talking past you" thing, as if everyone else in the room or discussion matters and you do not, especially when racial matters are brought up, then sending vibes that suggest, "Give it a rest. Enough, already. Why do we have to keep talking about this? I have a black friend," all the while, unknowingly, and perhaps even unintentionally, communicating arrogance, privilege or a lack of consideration for context; how all of this interaction might be landing. See, people of color simply do not get rest breaks. There are no timeouts, scheduled intermissions, or cushiony convenient moments for experiencing discrimination. If anything, there are only instances of psychological redress, where many marginalized persons feel culturally compelled or cornered to not even address these issues as they occur for fear of being further stigmatized and identified as rebel-rousers, combative, radical, militant and other very racialized, or perhaps we could just say microaggressive labels that negatively impact the true and possible cultural and racial education to transformation process, which is the reason for this very talk. We persons of color simply can't press pause on the social construction of race and the social implications that's attached to our black and brownness, and so the thought or idea of a colorblindness or a colorblind society is a myth, and, unknowingly, in and of itself a microaggression. Sure, it's a catchy suggestion. Sounds good, sounds pretty unifying on its surface, which is all we want, what we all should want. We should want unity, but let's be honest, does saying that now make me appear clear? Am I now translucent? Can you suddenly not see me sashaying my honey brown caramel complexion? Or better yet, let's think of it this way. If you had to describe me to someone, what would you all say, and in what order? And if, by chance, you did not mention race, would it then be gender? Just another category for judging based on historic and compromising distinctions! And so, by virtue, a social construction and stratification ignoring race and this notion of colorblindness is simply not possible because, whether admitted or not, people have been socialized or taught directly and indirectly to identify, group and define all people based on superficial characteristics, and so it becomes incumbent upon all of us to study these matters, and more importantly, to keep culturally diverse and truly progressive people in both our professional and personal circles. Why? Because our culture keeps reverting and diverting folks who only focus on the most obvious aspects of discrimination, like burning crosses, spray-painting hate graffiti on property, using the N-word, or other similar highly publicized historical actions that we've all come to know so well. And so, as a result, people are left comfortably unknowledgeable, unaware and unable to recognize or even gauge what is appropriate or inappropriate, sensitive or insensitive, beyond those things when interacting with marginalized populations, which in many respects translates to, "This is unimportant," and you not even having to be aware of it. This is how who believe themselves to have the best of intentions come to be surprisingly labeled as racist, then feel hurt, confused, even, and ultimately find themselves as unpopular and uncomfortable, or at risk of being distanced or picked last in their own huddle. And so, instead of only knowing to disavow the displaying swastikas, hanging nooses, and other obvious actions, likewise, the mission and sense of urgency has to be the same in staying clear of microaggressions - those subtle "othering" behaviors, comments like, "your kind" and "people like you" or maybe actions such as complimenting someone on their hairstyle, which is great, instead of asking a series of intrusive questions about it, and presumptuously trying to touch it, to feel the texture of it, or maybe we should not talk to act as if we are deeply connected with the Hispanic and Latino community because we love tacos and fajitas, or just maybe we should not assume that all persons of Asian descent are rich and work in Silicon Valley, or reference them as model minorities, which is actually a backhanded insult. I could go on and on, as this is an invaluable opportunity to learn and grow if you are receptive. After all, my mission has simply been to call attention to more subtleties and nuances of everyday, seemingly normalized, discriminative behaviors, with the hope of divulging information that might advance us intellectually and "humanitarianly," which intrinsically means entering, embracing and sharing in this space of enlightenment and altruism, where personal and cultural transparency and conviction becomes forever unavoidable, where historically-induced social awareness remains fundamental, followed by an unequivocal acknowledgment of power, privilege, or this very real, global, consequential thing, better known as dominant entitlement, perhaps ownership, even; the idea of becoming ever so cognizant of one social location, and what that location means and makes possible - or not - for those whose everyday existence is fashioned by discrimination. And then, if I could be so blessed, assuming that after having arrived, in some measure, to an increased knowledge of systematic arrangements and culpability, I thank you for being receptive and embracing all that's possible through social transformation, like our theme "rise," right? And so for rising to the occasion in this treasured moment of time, critically thinking and rethinking the status quo, all the while aiming to rise through what is often characterized as unreasonable and unnecessary dialogue, and yet still pushing with the hope of rising because yes, we keep addressing racism, sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, racism again, religious intolerance, and on and on and on. Yes, that unavoidable place where some have and may still voice discontentment through denial, perhaps out loud, or even inside, as if neither are discernable, and they are, because remember, those two are microaggressions. Which is exactly the point of all of this, because see, no matter the wording or the volume of the sentiment, we rise through our ability to identify, uncover, disavow and disallow those feelings, those attitudes, wherever and however that "other" exists; our right and ability to share an unimaginable, equitable and harmonious space. And so, I challenge you, dear friends, to challenge you, meaning yourself and your neighbors too, to rise as interconnected, interdependent members of our wonderful global community, and to do so while continuing to learn, process and ultimately digest the socialization and comfortability of microaggressions. Thank you. (Applause)