When I am not dealing with aggressively overt racism, sexism and prejudice in general, the microaggressions that I deal with are numerous daily, and add up to where they impact me in a similar manner that overt prejudices do. One of these microaggressions that I often experience is based on the idea that my existence (especially in public spaces) as a Black woman is solely for the service of others.
My most recent experiences with this occurs at the library. I love libraries. I love to read. I go to libraries to read, check out books and research doctoral programs since I am considering this degree. (I miss college libraries!) I sit at tables and chairs similar to the ones that other patrons do. Not a single visit to one particular library (where the patrons are not ethnically diverse, they are predominantly White) has occurred without some White person (usually women, but some men have as well) expecting me to teach them how to use a computer mouse (seriously), find a book, load photos to their computer from the camera, teach them how to use email (seriously…one even wanted me to log into her email and reply to people…wtf?), make them a Facebook page (seriously) or other digital tasks. I always say no and try to soothe my irritation at the expectation and interruption to doing what matters to me on my time. Whenever I politely advise them to consult one of the SIX librarians at one of the two desks, I get a rude stare or a forced “ok thank you.” I look around at multiple tables filled with anywhere from 10-30 other people (often all White) and wonder, why they were not asked? I look at the six librarians, where never more than 2 are busy at a time and wonder, why they were not asked? This has happened many times and I have vented about this on Twitter many times. This is when other Black women started sharing similar stories with me.
The idea that I am an EQUAL patron, there to do things that matter to me seem to be irrelevant to the White patrons who visit this library. They seem appalled that I would reject using my valuable time to serve them. They are fully aware that I am not an employee or volunteer at this library (just to eliminate any possible reader confusion). My behavior matches that of all of the other White patrons. The only difference is race. Truly.
The predictable responses to my experience include: “it’s not about race, ever, maybe you looked like a ‘nice’ person and none of the other 6-30 white people did, in every single case,” or “well, go to another library,” and “microaggressions only exist at the library you visited and nowhere else in America,” and “get over it…the world is filled with lots of stuff and all of that stuff is more important than anything you have said or will say.” And though I’m presenting the hyperbolic version of all of these responses, the sentiments in the responses are reality.
Truthfully, I have checked out other libraries. Because “White” neighborhoods in South Florida tend to have more expansive libraries, I have to trade the peace of mind I get at a predominantly Black or multicultural patron-filled library with fewer books vs. having more books available at the “White” library, but consistent microaggressions that start to feel like harassment when it occurs upon every visit.
Every Black woman that I know has had the experience where someone White assumed that she was a store clerk at absolutely any store regardless of her attire, demeanor or activities. To many White consumers, Black presence in a store is solely for the purpose of service. To these same consumers, checking for a uniform, a name tag or people near a cash register doesn’t seem to occur to them. The idea that a Black woman may be an (equal) shopper escapes their mind (and I say “equal” not because clerks actually are unequal, of course not, but because people who assume that anyone Black equates to a servant see service positions as inferior because of this equation.) The other common assumption is that my presence in a store is solely to shoplift, which is a whole ‘nother problem entirely.
A Twitter follower, a Black woman, mentioned that a White woman at her job (who didn’t know her) went into the break room where she was and asked her if she is the maid. I have yet to see a maid wearing a button-down oxford, a pencil skirt and heels in a corporate office. This is what she had on. I’ve experienced the wrath of similar assumptions.
Not all Black women exist to be “the help” all of the time. We like to shop without being seen as clerks or shoplifters, read books at libraries or parks without being expected to tend to every White person’s needs, and do all of the things that other people do. Can I shop in peace? Can I enjoy the same peace that White library patrons are allowed to have? Most importantly, can I have a microaggression free day?
(P.S. - I created the photo above and it is of MY real bell hooks collection. :) )