“They assured me that these things happen, it was nothing personal they say. This little dance to explain away my anger missed the crucial fact that my people and whiteness had a bitter history, one that saw it fit to render black bodies invisible and interchangeable..”
Recently a white woman at work ‘confused’ me for another black person in the office, she was so sure that I was the other black girl even though I assured her that it must be a serious case of mistaken identity. Her insistence made me feel like I must be going crazy, that maybe in a moment of temporary insanity I was in the wrong body. That maybe she was right, and I was indeed the other black person, except for the fact that the other black girl and I looked nothing alike, didn’t even do the same work nor did we share the same name. Some of our other colleagues who heard about the incident thought the whole thing was funny, and that my angry reaction to this racist micro-aggression that historically asserts that all black people are alike, was an overreaction on my part. I had white people who insisted that they are also often confused for other white people by their white folks, that rest assured, it had nothing to do with race. They assured me that these things happen, it was nothing personal they say. This little dance to explain away my anger missed the crucial fact that my people and whiteness had a bitter history, one that saw it fit to render black bodies invisible and interchangeable. A history that refused to acknowledge our differences and complexities as human beings with unique histories, in the eyes of whiteness we were rendered just a black face. Their blaze reaction reminded me of H&M’s monkey advert, even then white people were quick to point out that black people were overreacting because they also affectionately referred to their kids as monkeys. That it wasn’t a race thing, also conveniently forgetting that black people have a history of being called monkeys as a way to render us ‘uncivilized’ with wild animal tendencies.
“She argued that the ‘Jews forgave the Germans for the Holocaust, black South African’s need to do likewise’, conveniently forgetting that Jewish people received reparations and an apology for the Holocaust..”
As usual, I had a white person trying to dictate to me as a black person about what I needed to be angered by, and how I need to perform that anger. My anger was being policed and rendered unnecessary in the face of prejudice. It may be that the white person, in this case, made an ‘innocent mistake’, maybe her ‘intentions’ were never malicious. But her indifferent reaction said a lot more to me about how very little black opinions and reactions matter, it was offensive to me, but she didn’t even feel the need to try and understand where my anger was coming from. She was quick to dismiss me because she could. There was no apology on her part for ‘mistaking’ me for someone else, she was quick to brush it off and move on with her life like nothing had happened. This was from the same person I once heard telling a person of colour in the office that black people in this country need to ‘move on’, that apartheid was over. She argued that the ‘Jews forgave the Germans for the Holocaust, black South African’s need to do likewise’, conveniently forgetting that Jewish people received reparations and an apology for the Holocaust. Jewish people don’t still have to live in a country that has public monuments that celebrate a history of their oppression, they aren’t forced to navigate higher institutions and walk in the heart of the streets which bore the faces and names of the people who nearly rendered their race extinct just for being themselves. The Germans asked for forgiveness from Jewish people, maybe I have selective memory, but I don’t recall there ever being a public apology from white people directed at black people for the atrocities of apartheid. And no, the performance from the TRC doesn’t count! All these things are micro-aggressions that leave some of us ‘sensitive’ blacks still feeling very angry and betrayed by a black government whose policies and actions continue to be anti-black and anti-poor in favour of white fragility.
There is nothing more disturbing than the realization that white people in this country are more offended and afraid of being called out as racist than they are offended by the reality that racism still persists, it’s as real to black people in this country as gender-based violence is to all women. Racism and all its new models manifest through daily micro-aggressions enforced by the power of whiteness in white institutions. It’s the little things that other people think are funny when they are offensive to the people they are being directed at, its racist every time a white person feels the need to inform the Indian people in the office every time he’s eating curry for lunch just because they are Indian. It’s racist when you feel the need to randomly tell a total stranger who happens to be black how much you love blacks just because you’re sleeping with a black man. It’s racist when you feel the need to emphasize ‘my Asian friend’ when indicating her race adds nothing to the story. It’s patronizing to see the surprised look on your white face when you see a black person excel, from the looks of it you’ve obviously put a whole group of people in some kind of box that renders them less than. It’s just as racist when you confuse a whole black person for another black person and don’t apologise like it’s not a big deal. It’s unacceptable for white people to say they don’t recognize us everytime we change our hair as though we are our hair. We work together, and you see me every day, how does changing my hair make me suddenly unrecognizable? It would be great if white people we work with and have no personal relationships with stop giving us nicknames because they feel like its too much effort to learn to properly pronounce our real black names. And also, I don’t want to hear about how your black nanny who ‘practically’ raised you was just like family growing-up, are you assuming we can relate on some grounds because you grew up around a black woman (no we wouldn’t bond over that)? Because I am not sure why else you assume I care!
Micro-aggressions aren’t any less triggering than being called a Kaffir, being called a k$@& is just a more obvious form of racism. This is to say, the little nuances that go unpunished are also just as hurtful and unacceptable. Micro-aggressions are the foundation of the stereotypes that eventually lead to prejudice and violence, so we shouldn’t dismiss and brush them off. There is nothing more patronizing than having people play the ‘ignorant white’ when you point out how equally racist their micro-aggressive behaviour is, it’s anti-revolutionary so it needs to be called out and dealt with.