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As a Black Woman, Microaggressions Have Never Been a “Game”

This week, Black women have either watched (or caught the highlights of) an undeniably overqualified Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson be subjected to the outright racism and violence that we all know too well from white men and women as she was forced to sit through her Supreme Court Confirmation Hearing. She was attacked, yelled at by white men, overspoken by them repeatedly, and expected to do it all while remaining calm. It was abusive, disgusting, triggering, and the reason why so many of us refused to watch it (my heart rate has been elevated every day this week): We all know this violence well.

In Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum notes a class activity where (paraphrasing) she asks students to think about the first time they experience being racialized and, without discussing the incident, use one word to describe how they felt in that moment.

I read that and I instantly thought back to sixth grade. My word: humiliated.

I’ve shared this before in Unapologetically Dope. However, for those who don’t know, here’s the scoop. In sixth-grade math, my teacher (Mrs. Bothwell) decided to announce to the class in the middle of Black History Month that it (Black History Month) was racist. According to her, if it was recognized, then white History Month should be too (Mrs. Bothwell is obviously white). We could get into why this woman decided to do this to a class full of 11- and 12-year-olds from a broad range of identities. However, this was also the woman who announced to us every month that she and her husband were still not pregnant (even though they were trying really hard for a baby). On this day, I was the only student who spoke up and said we already study white history 11 months out of the year. Why do we need to dedicate a month to it?

I’ll never forget the look she gave me. She winced, and her bright red hair swung to one side as she tilted her head and said with condescending pity, “Oh Alicia. It’s people like you who give Blacks a bad rep.”

Up to that moment, math had always been my favorite subject. It made sense to me. I loved it. And in that one moment, all the joy I felt about a subject I loved was stripped from me, as I was told by an adult…a white woman…that I’m a disgrace to my entire race. I immediately shut down for the rest of the class and year, wondering if what Mrs. Bothwell told me was true.

I shared in the book that I only disclosed this incident to my mother days later in the car by accident, for fear that (based on what Mrs. Bothwell told me…in front of everyone) I was a problem student; and a terrible Black person at that. What Mrs. Bothwell didn’t count on was my mother lived through the racism of Jim Crow in western North Carolina and built her career as a programmer at IBM (where she experienced racism regularly from white men who didn’t always think she belonged). My father was a K-12 educator-turned-administrator who understood how educators were supposed to conduct themselves. My principal was a Black man who found this and Mrs. Bothwell’s pregnancy attempt disclosures beyond problematic.

My parents crafted a detailed letter for her and the principal, and I won’t lie; part of me felt like Kevin Hart in his standup routine when his mother sends him to school with a note for his teacher (I didn’t cuss her out, though she deserved). What I didn’t expect was to come to the principal’s office days later and see my mother trying to remain calm (but clearly fuming), my principal absolutely disgusted, and Mrs. Bothwell in tears. Her tears, apology, and explanation of what she “didn’t mean” became the blueprint for many a problematic white woman I would encounter over the next 32 years.

That could’ve easily been the trajectory changer for me in terms of math, computing, and a lot more. Mrs. Bothwell’s comment in that incident was that violent. Thirty-two years later, and I’ve never forgotten how I felt in both of those moments: one where I felt extremely humiliated, and the other in the principal’s office, where I felt extremely vindicated and validated. Every time I encountered another white woman who did/said something violent and harmful to me after that, I remembered how Mrs. Bothwell made me feel, and I refused to let the next one make me feel that small ever again. I remembered how my parents and principal both showed me that what she said was wrong, and I was right to advocate for myself (and my peers who may not have been comfortable speaking up against the Mrs. Bothwells of the world or may not have even understood what happened that day). Every time it happened, I was a little less humiliated and a lot more prepared. I knew that there would come a time where I would be forced to defend myself without the safety of my parents and any other support. All I could count on was me.

The problem is, I should’ve never had to build up that armor (and definitely not at 12 years old). Mrs. Bothwell (and every other white woman like her) was conditioned to believe that their wants and feelings mattered more than mine, no matter how harmful they were. They were conditioned to believe that (as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper brilliantly noted in her 1866 speech, “We Are All Bound Up Together”) they are “dew-drops just exhaled from the skies.” Anyone who refuses to afford them the space they believe they are owed becomes the problem, even if those other people are the actual victims. As history has shown, it’s a train that’s never late.

