Friday Thoughts On Racism — Mosquito Bites, Lashes or Burns
Much has already been written about microaggressions (by the way here is a link if you want to know what microaggressions are) so I’m not going to get into another article rehashing the same topic from another perspective. What I want to discuss this week is the effect of microaggressions on a person like me who faces them on a daily basis.
I’m certain that unless you live in the Arctic or Antarctic, or unless you cover yourself from head to toe with insect repellent every day of your life, you will have received a mosquito bite. Mosquito bites are not usually fatal (unless you have contracted malaria or other mosquito borne disease from one and have left the condition untreated) but they are particularly irritating. You don’t feel the initial bite as mosquito saliva carries a mild anaesthetic that reduces the reaction until after the insect has finished their feed. Only a few minutes later do you begin to feel the effects, the inflammation, the irritation and this can last for days after the initial bite.
Black and Brown people like me microaggressions can feel like this, but we cannot take ourselves out of the environment where we are constantly receiving these mosquito bites. All we can do is to adopt coping strategies that either lessen the microaggression irritation and inflammation or to protect ourselves by reducing the exposure. Of course, unlike mosquito bites you cannot see the visible marks of the mosquito bites, or the number of bites we are dealing with at any one time, so it’s easy for you to say something like,
I get mosquito bites too, it’s not as bad as you’re making out.
You can’t possibly get them here; mosquitoes don’t exist in this country.
But where the mosquito bite analogy fails is that it’s not possible for you to give them to me. A mosquito is a third-party action and therefore if I get bitten that’s my problem, because either I didn’t protect myself enough or I’m being too sensitive about it and maybe I need to grow a thicker skin.
In a recent team meeting I was dissatisfied with the term “mosquito bite” to describe the impact of microaggressions. Because I could not find another comparable example that would more strongly convey the effect of microaggressions, I described them as “receiving lashes” as from a whip. Now for people of Caribbean heritage like me or Latin American or African American, our enslaved ancestors inconsequentially received lashes from those in authority or innate superiority over them.
The advantage lashes as an analogy have over mosquito bites is that it implies that the pain of the microaggression is inflicted by one person on another. I appreciate the strength of the analogy, however sometimes microaggressions can come across that way to those receiving them. Again, the analogy breaks down because there is no variability in the degree of intensity of a lash; either you have it or you don’t. And the wound inflicted, and pain felt is far more acute. So, for this reason, I have settled on burns as a more accurate representation of effect of a microaggression.
Burns can be inflicted by one person on another, it can be intentional or accidental and it can hurt to a greater or lesser extent depending on the intensity the burn. I recently read an article called “It’s not White Fragility, it’s White Flammability” by Sun Yung Shin, that suggests the term “white fragility”, promoted in Robin D’Angelo’s book of the same name, is actually inaccurate. That “white flammability” is probably a better description of the effect racism has on the sensibilities of anyone who would consider themselves “normal” rather than “other”.
If you have any awareness of burns, maybe through first aid training, you will know that burns are ranked in degrees of severity. Using these degrees, I’m going to attempt to give you some idea of the impact of microaggressions based on my experience of having received them. I have used the following burns classification from the University of Rochester Medical Center Rochester, NY, USA.
Disclaimer: I want to apologise to my Black and Brown readers, the description of the skin discolouration due to the effects of burns is predominantly descriptive of white or light skinned people. In the end my article is used as an analogy comparison of burns with the effects of microaggressions, rather than as a medical reference.
Burns are classified as first-, second-, third-, or fourth-degree depending on how deeply and severely they penetrate the skin’s surface.
First-degree (superficial) burns
First-degree burns affect only the outer layer of skin, the epidermis. The burn site is red, painful, dry, and with no blisters.
First-degree microaggressions can equate to the casual looks or stares, the semi-audible whispers. Avoiding taking a seat next to a Black person when it’s the only one available or the unconscious recoil when you pass a Black person in the street. Yes, we notice these intentional and unintentional actions and reactions even if you don’t think we do. The pain of these don’t last long and recovery is quick. But constantly receiving them are like receiving burns of low intensity on the same spot, which lead to second-degree burns or microaggressions.
Second-degree (partial thickness) burns
Second-degree burns involve the epidermis and part of the lower layer of skin, the dermis. The burn site looks red, blistered, and may be swollen and painful.
These microaggressions are mainly represented by behaviours, words and actions that result in the recipient not being believed, by those around them, that they have been victimised.
From the seemingly innocent “Where are you really from?” to the racist joke followed up with “It’s a joke, can’t you take a joke?” Most often the microaggression is followed up with gaslighting, sealioning and other behaviours aimed at discrediting the recipient’s attempt at calling out (or calling in) the racism within the action.
I would like to believe that most often this type of burn is delivered unintentionally, but there are those that know the impact of their words and actions full well. We Black and Brown people have developed acute senses and we generally know when this is intentional and when it is not. This leads to the next degree of burn.
Third-degree (full thickness) burns
Third-degree burns destroy the epidermis and dermis. They may go into the innermost layer of skin, the subcutaneous tissue. The burn site may look white or blackened and charred.
Overt and blatant racist behaviour inflicts this level of damage on a person. These can be intentionally racist jokes and statements to overt racist behaviour and are often termed macroaggressions.
One recent example, are the words used just this week by Sharna Walker to a pub doorman in Birmingham.
“Black c***” and “n****r” as well as spitting and physical violence toward the recipient of such vile racist hatred; this will have been seared into his mind and will stay with him for the rest of his life. This is no different to me and others like me, that have suffered such physical and verbal abuse solely based on our race or ethnicity.
What also stays with us is the inaction of others witnessing the situation and doing nothing about it. This burns as severely as the original attack itself. These people are complicit by their inaction and are therefore inherently racist.
It has been said that people are not born racist they are made racist. If this is so they can also be unmade, by adopting the position of being antiracist and consciously unlearning this learnt racist behaviour. This also requires a change to the systems that maintain racism.
Fourth-degree burns go through both layers of the skin and underlying tissue as well as deeper tissue, possibly involving muscle and bone. There is no feeling in the area since the nerve endings are destroyed.
It’s unlikely that this degree of microaggression (or macroaggression) can be inflicted solely by one person on another. In reality, I don’t think that microaggressions alone can cause this level of destruction to a person. This is caused by systemic racism of a kind that threatens the very life of an individual. It can take away liberty, education, healthcare, employment, housing, lifestyle and even life itself as we saw with the murder of George Floyd and many others.
Interestingly the final description of fourth-degree burns “There is no feeling in the area since the nerve endings are destroyed.” describes the way many of us are feeling right now. We are numb, we are exhausted, we despair at the painfully slow progress of change needed to eradicate racism and repair the damage of 450 years of oppression, injustice and inequality.
Let us be clear we all racist (assimilationist or separationist as described by Ibram X. Kendi), and when we recognise that fact and identify how we can move towards being antiracist, we can the stop inflicting the differing degrees of burns one another; especially on those whose skin colour is not considered “normal”.