A Youtube tsunami of sh*t all kinds of people say (and birds and wookies and beyond) has been flooding the internet. Ranging from hilarious, brilliant and edgy to somewhat tired at this point, this formula has been a tremendously generative capsule to fill and spread, making us crack up by hearing things we’ve heard so many times with new ears, giving the familiar an anthropological twist. One version of this creative phenomenon, “Sh*t _____ says to…_____” has also taken on a digital wildfire life of its own, sparked by graphic designer, video blogger and hair stylist Franchesca Ramsey, whose “Sh*t White Girls Say…to Black Girls” was the first viral video of 2012, now reaching over 7 million views. Seven million views. Clearly a massive nerve was touched, and there have been waves of commentary and controversy, with high praises, gratitude, and, predictable accusations of “reverse racism”, or the “blacklash” as Ramsey has dubbed it. There have been excellent responses to this, and there have been phenomenal take-offs of this parody, notably “Sh*t White Girls Say…to Arab Girls” and “Sh*t White Girls Say…to Brown (Desi/Indian) Girls”. In interviews Ramsey has discussed how this video is about ignorance, about things she has heard for years, often from white female friends.
That right there is the magic of these videos: they make the invisible visible to people with race privilege, make ignorance more audible, make the cumulative impact of seemingly “small” comments tangible and shows them to be a social phenomenon, not just individual “original” statements and questions – they lift up a mirror that can make you squirm, laugh and reflect if you recognize yourself within it as a sh*t sayer, and powerfully name reality if your daily life is full of this sh*t being said to you. In this vein, I also want to pull out and praise “Sh*t Straight Girls Say…to Lesbians” and “Stuff Cis People People Say to Trans People”. With the real life recipient of this constant stream of comments playing the collective persona of the people saying it, these videos surface this power dynamic with fabulously stirring mimicry. In feminist discourse, they are examples of “returning the gaze” – the targeted “other” looking back at the non-target “norm”, putting them in the spotlight of scrutiny. I think these videos are brilliant teaching tools to help better understand microaggressions, and with humor, to open up reflection, understanding, dialogue and potential change.
What are “microaggressions”? While most liberal folks would not consider themselves to be racist, sexist or homophobic or transphobic, or would think it beyond the realm of possibility to say anything overtly bigoted, understanding how microaggressions function shine a light on the insidious perpetration of social oppression and privilege, which can be particularly hard to see for people who are white, straight, male and cisgendered*.
The term “racial microaggressions” was first proposed by psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce, MD, in the 1970s, and has been increasingly studied by psychologists in recent years. Columbia University psychologist Derald Wing Sue first proposed a classification of racial microaggressions in a 2007 article on how they manifest in clinical practice in the American Psychologist (Vol. 2, No. 4). He notes three types of current racial transgressions:
Microassaults: Conscious and intentional actions or slurs, such as using racial epithets, displaying swastikas or deliberately serving a white person before a person of color in a restaurant.
Microinsults: Verbal and nonverbal communications that subtly convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person’s racial heritage or identity. An example is an employee who asks a colleague of color how she got her job, implying she may have landed it through an affirmative action or quota system.
Microinvalidations: Communications that subtly exclude, negate or nullify the thoughts, feelings or experiential reality of a person of color. For instance, white people often ask Asian-Americans where they were born, conveying the message that they are perpetual foreigners in their own land.
Sue focuses on microinsults and microinvalidiations because of their less obvious nature, which puts people of color in a psychological bind, “While the person may feel insulted, she is not sure exactly why, and the perpetrator doesn’t acknowledge that anything has happened because he is not aware he has been offensive…The person of color is caught in a Catch-22: If she confronts the perpetrator, the perpetrator will deny it,” Sue says**. The cumulative impact of microaggressions can lead to anger, confusion, drained energy, high blood pressure – the tolls of being constantly targeted with biased messages that, while taken alone may seem small, together effectively say “you are not normal, not smart enough, not good enough, not fully human, not really from here, criminal, alien, deviant, other”. Racial microaggressions are “everyday insults, indignities and demeaning messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of the hidden messages being sent to them,” in Sue’s definition. A core feature of challenging systems of social oppression is to make social privilege systems visible to those who have privilege, for whom it is structurally invisible and often unconscious.