So, it’s bothered me for a while now since I learned last year that the computer science education community has promoted a project called “Microaggressions: The Game.” I’m not going to cite it here, because it shouldn’t even still be publicly available. What I will say is that this game was developed by a white man and woman who are both educators. This “game” has been shared and used in a number of events, to allegedly help educators “practice” responding to situations where a problematic statement was made by another educator/student.

I tweeted yesterday (after yet another time the creator was mentioned as a model for how to teach about bias) why this was problematic and how so many in the community have been complicit in the harm caused. Let me explain the why further here:

1. Making light of anyone’s trauma as a “game” to play is itself a macroaggression.

Be clear, none of this is “micro.” The fact that this had to be brought to the creators’ attention proves that they lack the range to be considered an expert on anything related to equity and inclusion. In fact, a person with proficient levels of cultural competence would’ve never considered this a game. They both would’ve recognized the numerous ways this entire activity was violent and decided “this ain’t it.” That this has existed since 2018 (despite varying levels of comments about its harm from others) says that they never cared. Again I note, the racial identity of the creators (white) matters here. Who identified them as the experts? What positionality and cultural competence do they possess that qualifies them as the “go to’s?” I co-led the 2021 survey distributed to the SIGCSE community on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) concerns. A theme that clearly bubbled to the top was the dominance of white people. A relevant subtheme was the prioritization of white researchers, including those recognized for DEI. To be fair, a current scan of the activity’s main page notes that the co-creator regrets naming it a game and plans to do better in the future. However, this apology only seems to acknowledge regret about naming it a game and still lacks any acknowledgement that this huge faux pas is a clear indication that they are not the people who should be the presumed “experts” on these things. All other content still exists (defined as a game still), and visitors are still encouraged to use this material: material that clearly was developed by someone who lacked the range to understand (four years later) that calling it a “game” was extremely violent. Before anyone notes that these activities have been presented with non-white folks (including Black women), let me go ahead and respond as best I can: So? What does that mean? Cause a few Black folks cosigned the BS, that means it’s not harmful when people who live this and others who are advocates say it is? More important, the power dynamics of white researchers dominating the DEI space (as noted by the survey results) means that Black scholars may have to work within a system that has been restricted by gatekeepers. This isn’t their mistake to correct.

2. There is no grounding of these “scenarios” in historical contexts that teach participants about white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia, classism, ableism, and more.

This became clear in a recent SIGCSE workshop, where a participant expressed a racist trope about Black people they often used when they were confronted with anti-Asian rhetoric. There was no attempt to address what was said at the point of impact. There were no “ground rules” established for how discussions would occur when the workshop began. There was no conversation about how attempting to show how you’ve been harmed by causing harm to others via racist tropes not only creates harm for other attendees, but also demonstrates the participant’s lack of cultural competence. There was no discussion of how the harm the participant shared was rooted in the model minority myth (which is itself rooted in white supremacy and anti-Black racism). There was no “teachable moment” demonstrated, in a workshop designed to help others learn how to provide those. Instead, it was on to the next activity.

3. The suggested strategies for responding to someone validate their problematic beliefs.

In this same workshop, one of the suggested strategies for noting what someone said was problematic was to lead with “I can see why you would say that…” Excuse me? So, to be clear, someone makes a problematic statement about Black people (or any other minoritized group), and I’m supposed to lead with “I can see why you would say that?” This does the opposite of creating a teachable moment and addressing why it’s an issue. Instead, it confirms to the offender that their beliefs aren’t wrong (even if they may be problematic), because “I understand.”

4. You can’t role play your way out of racism.

Some participants in Cohort 1 of the 3C Fellows expressed that they wanted opportunities to practice how they would respond to problematic situations. We pushed back and said we will not provide these opportunities (these same cards were even recommended by someone in the chat and concerns were expressed privately to me then…again, my introduction to them). What we are providing is much more beneficial for those moments you encounter someone. You’re provided with facts, history, context, and the confidence that two years of learning and growing within a community that serves as a “brave space” (even if it’s uncomfortable at times) will prepare you to address whatever comes your way; not a “cookie cutter” response. In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks notes reflecting a multicultural standpoint must consider educators fears with respect to shifting paradigms. This requires training opportunities to express those concerns while learning to create ways to approach this new classroom and curriculum. She never said they needed to “act out” racism.

