Small acts of prejudice do big damage

A protest in 2017 marking one year after the white nationalist march Charlottesville. (AP Photo)
A protest in 2017 marking one year after the white nationalist march Charlottesville. (AP Photo) AP

The time I reached out in introduction at a social event only to have the other person’s squashed napkin and dirty cup placed in my hand. She thought I must be a server.

The time the salesperson declined to pull a piece of jewelry from a locked case so that I could look at it more closely. It was, she assured me, very expensive.

The time the person I was interviewing by phone made a snide comment about African Americans. I didn’t use the quote. I’d heard worse.

All the times the new teacher/unaware chaperone/unfamiliar teaching assistant tried to assign me parentage of someone else’s brown or black children.

The time an elected official told me, off the record, that she liked to believe Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson loved each other because that would make a difference.

All the times someone has come to me after saying or doing something starkly inappropriate elsewhere so they could explain why it wasn’t exactly what it sounded like, as if I possess some sort of magical Black woman power of absolution. In reality, it just meant I then had to absorb both their initial act of thoughtlessness and their subsequent lack of self-awareness. (That is not my freelance gig, and if you’re that worried about it, start by apologizing to the person you said or did it to.)

The time a nurse dismissed my complaints as minor and refused to let me see a doctor when, in fact, I had an ectopic pregnancy. I’ll write about maternal health disparities at some point.

All the times the “inoffensiveness” of the Confederate flag has been explained to me as if I’d just been missing the nuance.

The time a coach gave my son, the only African American on the tennis team, a towel embroidered with the nickname “Cocoa Puff,” and I had to explain why that was a problem.

All the times someone has pointed out an individual’s or committee’s or organization’s shortcomings on race with the implied or stated assumption that it was my job, solely, to fix it. (See expectations for Black woman magic above.)

I recognize a scale of intent from poorly worded or ill-informed to deliberately crafted and malicious. Paper cut or stab wound, they all do some degree of damage. My life has been marked by privilege. I have yet to bleed out, but the slashing of the last two-plus years has neared the bone. And still no single act I’ve endured equals being told to go back where I came from, as if that were anywhere but here.

Continually vilifying and mistreating people based on the color of their skin or country of origin is racist. It is not racially tinged. It is not racialized language. It is not being racially insensitive. It isn’t shoring up the electoral base or distracting from other political problems. It’s not strategy. It is racist. There is no tough call to be made. There were not good people on both sides.

Pretending it didn’t happen or explaining it away normalizes it. But it did happen, there is no acceptable explanation, and it should never be normal.

Contributing columnist Aleta Payne is executive director of the Johnson Service Corps, the mother of three young adult sons and lives in Cary.