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Not-so-civil America: How racial slurs widen the racial divide

'We must start to identify and exorcise our unconscious privilege, which presents as racial slurs and microaggressions'

Compton Herald | racial slurs
From the December 2013 Racial Microaggressions photo series by Casey Ruble. Source: http://nortonism.tumblr.com

Racial slurs, or microaggressions, are statements, actions, or incidents of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination; we must all take responsibility for what we say and the effect it has on other human beings.


“You’re really pretty for a black girl.”

“You look just like a china doll.”

“Don’t sit next to her, she probably smells like rice.”

“Don’t try to Jew me down on the price.”

If someone said this to you, how would you feel? We all make jokes at the expense of others. Sarcasm is especially harmful because it puts someone down for a laugh. These statements hurt, degrade and belittle people and attempt to reduce their importance in the world.

Compton Herald | Debbie Hecht

Former school teacher and retired realtor, Debbie Hecht of San Diego, Calif. Photo: Facebook

This is “othering”. I believe that we must start to identify and exorcise our unconscious privilege, which presents as racial slurs and microaggressions.  Imagine if we were curious about other people, their families, values, thoughts, feelings and cultures and religions. Imagine what we would learn about the cultures within our society if we celebrated differences and practiced inclusiveness.

The great challenge is how to heal the racial divide in our country.

A racial slur is also called a microaggression, which is a statement, action, or incident of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority. Research shows that we all inherit and learn the racial, gender, and sexual orientation biases of our homes and cultures. Racist, sexist and heterosexist attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors have indoctrinated us. Most of these behaviors are unconscious. We must all take responsibility for what we say and the effect it has on other human beings.

As I read the statements by minority students below, I felt gut punched. I found myself cringing. I felt ashamed as I recognized things I had said. These are examples of the unconsciousness of our society and the unconsciousness of privilege. If you heard these comments on a daily basis, you would start to view yourself as a second-class person, someone who is not “good enough,” who doesn’t measure up. These are examples of “othering” and marginalizing of our fellow human beings.

Statements to Black students:

When people think it’s weird that I listen to Carrie Underwood.

So what does your hair look like today? She said as she pulled off my hat without my permission.

You don’t act like a normal Black person ya know?

Courtney, I never see you as a Black girl. Answer: You don’t act like a normal Black person ya know?

The limited representation of my race in your classroom does not make me the voice of all Black People.

When standing next to my mom:

Why is your daughter so white?

You’re really pretty for a dark skin girl.

Why do you sound White?


Statements to Asian students:

So, you’re Chinese right?

You’re not really Asian.

So, what do you guys speak in Japan? Asian?

Not your f—ing China doll.


Statement overheard by an Asian student:

This girl sitting next to me moved to sit closer to someone she’s talking to and the White guy whispers loudly that she moved because she smells like rice.

Can you read this? He showed me a Japanese character on his phone.

Can you see as much as White people? You know, because of your eyes?


Statements to mixed race students:

Question: What are you? Answer: Human! Being bi-racial doesn’t make me a “what.”

So, like, what are you?

You don’t speak Spanish?


Statement to a student of mixed race who looks White:

No, you’re White.


Statements by a Hispanic student:

Just because I’m Mexican I shouldn’t be the first choice for the role of Dora the Explorer in a high school skit.

When I gave a speech about racism, the emcee introduced me as Jaime Garcia. My name is Jaime Rodriguez. Not all Latinos have the last name, Garcia.

Look at pictures of the students holding placards quoting microaggressions. Notice how their expressions increase the impact of the microaggression:  From Kiyun Kim, Racial Microaggressions, December 2103  http://nortonism.tumblr.com/

Racial slurs as actions

Actions can marginalize, degrade and belittle people. Microaggressions can be racial, gender, religion, and sexual orientation actions. Many of these comments or actions appear to be innocent, but taken as everyday occurrence they can impact marginalized groups and affect their standard of living by creating inequities in health care, police treatment, aspirations for young adults, education, housing and employment opportunities.

Examples of racial microaggression:

  • A White man or woman clutches their purse or checks their wallet as a Black or Latino man approaches or passes them. (Hidden message: You and your group are criminals.).
  • An Asian-American, born and raised in the U.S., is complimented for speaking “good English.” (Hidden message: You are not a true American. You are a perpetual foreigner in your own country.)
  • A Black couple is seated at a table in the restaurant next to the kitchen despite there being other empty and more desirable tables located at the front. (Hidden message: You are a second-class citizen and undeserving of first-class treatment.)

Examples of gender microaggressions:

  • An assertive female manager is labeled a “bitch,” while her male counterpart is described as “a forceful leader.” (Hidden message: Women should be passive and allow men to be the decision makers.)
  • A female physician wearing a stethoscope is mistaken as a nurse. (Hidden message: Women should occupy nurturing and not decision-making roles. Women are less capable than men).
  • Whistles or catcalls are heard from men as a woman walks down the street. (Hidden message: Your body/appearance is for the enjoyment of men. You are a sex object.)

Examples of sexual orientation microaggressions:

  • A young person uses the term “gay” to describe a movie that she didn’t like. (Hidden message: Being gay is associated with negative and undesirable characteristics.)
  • A lesbian client in therapy reluctantly discloses her sexual orientation to a straight therapist by stating she is “into women.” The therapist indicates he is not shocked by the disclosure because he once had a client who was “into dogs.” (Hidden message: Same-sex attraction is abnormal and deviant.)
  • Two gay men hold hands in public and are told not to flaunt their sexuality. (Hidden message: Same-sex displays of affection are abnormal and offensive. Keep it private and to yourselves.)

Religion, disability, and social class may also be reflected as behavioral microaggressions.

  • When bargaining over the price of an item, a store owner says to a customer, “Don’t try to Jew me down.” (Hidden message: Jews are stingy and money-grubbing.)
  • A blind man reports that people often raise their voices when speaking to him. He responds by saying, “Please don’t raise your voice; I can hear you perfectly well.” (Hidden message: A person with a disability is defined as lesser in all aspects of physical and mental functioning).
  • The outfit worn by a TV reality-show mom is described as “classless and trashy.” (Hidden message: Lower-class people are tasteless and unsophisticated.)

What can you do? Don’t change to be comfortable. It’s important work! Growth seldom is comfortable and this is a growing process. Notice your microaggressions. Read people’s faces when you are speaking in order to gauge their reactions. Speak up and ask for clarification about what they think or feel. Reach for understanding and empathy.

Challenge the hurtful statements of others and start the difficult conversations to heal the racial divide. It’s up to each of us to create a more civil society with social justice for everyone.

Debbie Hecht is a former school teacher, activist, land conservationist, and retired Realtor® from San Diego, Calif. If you have examples of how racism is woven into American culture, contact Debbie Hecht at hecht.deb@gmail.com


“Othering 101” 

The Problem of Othering: Towards Inclusiveness and Belonging

Racial Microaggressions, December 2013.

21 Racial Microaggressions You Hear on a Daily Basis

From Microaggressions: More Than Just Race from Psychology Today

Compton Herald is a digital news publication providing clear, fair and current news, information and commentary about Compton, the Los Angeles metropolitan area, Los Angeles County, California, and the world.


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