5. It assumes that violent situations will present in common and generic ways.

I’ve been alive for 44 years, and I’ve never met a Black person who wants to (in my Allen Iverson voice) practice how to respond to problematic situations and people. We and other people from minoritized groups who are daily victims of violence realize that no situation presents the same. There’s no way you can (insert Iverson voice) practice how to respond to the student who calls you “Ms.” Instead of “Dr./Prof. Washington” because somehow, you never get the benefit of being the expert (even though you have “Ph.D.” in all course materials, emails, and websites; and there’s only three weeks left in the semester that you’ve spent at the lectern teaching them for the last 12 weeks). There’s no way I could (insert Iverson voice) practice how to respond to the South Asian colleague who confidently stated at a lunch table full of white colleagues and me that he found Serena Williams to be “manly.” There’s no way I could (insert Iverson voice) practice when my former dean tells me that he (also a South Asian man) never had a problem with course evaluations, so I clearly need to do better as a professor. There’s no way I could (insert Iverson voice) practice, when a white colleague sent a meme (which he claimed was supposed to be a joke about inheritance) using an image of three Black men students cheating off each other. There’s no way that Judge Brown Jackson could (insert Iverson voice) practice her responses to the idiotic tantrums of white men and women in the senate the last two days; because they were designed to get her to react (and our elders taught us as kids that “you can’t do what they do”). While you know you’ll be hit with white supremacy, you can’t predict how it manifests on that day with that person. What you can do is be equipped with knowledge; of social science, history, and the ways in which identity impacts and is impacted by computing. The best you can do is make sure that you have a community of people you trust, who have helped you “armor up” (even when you shouldn’t have had to), and helped you understand who and whose you are. Those who need (insert Iverson voice) practice are almost always those who’ve only ever been on the giving end of harm. They aren’t owed “trial runs” that those of us on the receiving end were never afforded.

6. It’s lazy and requires no (un)learning.

No further explanation required.

What I find even more disappointing than this activity is how the greater computer science education community has supported it, both explicitly and by staying silent when they knew how others (especially Black women) felt about it. That same SIGCSE DEI survey I mentioned above noted two more subthemes under “dominance of white people,” specifically:

1. Overamplification of white voices as experts (and the subsequent exclusion/non-amplification of non-white voices).

2. Self-proclaimed DEI advocates who are problematic.

So a lot of people were complicit in this harm. I watched many in the community tweet about Black Lives Matter, social justice, and #IStandWithTimnit; sign petitions, and purport to be advocates. Yet, I’ve seen none of these same people call out how harmful this game has been for years. We’ve long known that silence gives consent. Instead, I’m sure that many of these same people will consider me the one who’s “confrontational,” “aggressive,” “rude,” and unwilling to sympathize with those who “meant no harm,” yet actively chose to not be the “advocate” they’ve claimed to be for the longest.

I’ll be that. Like other Black women who’ve finally had enough, I’ll continue to use my voice when and where I can.

One thing Mrs. Bothwell taught me is that there will always be another one of her: just around the corner, believing that she’s well within her rights to do/say whatever, no matter the harm it causes to those from minoritized groups. bell hooks also noted that “Historically, many black women experienced white women as the white supremacist group who most directly exercised power over them, often in a manner far more brutal and dehumanizing than that of racist white men.”

Mrs. Bothwell taught me that I must always be prepared for the harm women like her will cause, the subsequent demonization I’ll experience from calling out that harm, and the likely lack of support I’ll receive along the way (after all, my parents and principal are no longer able to defend me). I’ve thought about her over the years and wondered how many other Black girls she harmed in her career as a K-12 educator. How many more Dr. Washingtons would’ve been if they hadn’t had the unfortunate luck of being placed in her math classes? How many more Mrs. Bothwells are out there causing harm to Black girls and women like me across K-16 education? And how many of those girls and women are choosing to stand alone because, as Zora Neale Hurston warned us, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

Like I said, microaggressions have never been a game for me and never will be.

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Momentum is a blog that captures and reflects the moment we find ourselves in, one where rampant anti-Black racism is leading to violence, trauma, protest, reflection, sorrow, and more. Momentum doesn’t look away when the news cycle shifts.

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Dr. Nicki Washington

Dr. Nicki Washington

CS Ph.D., professor, and author of “Unapologetically Dope.” Advocate of HBCUs, identity, and cultural competence in CS. www.nickiwashington.com

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