Microaggression

Book: Citizen An American lyric by Claudia Rankine

Definition:

Microaggressions: A statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discriminatioin or prejudice against members of a marginalized group such as a racial minority (“Microaggressions”).

Etymology:

Micro-meaning small or often microscopic, Aggression-meaning an unprovoked attack. The term was coined by American psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce. Its first known use was in 1970 Since then, the word has been used to refer to instances in which someone expresses prejudice ideas against a marginalized group (Deangelis, Tori).

How this term can help us read literary texts in a more nuanced way: 

Microaggressions are typically the subtle verbal and nonverbal racist comments, that most of the time go unrecognized. Since not all people experience microaggressions on a day to day basis, reading literary texts that involve this term helps those who do not experience the issue get a better understanding of its detrimental effects and the more subtle undertones of a texts that commentate on racism.  

Keyword in action:

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine is a provocative study of race in the United States. The 2014 book is a criticism of American society through the use of boundary pushing poetry. Throughout the chapters, Rankine details the microaggressions her and her friends have experienced in order to express the way these encounters with subtle racism were hurtful. As well as this, Rankine explores other forms of racism such as systemic racism and police brutality. Citizen innovatively blurs the dividing lines of poetry and prose to expose the racism in the everyday lives of Black Americans.

Microaggressions are important to recognize in literature, as they often have serious ramifications in the real world. The real world ramifications are that microaggressions often cause an astronomical amount of stress and anxiety that can go unnoticed by many. In fact, being a black woman in America leads to having a higher risk of giving birth to a premature baby. This is due to the discriminatory practices that are built through microaggressions, such as black women not being able to get an equal education, housing discrimination, and overall not being paid as much as their white counterparts. As well as this, the stress of dealing with microaggressions can lead to stress during the labor process, which endangers the child (Chatterjee, Rhitu). Seemingly miniscule moments of subtle racism can lead to a lifetime of pain and worry.

Examples of microaggressions are employed throughout Citizen. Claudia Rankine helps non black readers gain insight into what it feels like to experience the humiliating consequences of microaggressions. Rankine lets a student cheat off of her and the student tells her “You smell good and have features more like a white person” (5). In this instance, Rankine is forced to take the comment as a thank you, in order to defend herself from the reality that this classmate sees her as undeserving of gratitude due to her race. As well as this, her teacher treats her as less valuable than the other students due to her race “Sister Evelyn must think these two girls think a lot alike or she cares less about cheating and more about humiliation or she never actually saw you sitting there” (Rankine 6). Rankine’s teacher also sees her, as well as her situation as being unworthy of recognition. Microaggressions are common in the medical field and Rankine experiences one when she visits a trauma counsellor “When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?” (Rankine 18). The counsellor never once thought that a black woman would need help with her mental health. Due to stereotypes like these being held by professionals, black women are less likely to be helped and treated. In addition to not believing that a black woman could be there for an appointment, the counsellor assumed that because of Rankine’s race, she must be dangerous. The assumption that Rankine is an intruder is a racist stereotype within itself. This assumption is not only insulting to Rankine, but puts her life in danger. She could be forced to have an encounter with police who are looking for a problem that does not exist. These examples of microaggressions in the young life of Rankine, her friends and colleagues, and in the medical field help to portray their nasty consequences.  

All throughout Rankine’s lyric Citizen, readers get an insight on the prejudice experienced by members of minority groups. The stereotypes and racist incidents displayed are just a few of the things society has taught people to think are acceptable to think and say. We as readers need to take a closer look at the events that scream discrimination, but are often played off as nothing. We see that not only are microaggressions totally unacceptable simply because they are offensive, but we see how they also can affect a person’s physical state. 

  Microaggressions can be perpetrated by people who do not see themselves as holding racist beliefs. They can be perpetrated by those who are close and well known to the victim. For example, a friend mixes you up with another person of the same race, and only sees an issue with it when confronted. Rankine takes issue with one of her own friends when they say “You are late you nappy headed ho” (Rankine 41). Rankine replies by asking her friend to repeat herself , “‘What did you say?’ She doesn’t, perhaps she physically cannot, repeat what she has just said” (41). The friend was oblivious to the fact that addressing Rankine as a “nappy headed ho” would be something she might find degrading. Until Rankine calls her out, she saw the name as something that was funny, rather than rude and stereotypical. In this particular situation, Rankine stood up for herself, hopefully forcing her ‘friend’ to think about the things she says in the future. In some cases individuals accept this kind of behavior and move on, choosing to believe that it is not their responsibility to educate others.   