The “Sh*t White Girls/Straight Girls/Cisgendered People Say” series can help make unconscious bias conscious. Each one uses a range of comments that go from perhaps harmless ignorance or awkward trying to be niceness, to more cutting statements that support racist, heterosexist, and transphobic views. We can laugh hearing (in “Stuff Cis People Say to Trans People”), “Oh my God I read Middlesex and just like cried, like bawled”, and then if we are cisgendered, hear ourselves more clearly the next time we might say, “So, have they had the surgery?”. The repetition in each of these works comically, and at the same time, it gets to the heart of the power of microaggressions, which can be about race, gender and/or sexuality. Those of us who occupy privileged space can hear ourselves a little louder, see ourselves a little more clearly – and think twice when we hear the viral microaggressions/invalidations/insults come out of our mouths and resonate with these viral videos. Some things we think we’d never say, and probably wouldn’t, and, I have heard from a bunch of white females in particular, the nodding realization that, “Wow, I guess I have said some of those things…” In the case of the “Sh*t White Girls Say”, there is also the element of exotification, cultural appropriation and “positive stereotypes”. “Oh my God, is that a sari?” “You can do SO much with your hair!” “I love Bollywood!”…The brilliant Kosha Patel succinctly portrays this negative/positive alternation, “What is that smell? (with delight)” and “What is that smell?” (with disgust).
“It’s a monumental task to get white people to realize that they are delivering microaggressions, because it’s scary to them,” Sue contends. “It assails their self-image of being good, moral, decent human beings to realize that maybe at an unconscious level they have biased thoughts, attitudes and feelings that harm people of color.” He goes on to say, “Microaggressions hold their power because they are invisible, and therefore they don’t allow us to see that our actions and attitudes may be discriminatory.”
Microaggressions are hard to call out. It can be cathartic when they are, and in this format.
On her blog, Franchesca Ramsey shared this piece of fan mail from a white girl:
First of all, I loved your video, Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls. It was so funny and well done. As a white woman not only did it make me laugh but it also made me think, “have I ever said something like that?” And while I consider myself a very tolerant, open-minded person I could not be sure I hadn’t, which made me embarrassed. But that is a good thing, everyone needs to evalute their behaviors all the time, even tolerant, nice people. So thank you, not only for making me laugh, but for making me think. The best kind of comedy should do that.
I was so disgusted with the comments people left on your video and on your twitter. The most irritating ones were those made by (mostly) white girls saying, “if a white girl made this about black girls it would be considered racist.” Is it that kind of thinking that prevents open, honest discussion about race and oppression. It baffles me when white people claim that they are victims of discrimination or racism. I believe that everyone can experience prejudice, but white people can never experience racism. I will never know what it is like to have someone ask me if my hair is real, or assume certain things about me based on the color of my skin. And claiming that a video like yours is racist towards white people is completely absurd.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I think that white people (or some white people) don’t want to have to feel responsible or something. It has to do with guilt and with people thinking it is somehow easier to make yourself a victim than to take ownership over the huge problem of institutionalized racism in this country. People refuse to recognize their own privilege and deal with it. It makes me so angry and so sad. Because really the best way to deal with that kind of guilt is to fight against its cause and to work for social justice and social change.
As small as it may seem I think your video is a step in that direction. So thank you, for making me something hilarious and wonderful and thought provoking. I hope you keep making videos and just generally being the awesome person that you are.
One last thought, in relation specifically to Sh*t White Girls Say variations, is the use of a platinum blond wig. In mocking white privilege and ignorance, blondeness is used to mark dumbness, which is a complex dynamic – as the image of the white blonde female has been historically used as an oppressive angelic norm and Barbie beauty standard, it has also been configured as a direct correlation between lightness of hair and lack of intellect. If there were a “Sh*t People Say…to Blonde Girls” it would most likely all have to do with putting down their intelligence while saying they are sexy and like to have fun. The white female characters also seem coded as upper middle class. What does it do to have this stereotype of the dumb pretty rich blonde used as the stand-in for “white girls”? Oftentimes when racism is called out, white people respond with distancing themselves, “I’d never…”, “But I’m not…” and define themselves as “good white people” in opposition to “bad white people” who are overt bigots. That makes real self-reflection tough, to say the least. How can we reflect on all of this all together?
Here are the videos mentioned (also included in our Resources section):
***Applause for the video-makers***
* What does “cisgendered” mean? “Cis” is a Latin-derived prefix meaning “to this side/near side”, as “trans” is a prefix that means “across”. In the case of gender, “cis” refers to the alignment of gender identity with assigned gender. The term cisgender privilege has recently appeared in the academic literature and is defined there as the “set of unearned advantages that individuals who identify as the gender they were assigned at birth accrue solely due to having a cisgender identity.”
**Drawing from an article in the American Psychological Association by Tori DeAngelis, “Unmasking ‘racial microaggressions’” Vol. 40 No. 2, Feb, 2009