When I was an associate attorney in private practice, one of my favorite opportunities was serving on the firm’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee. As part of this committee, I addended a presentation by Dr. Arin Reeves, a lawyer and sociologist who runs a consulting firm based in Chicago. I was reminded of one of her lessons this week, and feel compelled to share today.
What’s worse, she began: A shark bite, or a mosquito bite?
If you came into work on a Monday, and you were wrapped in bandages, people would of course ask you what had happened and you would of course answer, “A shark bit me.” And people would respond with a flurry of questions and concern, wanting to offer assistance and learn more about such a significant ordeal.
But if you came into work Monday without any bruises or bandages because you’d only been bitten by a mosquito, you wouldn’t tell anyone about that mosquito bite. If you did, you’d be rewarded with quizzical looks and derision for making such a big deal about such a small and common nuisance–something that you’re just supposed to tolerate.
And this, Dr. Reeves admonished us listeners, was illustrative of the effects of bias and discrimination in the workplace.
When overt acts of discrimination occur, we’re eager to hear about it, and do something about it. And though overt acts of discrimination are unfortunately increasing in their frequency, they are still far less common than the micro-aggressions that are the equivalent of mosquito bites: A comment about someone’s hair, or saying, “You’re so articulate,”–these aren’t aggressions with the intent to discriminate, but they have the same net effect. And they happen a lot.
Because we don’t feel comfortable talking about these micro-aggressions, the weight of them builds up over time, and the collective discomfort and frustration of a million little mosquito bites drives us to leave these places of work altogether.
But it isn’t just limited to workplaces, and it isn’t just limited to adults. It happens in our schools, too.
Just last week, two racist incidents emerged at an elementary school in Upper Arlington:
- The n-word was written on the wall of a student bathroom; and
- Students were playing “Coronavirus Tag,” where students of Asian-American descent were targeted.
This is heartbreaking. But we can’t let the heartbreak debilitate us. We have to talk about this, we have to keep learning, and we have to keep acting. I’m grateful to the leadership of so many of our agencies whose work includes convening, learning, and acting in combating racism and discrimination of all sorts, wherever and against whomever they may occur.