Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Micro-aggressions and Aversive Racism in Minneapolis

By: Natalie SWK 280

Since learning about the prevalence of aversive racism and micro-aggressions, I have been paying extra close attention to the interactions of people I observe on a day to day basis. I take into account race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and status; anything that is observable to the naked eye. In the article Color Blind or Just Plain Blind (2002), Dovidio and Gaertner define aversive racism as “the inherent contradiction that exists when the denial of personal prejudice co-exists with underlying unconscious negative feelings and beliefs [towards a particular group of people](p.2).” “Racial micro-aggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color (p.1),” says Sue, Capodilupo, Torino, Bucceri, Holder, Nadal, and Esquilin in Microaggressions in Everyday Life (2007). Are these small negative acts and attitudes due to prejudicial beliefs, or are we being overly sensitive, while they truly have nothing to do with discrimination? Many believe the latter of the two, but my research suggesting differently.

With all this fuss over the existence of aversive racism, I decided to test different locations, sit in the backgrounds, and look for signs of micro-aggressions. I chose two different coffee shops to visit and observe, each with differing demographics. I decided to specifically look at costumer-employee interactions. I would pay close attention to eye contact, touch, facial expressions, courtesy/politeness (asking the customer if they would like anything else), and tone.

My first site was the Cooper CafĂ© in the Christiansen Center on Augsburg College Campus. I arrived just after class was dismissed and 2:20 when flocks of people file in for their latte’s and smoothies. I sat at a table with a clear view of the cashier, the only problem with Cooper’s is that all the tables are too far away to be able to hear any vocal exchanges between employees and the customers. I had no choice but to do my research based on body language.

A line began to form and because of Augsburg great diversity I had a wide variety of ethnicities, sexual orientations, and age, ect... What I was lacking in this environment was an assortment of individuals from different economic classes. Everyone I observed was either a college student or a member of Augsburg staff, both identities that, for the most part, mean you’re not in the lower or working class. The cashier was a white male and in his early thirties. He seemed peeved and treated a majority of the customers like they were annoying him. I take note of minimal eye contact, zero small talk (strictly business), and a very straight face. There may be an alternative explanation of these mannerisms, such as the busy rush and the line he was working to get through, but this theory appears faulty when I notice a pattern. A professor orders a drink and the cashier’s attitude completely changes. He is smiling, makes eye contact, and spends practically twice as much time with this customer. It’s as though he’s using impression management to maintain an image and make the professor view him in a favorable way. For a moment I thought they knew each other, but again my idea was proven faulty when the proceeding professor approached and similar behavior was displayed. The cashier made a perfect example of micro-aggression in terms of age-discrimination and/or prejudice concerning social status.

My next stop was at Starbucks located on Riverside and S 25th Ave, not far from Augsburg College campus. When I walked in the front door I immediately noticed I was the only female and, besides the employees, the only white person. Everyone seated in the coffee shop was African and male. Rarely do I experience what it feels like being the minority, and in a way, I found it to be fun. I felt all eyes turn to me as I walked toward the register and I was immediately greeted by the barista. The man ordering in front of me was older, African, and speaking in broken English that was hard for the cashier to understand. The cashier began to speak louder and slower to help ease the language barrier. I perceived this behavior as offensive and rude. The man didn’t speak English as a first language- he wasn’t deaf. When it was my turn to order it seemed as if a look of relief swept across the cashiers have. His eyes widened, his smile enlarged, and he asked me “how’s your day going” as if he truly cared. I waited for my drink to be ready while standing next to my fellow consumer, and sure enough, the barista looked at me, not my companion, and asked “have any fun plans for the weekend?” He may have been flirting with me, but little did he know, in my eyes, his actions were making him the poster child for aversive racism- a HUGE turn off.

After grabbing my Chai tea latte with Soy, I turned and looked for a place to sit. My only option was a chair that was already taken by a man’s arm hanging over it. The man looked at me and saw I started walking towards the chair. All eyes were once again on me as I asked, “Is this seat taken?” He glared, said nothing, and moved his arm. I felt awkward and unwelcome. After an hour of observation I notice I was the only white person that didn’t order my coffee and immediately leave. Only African men stayed to drink their coffee and converse with their friends. About twenty customers placed orders during that hour, and only five were white, two of them female. My seat was out of view from the register but directly next to the drink pick-up window. The barista initiated friendly small talk with all five of the white customers and with only three of the African males (who appeared to be acquaintances, or perhaps store regulars).

Micro-aggressions are right in our neighborhood. Many believe racism is dead after the civil rights act and the US is home of the free where everyone is treated equal. By visiting just two coffee shops I found those statements to be untrue. Every day I hear proclamations like “racism is wrong. I hate racist people,” or “I don’t discriminate.” A few friends of mine were discussing racism and one of them said “I don’t see in color.” Another friend responded with “why not? Color is wonderful. I love seeing in color. When a room fills with different colors I think it’s beautiful.” – This is the type of approach more people need to have while confronting racism, prejudice, and discrimination.

Dovidio, J. F., & Gaertner, S. L. (2002). Color blind or just plain blind. The Nonprofit Quarterly, 9(2)

Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M. B., Nadal, K. L., Esquilin, M. (2007). Microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist. Columbia University

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