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A Day in the Life of Black Men: Microaggressions, a Subtle Form of Racism

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By Frederick H. Lowe

CHICAGO—Marcus Murray was walking in Hyde Park the other day.

Murray was wearing sweat pants and a hooded sweat shirt, though he wasn’t wearing the face-concealing hood. However, his hands were in his pockets and that casual, non-threatening way of walking had the opposite effect on a white man walking with his children, Murray believed.

Woman clutches her purse as a black man stands in the elevator
A woman clutches her purse as a black man stands in front her in an elevator.

Murray quickly noticed how the white man, who spoke a foreign language, was looking at him with fear in his eyes, pulling his children closer, seemingly protecting them from Murray.

So Murray, executive director of Project Brotherhood, a black men’s group in nearby Woodlawn, did something to make the man comfortable.

Murray took his hands from his pockets so they could be seen.”You almost have to be perfect to ease whites’ concerns,” he said.

All black men are victims of microaggressions

Murray was a victim of microaggressions, a widely practiced and unfortunately more accepted form of racism that targets black men, causing them to live their lives in public as though they are walking across mine fields.

Marcus Murray
Marcus Murray

Women of all races and ethnic groups clutch their purses in fear when they see a black man. Sometimes they run across the street to avoid being near black men.

Store security guards follow black men because the guards are certain that men are there to steal, not to shop. A store clerk asks who is next in line, ignoring a black man clearly standing at the head of the line.

An African-American Chicago Transit Authority agent demands that a black man swipe his Ventra card a second time so the agent can be sure the rider’s card is legitimate.  The black man pays twice.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois recently reported that black Chicagoans were subjected to 72% of all police stops, although blacks constitute just 32% of the city’s population. In Englewood, a black police district, there were 266 police stops per 1,000 people compared to 43 police stops per 1000 in the predominately white district of Lincoln/Foster during a fourth-month period from May through August 2014, according to the report titled “Stop and Frisk in Chicago.”

Microaggressions don’t always come out the mouths of white, Hispanic or Asian women or men from other ethnic and racial groups. Murray is a nationally known speaker on issues concerning black men. When he went to University of Illinois at Chicago to give a speech, a black woman receptionist, without asking him one question, told him that he was supposed to make deliveries at the back of the building.

Black women can often behave in an overtly hostile manner. I know this from many personal experiences. One incident occurred at The Art Institute of Chicago, where I had a membership. My wife, Susan, and my son, Freddie, and I went to see a photo exhibit in the Modern Wing. After we had viewed the exhibit, I stopped at the gift shop while my wife and son perused brochures at a counter. A black woman security guard saw me and said to her white female partner ‘I am going to see what he’s up to.’  She stood a foot away from me, eying my every move to see if I touched anything. Her partner faced me.

When my wife and son walked up, the black woman security guard said ‘let’s go.’ to her partner and they both left. After the incident, I wrote a letter to the Art Institute’s management, and even though the museum’s director wrote a return letter of apology and sent me two coffee table art books, I didn’t renew my membership.

These are all examples of daily microaggressions against blacks and black men in particular; there are so many more forms of microaggressions, they are too numerous to mention.

Black men are not imagining these incidents

Last year, the New York Attorney General’s Office fined Macy’s Inc., one of the nation’s largest department store chains, more than $650,000 for following black shoppers at its 42 New York stores, and for otherwise mistreating their African-American customers. The fine was a mere pittance for Macy’s, which reported sales of $28.105 billion for the 52-week period ending Jan. 31, 2015. The Cincinnati-based department store chain operates a store in Chicago.

Microaggressions demoralize black men over time

Microaggressions are unlike overt forms of racism exhibited by the Klu Klux Klan, Skinheads, the police, or by individual women. While the Klan, Skinheads and police may beat and even kill black men, microaggressions chip away daily at black men’s self esteem, causing anger and paranoia.

Black men, however, are divided as to whether microaggressions are a cause of mental illness.

“Racial microaggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group,” wrote the authors of the 2008 research paper “Racial Microaggressions Against Black Americans: Implications for Counseling.” The Journal of Counseling & Development published the paper in the summer of 2008.

“Racial microaggressions have a cumulative and harmful impact on people of color by assailing their sense of integrity, invalidating them as racial/cultural beings, sapping their spiritual and psychic energies,” the report states.