The next section of Citizen revolves less around specific experiences, but the effect they have on individuals. Rankine discusses the role the past and memory plays in all of this, and the way experiences can impact a person. She talks about the way individuals try and cope with the microaggressions they’re handed, but how eventually everything just feels numb “The head’s ache evaporates into a state of numbness, a cave of sighs” ( Rankine 62). This supports the idea that constantly being faced with discrimination and microaggressions can have a physical toll on a person.

There are many different forms of microaggressions scattered throughout the book, but not every chapter includes examples that Rankine has experienced. Rankine states “Words work as release—well-oiled doors opening and closing between intention, gesture. A pulse in a neck, the shiftiness of the hands, an unconscious blink, the conversations you have with your eyes translate everything and nothing” (69). The beginning of this chapter, seems almost as if Rankine is talking to someone, but she is talking to herself. Rankine explains her emotions through her tone, by voicing her opinion and using language to represent an internal conflict. There is a loss of self- identity within this book because of the way Rankine utilizes the word “you”.  Rankine says “You begin to move around in search of the steps it will take before you are thrown back into your own body, back into your own need to be found” (70). This quote details what it’s like to lose your own sense of self and identity, the “you” makes it as though the reader is the one who has lost themselves due to an overwhelming feeling of dread.

Groups of people including the LGBT community, those with disabilities, religious groups, and women are dealing with microaggressions for just being who they are “Those realities include the acts of everyday racism—remarks, glances, implied judgments—that flourish in an environment where more explicit acts of discrimination have been outlawed” (Wing Sue, Derald) In his article, Dr. Sue includes examples of microaggressions that are used on a day to day basis, which include remarks of people who are being judged on other qualities other than race. An example of a gender microaggression that he uses this would be “Whistles or catcalls are heard from men as a woman walks down the street” (Wing Sue, Derald). In this very common case, women are being treated strictly as a sexual object based off of their appearance. An example of a sexual orientation microaggression would be a young person using the term “gay” to describe a movie that they didn’t like. In this instance, the word gay is being used as a synonym for something that is bad. This reinforces the idea that being gay is bad. Society has normalized all of these occurrences because they happen so often, which is why there needs to be more thoughtfulness surrounding the language we choose to employ  (Wing Su, Derald).

Microaggressions will continue to exist among us in today’s society if no awareness is brought to them.  Rankine raises awareness toward microaggressions by pinpointing the little remarks that are made to her, and to others. By Rankine writing about these different situations, she is bringing situations to light that otherwise would go unnoticed. She is helping those who are unaccustomed to become more familiar with the everyday struggles of others, by making the reader use empathy and step into another persons shoes. 

Works Cited

Chatterjee, Rhitu, and Rebecca Davis. “How Racism May Cause Black Mothers To Suffer The Death Of Their Infants.” NPR, NPR, 20 Dec. 2017, 

Deangelis, Tori. “Unmasking ‘Racial Microaggressions’.” Monitor on Psychology, American Psychological Association, www.apa.org/monitor/2009/02/microaggression.

Rankine, Claudia, 1963. Citizen : An American Lyric. Minneapolis, Minnesota :Graywolf Press, 2014.

Sue Wing, Derald “Microaggressions: More Than Just Race.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers.

“Microaggressions.” Merriam- Webster.com Merriam-Webster, 2019.Web 20 Nov. 2019. 

Google Images licensed for reuse -images courtesy of buzzfeed


Expression by Brooke Christman

Artists statement

For my found poem, I chose to take words from the Espionage Act of 1917. The original purpose of the Espionage act was to prohibit any negative speech towards the military operations of the United States. It was passed after the United States entered world war I, and was used as a way to keep criticism for U.S. war efforts at low. The act has always had a bad relationship with the ideas and values of free speech. Many people were convicted under its provisions, which raised questions regarding the fairness of being jailed for stating your opinion. Was this law really just a way to prevent information from being leaked to enemies, or was this a now legal way to silence the opinions of American citizens. A threatening way at that, as jail time would be punishment for breaking its code.

