The Microaggressions Project tumblr¬†popped into my head yesterday while sitting in the first class section of a commercial airliner. Two bottles of water await passengers in each twin seat when boarding. I took a sip from one and then put it in my bag, and then a few minutes later I absent-mindedly took a sip from the second bottle. When my seat-mate sat down I apologized for taking his water by mistake, and asked the flight attendant to bring him another. He told her that he didn’t need a replacement, and turned to me and said, “you didn’t take it by mistake, you stole it.” Racial microaggressions, as quoted on the Microaggressions Project “about this project” page, are “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” The first thing that popped into my head was “does this White cat think I took his water because Black folks always steal stuff?!” In the next breath, though, I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt about innocent teasing, smiled, and patted him on the arm.

A few minutes later he tapped my arm (I was wearing earphones) and asked me about my iPad. We went on to have a very good conversation, mostly about parenting and changing educational systems. I think that he was impressed that a college dean agreed with him that a 4-year degree was not necessarily an absolute requirement for everyone; he was proud that he built a multi-million dollar business with a high school degree as his final step of formal education. He was worried about how he could buy his two college-educated sons a business and set up the partnership in a way that would respect the sons’ different skills and dispositions, and not drive a wedge in their friendship. I joked that he should adjust the plan and give half of his planned purchase budget as a gift to my college. He took my business card, so maybe I’ll get lucky down the road…

One of the most harmful components of racial microaggression is the mental toll on those with particular socially constructed identities: “Did that person just do X because I’m a member of Y group?” I have enough privileged identities that I can shrug off possible slights (I was in first class on a plane, for example!), but the process is very much a powerful reality for others. We still have much work to do in creating more equitable social structures and processes.