“African Americans frequently report feelings of racial rage, frustration, low self-esteem, depression and other strong emotions when subjected to microaggressions.”

Black men view microaggressions as hurtful

Ironically, the perpetrator of these racist acts may view microaggressions as trivial.

Black men, however, view microaggressions as hurtful. A major question is how black men should respond to microaggressions without being seen as being angry or having an already terrified woman scream for the police.

Jokes about angry black men

African-American comedians have joked about angry black men, but black men don’t see these daily insults as a laughing matter.

“Microaggressions can induce enormous stress and anger, ultimately generating feelings of invisibility and marginalization of blacks,” according to the paper “Racial Microaggressions in the Life Experience of Black Americans.”

The Journal of Black Psychology published in December 2013 a paper titled “Microaggressions and the Enduring Mental Health Disparity: Black Americans at Risk for Institutional Betrayal.” One aspect of the study addresses whether microaggressions perpetuate mental health disparities at the institutional level.

Are microaggressions linked to mental illness?

Do repeated microaggressions cause mental illness? Dr. Waldo Johnson, associate professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, said not by themselves.

“None of these individual things create mental illness, but it is the collective experience of these, the cumulative experiences ofvarious kinds of microaggressions in which black men are viewed as untrustworthy,” said Dr. Johnson, who is the editor of the book, “Social Work with African American Males.”  “It does make you think differently. It is probably more likely that none of these individual things cause mental illness. It is the cumulative or collective experience of the black-male experience. In addition to other problems, involving racial discrimination on the job, the inability to find a job and other lost opportunities may contribute to various forms depression. If unattended to, it can result in mental illness.”

Waldo Johnson
Dr. Waldo Johnson Jr.
Daniel Jean
Daniel Jean

Murray believes, however, that microaggressions do cause or lead to mental illness among black men.”They cause anxiety, depression, elevated blood pressure and low self-esteem. Black men see ourselves the way others see us and it’s in a negative light,” he said.

Microaggressions have the effect of denigrating and humiliating black men daily, said Daniel Jean, former director of the Woodlawn Adult Health Center, which until 2012 treated mental illness among black men.

“They cause anxiety and sometimes depression,” Jean said. He added that women who see him in Hyde Park, Chicago’s so-called liberal mecca, clutch their purses in fear when they see him.

Black women also affected by microaggressions

Although black men bear the brunt of microaggressions, black women also suffer from the insults.

“I don’t consider them microaggressions because micro means small. These aggressions are actively used to destroy a black person’s self-worth,” said N’Dana Carter, a Chicago mental health activist.

Carter said she used to lift weights a part of her workout to stay fit. One day, she was walking across the bridge at Marina City when she saw a white man approaching her.

“He dropped his shoulders and bent over like he was doing the pimp walk,” Carter said. When he got near her, he said ‘hey, baby.’ Carter was carrying her weight belt. She yelled that she would hit him with it if he didn’t get away from her.

“Because he was a white man, he assumed I should be available for him since I was a black woman,” Carter said.

Carter said she copes with the feelings engendered by repeated  microaggressions by overeating. She said she has gained 100 pounds by eating cookies, potato chips and other foods that are not good for her and that will eventually endanger her health.

Dealing with microaggressions

African-American men cope with microaggressions in different ways.

When Darryl Gumm, chair of the Community Mental Health Board of Chicago, is followed in a store, he asks the security guard to help him find what he’s looking for. “Some do, but some others walk away,” Gumm said. He has also stopped shopping at certain stores because of experiencing unfair treatment.”I tell them you lost me as a customer,” Gumm added.

When I am followed in a store, which is all the time, I write letters to the management, which helps me psychologically but my letters don’t change the store’s racist policies towards black men.

Murray said when he was younger he would be angry all of the time about the way others treated him as a black man. Now that he understands microaggressions, he has mellowed. I used to believe that stores wanted black men’s money as long as we did not walk inside, but David Thierry, a business owner, disagrees.

“They don’t want our money or else they wouldn’t treat us the way they do,” Thierry said.

All photos were taken by Frederick  H. Lowe II, Rosemary Lambin and YouTube.

Frederick Lowe, the story’s author, is a Social Justice News Nexus Reporting Fellow through the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. This article was produced as part of that fellowship.

 

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