To move through the world as a person of color comes not only with obvious instances of racism and injustice — you see the echoes of a history of othering everywhere. Many of these moments happen so quickly that it is difficult to find the words to react and even more trying to maneuver the possible consequences of expressing valid anger or hurt.
It’s easier to deal with instances of overt racism: racial slurs, hate speech, etc. What is an even more difficult beat to overcome are the covert undertones of bigotry in microaggressions.
Coined by Harvard psychiatrist Chester Pierce in 1970, microaggressions are described as brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative prejudicial slights and insults toward any group, particularly culturally marginalized groups.
Recently, a viral video of an Oklahoma City news segment showed a perfect example of what it looks like to be stuck between hurt and being forced into civility. Jason Hackett, a black man, and his white co-host Alex Housden were reporting on a gorilla from the Oklahoma City zoo.
Housden for some reason thought it would be appropriate to say to Hackett that the gorilla “kind of looks like you, when you take a picture.” Hackett laughed the comment off and did his best to deflect it, saying that the gorilla “Kind of does actually. Very close to the camera.”
She didn’t call him a racial slur, nor did her comment explicitly reference race, but her choice of words reflects a deep-seated history and ideology. The message that comment delivers is that of black people look and act subhuman, likened to monkeys or apes. Some may say that she wasn’t trying to be racist, or that she could’ve been referencing how close to the camera the animal was, but the question becomes this: Would she have said the same thing about a white co-host? Probably not.
How did Hackett feel at that moment? Did he want to question her, probe further, ask her what she meant by that exactly? What would’ve happened to his reputation and his job if he did? Suddenly he would be the aggressor, the irrational one, the “scary one.” He could be perceived as unprofessional, or difficult to work with.
If this was in a regular office setting, would he even feel comfortable attempting to address the issue? Probably not. Luckily, it spread across the United States and was taken as a serious offense. Various people on social media expressed their outrage, many calling for Housden to be fired.
The next day, the two of them appeared on-air together again for Housden to apologize. “I’m here this morning because I want to apologize not only to my coworker Jason but to our entire community. I said something yesterday that was inconsiderate. It was inappropriate and I hurt people. I want you to know I understand how much I hurt you out there and how much I hurt you (Jason). I love you so much . . . and I would never do anything on purpose to hurt you. I apologize for what I said. I know it was wrong, and I am so sorry.”
Hackett told her that he accepted her apology. He went into detail about their personal relationship, saying she was one of his best friends, but that “All that being said—and Alex will be the first to admit this to you, what she said yesterday was wrong.” Hackett wanted to use the incident as a teachable moment. “...That lesson here is that words matter. We’re becoming a more diverse country and there is no excuse. We have to understand the stereotypes, we have to understand each other's backgrounds.”
This is a beautiful sentiment to have, hoping to change bigotry with tolerance and love, but incidents like this one require more than just peace: it requires a change in culture, perception, and for moments like these where people are held accountable.