Having recently assumed the mantle of professor and endowed chair in one of the countrys leading research universities, it was my description of having made it to the NBA of faculty life that would serve as more than just a passing analogy, but oddly emblematic of what was to be on one very memorable March morning. The cold and slightly rainy day in the Jersey suburb was made a bit more manageable because of my band of brothers who accompanied me and the realtor on this house-hunting mission. To fend off the chill in the air, we each wore hoodiesnot only the attire of choice for the young and hip millennial crew, but also the clothing option selected by 30- and 40-something-year-old bald Black males. One hoodie read Baylor Bears, another, Rutgers University, and the third, Houston Texans. As we stepped from the vehicle, the real estate agent representing the home we were about to tour emerged and informed us that the staging of the dwelling had been completed and that she was off to the next site. But before she left, she paused and commented, Are you guys basketball players? Without hesitation, I stated, No. And, before I could continue, she interjected, Oh, well you must be college students. My friend wearing the Baylor hoodie responded, Actually, we arent basketball players or students, he is a professor and endowed chair at Rutgers, he is an account executive for the Houston Texans, and I am an executive director for a nonprofit organization. Colloquially speaking, You could have bought her for a dime. The look on her face was almost as telling as the response she offered, offered in my estimation as a way to retreat from a situation that was for her at best embarrassing and at worst demeaningWell, you should buy this house and become my neighbors!
For those who have never experienced the staccato rhythms of being a person of color in America, this situation might seem trivial, or it might seem that somehow I am making a mountain out of a mole hill. After all, she did make amends by offering up the proverbial sacrificial lamb, her willingness to live next to a Black man; that should count for something, shouldnt it? As I reflect on the situation then and now, I come to the same psychological space; forgiving what I am semi-certain she did not realize was a transgression is not the issue. What is at issue here is the cyclical and persistent nature of the unintentional (sometimes intentional) microaggressions that I, along with other Black men, have to endure. Described by Solorzano, Ceja, and Yosso in their 2000 article, Critical Race Theory, Racial Microaggressions, and Campus Racial Climate: The Experiences of African American College Students as indirect racially motivated comments that are advanced through verbal, nonverbal, and/or visual means, it was the microaggression I experienced firsthand on this day that seemed to shape the contours of the rest of my day. Although many of my discussions of microaggression and its attendant impact have centered on experiences in academe, and though many of the scholars who unpack this concept use their experiences in higher education as the primary context, it is both within and outside postsecondary settings that these actions must be confronted. Higher education is a microcosm of larger society, and therefore, the perils exacted on us by our congruous external communities are operationalized in similar but nuanced ways inside the hallowed halls of the academy. Outside of the academy, life is often experienced as the juxtaposition of opposing framesone frame the invisible Black male, namely, the customer service agent who attends to the needs of the White patron who approaches the counter minutes after I did, and when confronted with the specter of racism, says, I didnt see you standing there. Or, the second frame that renders me hypervisible in scenarios in which my identity and its relative fit within particular contexts are instantaneously sent through a series of permutations; the outcome is a set of scripts that reveal whether I am in the right place at the right time.
Somewhere in between acts of microaggression, I and my Black male counterparts in higher education have crafted spaces that foster resilience in the face of racism and recalcitrance. Additionally, we have provided new scripts and counternarratives that combat stereotypical notions held by those who populate our classrooms or sit next to us in departmental meetings. Yet, there is still much work to do. A microaggression anywhere means an impending threat to social justice everywhere. What in the mental reservoir of the realtor in the story at the beginning of this article made basketball player the first container she reached for on her categorization shelf? And is it the same reservoir that others tend to draw from when it comes to their view and subsequent treatment of Black males in and outside of the academy? Unless we are willing to confront microaggressions at their core, we will continue to make faulty assumptions that equate wearing a hoodie to being a hoodlum, and being Black, male, and bald with being a basketball player.
Solorzano, D., Ceja, M., & Yosso, T. (2000). Critical race theory, racial microaggressions, and campus racial climate: The experiences of African American college students. Journal of Negro Education, 69, 6073.