One thing that I know annoyed many of the students is that they set out to get action and ended up instead having to tell personal stories in order to educate peers and administrators and professors.
Here’s one more story, if it helps. Where I passed from understanding intellectually and theoretically that small ways of referencing identity could be in aggregate as hurtful as an overt case of active racism, what is now being called “microaggression”, into understanding it emotionally and personally was during two long periods of residence in Zimbabwe.
The thing is, nobody was ever unpleasant to me in racial or national or other categorical ways in Zimbabwe. State officials occasionally were unpleasant in the way they’re unpleasant to everyone: it wasn’t about me. Everybody was in fact quite friendly. I had a nice living situation both times, living in two little furnished flats north of the city center in an area called The Avenues. My colleagues at the University of Zimbabwe were extraordinarily kind and supportive to me as a graduate student and a junior academic. The archivists at the National Archives were friendly and helpful: you could get afternoon tea for a pittance. I had friends from the U.S., I got to go to parties at the U.S. Embassy. I had the family of a former student to look to the second time I went. It was swell both times.
But both times I started to feel an intense sense of anxiety and unease by the time I left, and here’s what it was about, I realized. No matter where I went or what I did, I knew that everybody had an eye on me. Not out of hatred or distrust or dislike. Just because I was instantly identifiably not from around there. I knew I was being written into all sorts of narratives about murungu (white men, foreigners), some of them to my favor, some not, some just kind of neither for nor against me as a person or a category.
If I felt unsafe, it was the ordinary kind of unsafe you feel on occasion in a big city when you know you’re probably identifiable as a person who has some money. Actually in many ways at the time (this was before and then during the beginning of the big economic collapse there) Harare was one of the safer cities I’ve lived in. I went to beerhalls and concerts and soccer matches without any specific anxieties about safety. I walked and rode my horrible old Chinese bike everywhere without specific fears.
But I felt anxious just knowing: whatever I did, it was going to be seen. If I picked my nose, adjusted my crotch, laughed, ate, drank or was drunk, was dirty or clean: seen. And so I found myself more and more just feeling tired. Tired everyday, tired in a way that was existential and pervasive. Anxious not so much for anything anybody did but out of the possibility of being asked, “Why did you do that? Is that normal? Is that common?” Anxious wondering if I had it right when I did this or that, said this or that, not ever sure if I’d offended or amused or pleased.
So on this I get it viscerally, not just intellectually. Nobody has to do anything bad and it can still be bad.