Death By a Thousand Cuts

The e-mail brought the news of the ballet’s arrival to our town. We’d been waiting so I got on the venue’s website right away to find information about the school matinee. I noticed the announcement stating that “scholarships” would be provided for families who could not afford to purchase tickets, because they did not want anyone to be unable to attend. “How generous of them!” I thought while I reserved my tickets and selected the pay-at-the-will-call option.

The morning of the event, we stood in line at the will-call counter to pick up and pay for our tickets. There was a White homeschooling family in front of us, and I watched as the mom stepped up to the clerk, gave her name, received her tickets, and pulled out her credit card. When my turn came, I did likewise: “Three for Johnson, please.”

The clerk looked at me from head to toe, looked at the two little Black faces behind me and stated: “You’re here for the free tickets, right?” She must have seen the confused look on my face because she covered her mouth with her hand quickly as if she realized she had said something wrong. We looked at each other for a second, understanding dawning on me. I simply said: “No” and handed her my credit card. I walked away with a mixture of anger, shame, and misery.

I had just experienced yet another microaggression.

Many White Americans believe that racism in the USA was struck down with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They are sure that with the stroke of his signature, President Johnson effectively made Dr. King’s dream that his children would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, a reality.

When Dr. King spoke before the Washington Monument 59 years ago, racism was still legislated, that much is true. But making institutional racist practices like segregation illegal has not eradicated racism.

We recognize this unmistakably in the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Adam Toledo.

But racism today is also more subtle, more difficult to pinpoint, and more “unbelievable” for those of us who experience it and are told over and over that we must have “misunderstood” the situation.

Racism today can look like microaggressions born of implicit biases, that feel like death by a thousand cuts. They affect how those of us who live in non-White skins are treated. We are still being judged daily by the color of our skin without a thought to our character, condition, or context. 

Todd Finley in his article A Look at Implicit Bias and Microaggressions (2019) discussed how the consequences of implicit biases are powerful and measurable. He cited research that showed that math teachers assume their classes are too difficult for Latino and Black students, while English teachers see their classes as too difficult for all non-White students, which affected the students’ learning. Inequitable punishment is also a result of implicit biases. Research also shows that Black and Latino students are consistently punished more often and more severely than their White peers.

Racism today looks like my 15-year-old Black son not being able to carry around the fake knife he uses to train for martial arts, as do his White peers, for fear of someone calling the police on him.

It looks like me telling my White friends that my Black daughter is joining a basketball league and them gushing that she must be “very good,” despite my daughter’s obvious lack of athleticism. And it looks like teachers not taking Black children’s academic performance as seriously as that of their White peers because Black kids are “destined” to get into college by playing sports.

It looks like the time I mentioned to my young, White doctor that my family of four was new to town and would like to buy a place, and her responding that she and her new husband were buying a 3-bedroom house in a neighborhood I should check out, because “they don’t just have houses; they also have more affordable small town homes you might like.” And it looks like her giving Latina women sub-standard level of care because of her assessment of us being poor and uneducated.

A stroke of a pen did not change those biases. Neither did fifty-nine years. Systemic racism, the legacy of systems set up to benefit a group to the exclusion of others, is still a reality in this country. But those microaggressions born of biases that rob us of our dignity, aim at shaming us for who we are, and affect how we are treated don’t happen in the larger institutional stage.

They happen in the daily, trivial moments of our lives and they weigh heavy on our souls. 

By Gabriela Buitrón

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