Yesterday was the Fourth of July, and I went to a party.
It was a fine party, hosted by people I know, with a good mix of friends and strangers. I mingled, I drank, I took photos.
At some point in the evening—I don't remember when—I went inside to grab a drink. While I was standing, someone rubbed my head. It was a stranger—some bro I had met a little earlier—and my reaction was a mix of surprise, annoyance, and anger. "Don't fucking touch my head again," I said, and moved on.
He didn't, and subsequently said to his friends—I was told later—that he thought "the black guy was pissed at him." And I was. But here's the thing: Mine was a mild response.
Everyone thinks they'd meet casual disrespect with a challenge. "Do/say that again and we'll have a problem"—that kind of thing. In public, however, it's hard. What if you're a guest in someone's home? What if you're trying to make a good impression, or meet new people? And what if you're the only black man, and don't want to be the "angry" or confrontational one?
Your choices are slim. Obviously, this guy got the message. Still, I wish I were more forceful—I wish he knew he transgressed in a big way.
Which gets to one of the unfortunate facts of life if you're a woman, minority, or any other class that is the target of public disrespect from (some of) the people around you: Respond too leniently, and it seems okay to the offender. Respond too aggressively, and you've made yourself "a problem." And so, more often than not, you suck it in, and don't respond at all.
Or, to put all of this another way, when folks mention "microaggressions" and the toll they take, this is what they mean.