Death by a Thousand Cuts: Microaggressions, White indifference, and Media Culture

Many of us are coming off the stupor of the holiday season and making transitions back to routine. The energy of this New Year and new decade fill social media timelines alongside the contentious conversation around our national leaders’ most recent major decision.

Even still, something that remains central for me is a conversation I had recently. Talking among a group, the 90’s TV sitcom Friends came up. The others in the group, all white aside from myself, were surprised when I and one other contributor mentioned we had not ever bought into the show. I shared my specific feeling that the show never connected with someone like me. When they looked at me a bit confused, I expanded sharing how the show had no central figures of color and was set in social dynamic of friend group experiences that I couldn’t easily connect with.

This immediately caused another pause. One person, head now cocked to the side in confusion, retorted – “so you don’t watch any shows or movies without any black people.” Another response, “I watch The Great British Baking show and I’m not British.” I sign because now I’m facing a typical ignorance of the white experience, especially in regards to media. It’s all too common for people of minoritized identities, whether that be by race, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, etc. to have to face a world where one feels othered or left out of the social discourse. Especially, in regards to mainstream pop culture and media that so often leaves out the diverse narratives that exist in the world and particularly the intersection of historically minoritized and underserved communities. For a show like friends, set during the mid-1990s prior to any of the more open-minded expansive narratives we see today in 21st century television and media.

Back to the initial conversation…where my internal eye-roll came as I was explaining the feeling of lack of connectedness and also providing examples of predominantly white stories I had enjoyed, one individual exclaims, “Well I don’t have that problem.” The deep seeded indifference, insensitivity, and white privilege evident in those six words stung. Not because they were overtly crude or harsh, but more the sheer lack of any empathy present in them. Further, the words exhibit the type of willful ignorance present in so many interactions between those of white culture/identity to the rest of humanity.

It’s not uncommon to hear people undermine and undersell the idea of microaggressions, or the “everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership (Psychology Today, 2010).” Instances like this one shed light on the very interactions marginalized group members refer to. These exchanges that lack any social awareness, empathy, and simple care for the dynamics that impact others whether they affect your day-to-day life or not. What’s more frustrating, is the ways marginalized people are then negatively judged and stigmatized when they finally reach a breaking point from these small “cuts” day after day. Once that person finally boils over, they become the bad guy and are judged negatively. This where our attitudes and self-respect become an issue at work, school, or out in the wider community.

While this particular interaction was not a breaking point for me this time, it did cause me to take a step back to reflect. Further, it led me to have a discussion with one friend in the group on how to best follow-up and address this type of uncalled for and unacceptable lack of compassion. What the interaction showed is another example of how media creators and the everyday people around us can continue to let marginalized voices and identities down just by not allowing us to be represented. We don’t often get to feel that simple bliss of lack of worry and knowing we’ll be represented wherever we may look. How nice that would be.

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