Flint, Concussions and Micro-aggressions

We were waiting in the sanctuary for the next session to begin during the Trinity Institute. We had just been in deep conversation about racial justice in small groups and were now waiting for the overwhelmingly brilliant Emilie Townes to begin. The two women next to me were both in their clerical collars; young, pretty and interesting to eavesdrop on. They were comparing notes on celebrity funerals; one had just done a funeral for a famous soap opera star.

And then a petite, older black woman came to talk to the strawberry-blonde priest. The woman had walked up and down the aisle several times before stopping to talk -- she was waiting for a respectful moment to break in. She wanted to give the priest feedback on a question about porcelain figures -- I couldn’t make out everything she said. But I heard every moment of what the priest told her friend after the older black woman walked away. 

“We have these porcelain figures," she said, rolling her eyes. "I asked them for input. It doesn’t really matter -- I already decided, I just try to make them feel like they are part of the process.”

My blood was boiling. I flinched. Here we were in the midst of sacred conversations on racial justice. The priests saw me looking at them and quickly began whispering the rest of their conversation.

And then Hannah came to the stage. Beautiful, vibrant, energetic Hannah. She told of the small racist infractions that she encounters every day. Micro-aggressions. Her boss laughing at a black student’s name. But the impacts aren’t so micro. In the end, she needed to change jobs -- couldn’t take working closely with those who continuously offended.

Impacts. I couldn’t help but think about the movie Concussion. It isn’t the big hits that are obvious concussions that cause so many problems according to the doctors. It is all the little undiagnosed concussive hits that cause the personality changes, depression and mayhem. I think micro-aggressions might be like those hits. Unreported, so frequent they are barely remembered, but ultimately, with life-altering impact.

My head was swirling with all the talk and pain and outrage and I remembered my conversation with 10-year old J at enrichment classes earlier this week. He asked me if it was racism when someone said that Asians made her nervous. He was especially upset because he is Asian and it hurt that he might make someone nervous.

When these seemingly small, but repetitious pains begin at 10 years old, what are the lasting effects? What kind of personality-altering, life-altering damage do all these micro-aggressions cause?

Like those kids in Flint, MI poisoned with each glass of water they drank. According to the W. Post, “That’s how lead works. It leaves its mark quietly, with a virtually invisible trail. But years later, when a child shows signs of a learning disability or behavioral issues, lead’s prior presence in the bloodstream suddenly becomes inescapable.”

Lead poisoning, racial poisoning, what kind of world could it be without all this insidious damage to our kids?

What if those single momentary interactions had been different. What if the priest had invited the woman to sit with her and really ask her about the figures and also her ministry hopes and her week, and her kids and her knitting project? What if Hannah’s boss had read the names of the students and said, “I am so excited to meet each of these kids.” What if J’s friend had said, hey, I’ve never met anyone from Asia -- I wonder what it is like growing up there?

What if we lived out God’s hope for each moment of our lives offering micro-blessings? Could we stop the poisoning?


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