This is What Micro Aggression Looks Like

A white male doctor giving an injection to a Black woman

This is What Micro Aggression Looks Like

Why do I keep forgetting?

In the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, I read every article I could find about the new vaccine that would soon be available. I was fascinated by the science. As an older person with risk factors, I knew it could be bad if I got infected. So as soon as my husband and I were eligible, we made an appointment and gratefully got our injections.

A couple days later, I had a conversation with a Black friend I’ll call T.J. I told him all about my vaccination experience and described the the mild side effects I was feeling. I said several times how relieved I was to be protected from severe illness and death.

T.J. said, “I don’t know, I’m still not sure I want to get vaccinated.”

“Really!?” I said. “That’s surprising. How come?”

“I just have a bad feeling about it,” he responded.

My friend is a highly-educated and practical person. I was baffled by his reticence. “Don’t you want to protect yourself and your family from this crazy virus?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said, “of course I do, but I’m still struggling with it. We’ll see. I just have to give it some more thought.”

I was so puzzled by this response that I actually said, “Wow!” Yep, that’s what I said to my friend. Wow.

He changed the subject then, and we went on to have a delightful talk about something I no longer remember. There was no hint in his voice that he felt hurt or offended, and I promptly put the whole exchange out of my mind.

A couple weeks later I got a call from another friend, a Black woman slightly oder than I am. Her voice was shaky and her words tumbled out without pause. I won’t try to write what she said as dialogue, because I don’t want to put words in her mouth. But this is the gist of her story:

I just got back from getting my Covid vaccination. I was fine, eager to get it, eager to have it over with. My son went with me and everything was going so smoothly. I sat down at that little table with my sleeve rolled up and waited for the doctor. I was just fine. Then I looked up, and here came this White man holding a syringe. He walked toward me with this needle, and I panicked. I totally panicked. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t let him get near me. It was like all the inhumane, barbaric things that White doctors did to my ancestors came flooding into my body. My son had to take me away from there so I could calm down. Finally they got a Black doctor to give me the shot. When I got home, I called you. I needed to tell this to a White person.

Again, I want to be clear that this is an approximation of what she said. I did my best to remember her words as accurately as possible. Parts of her story are seared into my brain. Her agitation was so intense as she described what happened, I thought I could feel it in my own body.

I offered as much love and support as I could express. After her nerves settled, we talked about the history of medical racism, epigenetics, and trauma passed from one generation to the next. It was important for her to tell this story to a White friend who would listen and be a witness to her experience.

After we hung up, I spent a long time sitting with my emotions. I felt enraged at past — and current — racial violence. I felt sad that my friend had gone through such trauma. And I felt grateful and honored that she had trusted me enough to tell me about it. All these feelings were muddled together, and I had trouble sorting them out.

The regret crept up on me, hovering on the periphery of my awareness. I couldn’t quite get my brain around it. It had to do with vaccinations.

Then I remembered, with painful clarity. When T.J. shared his concerns, what did I do? I said I was surprised. I said I didn’t understand. I said “Wow!” How could I have been so dense? I was very aware that many African Americans were leery of the vaccine. I was familiar with the history. How is it possible to know these things and then forget them in the middle of a conversation with a Black friend?

It wasn’t the first time I’ve had to ask myself that question and probably won’t be the last.

The answer is always the same: White Supremacy was designed to make us forget. It’s very efficient at keeping us ignorant. It’s a system of oppression that wins when White people are clueless about how it functions. It sneaks into our minds and we end up saying something hurtful to a friend. Sometimes I’m not sure which is more egregious — not knowing this history, or knowing it and forgetting.

I called T.J. and apologized for my insensitivity. He was gracious and forgiving, but I couldn’t shake the deep regret I felt. I guess that’s okay, because hopefully it will serve as a reminder that I can never relax my vigilance.

I share this incident not to beat myself up, but rather to offer an example of how racism works. If it’s helpful to anyone, then the story has fulfilled its purpose.

Photo by Gustavo Fring from Pexels

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