I decided that I would place the words in such a way that would portray the opposite side. I wanted my poem to carry the message of the importance of being able to say how you feel about the government. I had the words portray why hindering freedom of speech makes a nation cowardly, and why the citizens deserve to have that right. The words of the Espionage act discouraged citizen voices from speaking up, my poem condemns this and lifts up the ideas and values of having meaningful discussions, and highlights the power of being able to express your beliefs.

The Harmfulness of microaggressions-Brooke Christman

In Claudia Rankine’s Citizen An American Lyric, the first section works to put the readers in an uncomfortable situation while reading, in order to help them better understand the ways in which everyday racism is perpetuated in a multitude of forms against Black Americans. She does this by highlighting instances of microaggressions. Small moments of racism that may go over someone’s head if they are not paying close attention. Rankine shows us that although small, these moments of everyday racism can be severely degrading for marginalized groups of people. Rankine seeks to make the white reader more aware of this mundane racism, so that they will be less likely to perpetuate it onto marginalized people.   

   Rankine shares a memory from her childhood where she experienced an act of microaggression from another child, in hopes to portray how the impact of another child’s seemingly innocent words can leave a damaging effect on one’s view of themselves. After she lets the student cheat off of her, Rankine recalls the girls usual response “You never really speak except for the time she makes her request and later when she tells you you smell good and have features like a white person” (5). The classmate of Rankine’s was not purposefully attempting to be malicious towards her, however, it is quite clear that the comment is very much so offensive and hurtful, as it implies that Rankine having features like a white person is somehow inherently better than having more traditionally African American features. The comment, although subtle, stuck with Rankine from childhood into adulthood, showing it has carried with her in a damaging way.

 Another example of a microaggression experienced by Rankine was when a friend kept getting mixed up with her name “After it happened I was at a loss for words. Haven’t you said this to a close friend who early in your friendship, when distracted, would call you by the name of her black housekeeper? (7). A lot of people claim that they are bad with names, so what makes this girl mixing up Rankine’s name any different? Rankine’s friend not being able to get her name straight becomes a problem when she is getting it confused with possibly the only other black woman in her life. Whether the friend actually realizes it or not, she is reinforcing a stereotype. The stereotype that most people of color look alike is widely reinforced by white people who do not bother or take the time to match a face to a name, and Rankine’s friend is clearly a culprit of that. 

Not only does Rankine point of the microaggressions she has faced in her own life, but she also brings to light those that have been hurled toward black sportswomen, such as Serina and Venus Williams. An example of that may be tennis officials abusing their powers and affirming their bias for other competitors over the Williams sisters, and they ways in which people react to Serina’s justified frustration. After Serina is subjected to unfairness by officials she stands up for herself and unleashes her anger. While Rankine sees this as an applaudable moment, the officials do not “Now Serina’s reaction is read as insane” (Rankine 30). If Serina had not been an African American woman, would she still have been read as being insane for her reaction? The commentators were able to side with Serina’s frustrating as with their tennis knowledge, they could tell something was off, however, her reaction to the unfairness was still looked down upon. The officials, the umpires, and many fans forced her into the angry black woman stereotype, furthering the notion that Serina’s anger was unjustifiable.

By pointing out the microaggressions she has faced in her life, and the ones faced by women of a high celebrity status, Rankine points out to the white audience that it is easier than originally thought to perpetuate harmful stereotypes and contribute to the oppression of marginalized groups.

Discussion Questions:

  1. In what ways so far has the book either changed the way, or reinforce the way you think about what it means to be a culprit or an accomplice to racism?
  2.  What are some other examples of microaggressions scattered throughout the book?

Work Cited

Rankine, Claudia, 1963- author. Citizen : An American Lyric. Minneapolis, Minnesota :Graywolf Press, 2014.

Hello! My name is Brooke Christman

Hello everyone, I am from Nassau County Long Island. I am a freshman this year and I am excited this upcoming school year. I am a political science major. I’m currently living in Fitzgerald hall. I am hoping to join either the cheer leading or gymnastics club. I am looking forward to getting to know all of you this semester.