Overt racism is usually pretty easy to spot. But there’s another less-obvious type of racist behavior that can also hurt. WNIJ and the Rockford Register Star are kicking off a year-long collaboration called “Race in the Rock River Valley” with an examination of “microaggressions.”
Dr. Derald Wing Sue calls them “death by a thousand cuts.” He’s a leading expert on microaggressions, which are subtle discriminatory remarks or actions against minorities. Register Star reporter Corina Curry spoke with Dr. Sue and says it was eye-opening: She didn’t know how common these everyday slights are. “These microaggressions have an effect," she says. "They have an impact. They are hurtful and they separate us. They form these little wedges.”
The Rockford Register Star’s Corina Curry, Max Gersh, and Sunny Strader teamed up with WNIJ’s Susan Stephens to gather stories and video of Rockford-area residents talking about their own personal experiences with microaggressions.
Catherine Brown was just trying to buy a pair of shoes in a Rockford department store. She grew up under Jim Crow laws in Mississippi and moved to Rockford when she got married.
"I was in line and this lady comes through and she just jumped in front of me. I said, 'Wait a minute, I was here first.' The lady that crossed in front of me never did say a word so the one behind the counter just kept serving her. I just left my stuff on the counter and walked out. My money is spent just like her money. “
“That’s what got to me at Bergner’s. I’m not in the south, but there they let you know. Here, it’s undercover sly stuff. And that’s the difference.”
Nicholas Sharp was the only African American in his friend’s wedding party, and they all went out together to get fitted for their formal wear.
"I was getting suited for my friend's wedding and the tailor, the one tall tailor, he fitted everybody else but he never came to me to get my measurements. It took the other employee to come and get my measurements.
"My friend who was getting married saw that and wanted to say something but didn't want to make a scene, and she let me know about it. I told her, 'I saw it the minute he looked at me and just kind of shrugged and went the other way.' Normally for any other person they would make that scene. But I basically told them, 'I'm here for your wedding. We're all going to have a great time. If he wants to be negative about it, fine. So be it.' When it comes to that particular company getting more business, it's probably not going to look so well for them in the long run."
Shannon Reeves-Rich and her husband are white: two of their three children are adopted and black. She says comments from well-meaning people can be exhausting. She’s often asked where her kids are from – and some people sound disappointed when she tells them they’re from Rockford. She thinks they want a more exotic adoption back story, staged in Haiti or Africa.
“I would say twice a week, at least, someone says to me or to me and my husband, ‘God bless you for taking in those kids. Or god bless you for doing what you do. Or those kids are so lucky to have you.’ And these people are absolutely genuinely being kind, and I know that.
"However, what it does, in my mind, and when my kids hear it, it makes it look like I did them a favor. Like they’re not really the ones that people would want. So aren’t we kind to take in these kids who aren’t highly sought after? I always respond that the blessing is ours and aren’t we lucky!”
Isaac Lopez was born and raised in Rockford. His parents emigrated from Mexico.
“The fact that when I go back to Mexico for vacations, they tell me ‘where you from, where you from, where you from?’ I was born in the states. ‘Ohhhh, you’re a gringo.’ And when I come back here, ‘where you from?’ Well, from here, but I was born here. But my parents are from Mexico. It’s weird, because I’m from neither here or there. That’s why it feels weird.”
Sarene Alsharif is another Rockford resident who says there are times she doesn’t feel welcome in this country, where she was born. She’s Muslim and chooses to wear the hijab. Alsharif’s father was from Syria and her mother’s family came from Germany. She says a photo with her mother’s father sparked a disappointing conversation with a friend.
“There was a picture of me and him when he I was three and I put it up on Facebook. And when I went to see my friend one day and she said ‘oh my goodness, I saw the picture of your grandfather and you when you were little and you look normal! You look like us!’ And I was like, yeah. But what really stuck out in that conversation was you look normal and you look like us. So because I have a scarf on my head, I’m not normal? And you look like us? It shows you the thought behind that is ‘them and us.’ She had no negative intentions, she’s a very sweet woman. But it kind of sticks with you.”
More stories from this project will be added this week.