Lessons from Confronting a South African Microaggression

Remember: Oppression thrives off isolation. Connection is the only thing that can save you. Remember: Oppression thrives on superficiality. Honesty about your struggles is the key to your liberation. Remember: Your story can help save someone’s life. Your silence contributes to someone else’s struggle. Speak so we can all be free. Love so we all can be liberated. The moment is now. We need you. (Yolo Akili)


In this account I describe how my response to a microaggression (Sue, D. et al., 2007) incident at a South African wine farm stretched the boundaries of a close personal relationship and redefined how I frame confrontation and engage in dialogue. I learned that the framing of microaggressions determines whether they can be educative. These insights are valuable for those wanting to confront microaggressions and promote culturally sensitive leadership.

The South African context and the wine farm

There are few wine tasting experiences like the one at Blue Wine Estate (1) in Stellenbosch, South Africa. The farm is a blend of natural beauty and uneven power relations. Wine is symbolic of inclusion and exclusion in South Africa. Its symbolism overlaps with the heavy weight of slave-picked cotton in the United States, sugar in the West Indies, and coffee in Brazil. Wine can evoke the memories of lives, land, and dignity lost under the banner of profit in each of these countries, and around the world.

South Africa is a complex country. Its tapestry is weaved together by past colonial injustice, recent apartheid racial segregation, and contemporary half-freedoms. South Africa’s herstory/history/ourstory did not begin with, but is irrevocably influenced by, European settlers who arrived at the Cape in 1652. Their arrival initiated a binary ideological and material conflict as the settlers asserted their domination of land, people, and resources. Through the lens of social justice, the Ubuntu philosophy underpinning African life invalidates the ideology of colonialism because of the former’s emphasis on a shared humane-humanity (Maluleke 1999, pp. 80-82), and the latter’s reduction of human beings to an oppressed/oppressor relationship. In the end, the White colonizers shifted the scales using military power to force their political, economic, and social will on South Africa’s Black African majority.

Almost three hundred years later in 1948, the colonizers formally institutionalized their exploitation through apartheid, a hegemonic government system designed to enforce racial segregation and institutionalize White supremacy (Biko, 2002). It is due to the legacies of Autshumayo, who fought against the Dutch in 1658 (Marks, 1972), Charlotte Maxeke, who led resistance to colonial oppression since 1874 (Jardine, 2016), and many known and unknown individuals who sacrificed their lives for justice in South Africa since then, that apartheid officially ended in April 1994.

The political end of apartheid segregation promised full freedom, but the legacy of colonialism has persisted to deliver economic and social half-freedoms in contemporary South Africa. South Africans of color have the political freedom to enter former “Whites only” spaces, but the system still forces them to often occupy economic and social roles that perpetuate their position as half-free individuals. For example, a young Black South African womxn(2) can use her political power to vote, but still needs to travel into the city to access economic opportunity such as a job from predominantly White bosses who treat her as cheap labor. A Statistics South Africa 2015 Quarterly Labour Survey indicated that Black South African womxn earn an average of 23% less than their Black male counterparts, and 75% less than their White male colleagues (2015).

Another upper class Black South African womxn may appear to enjoy full freedom because she voted for those who enable access to economic success and social mobility, but she still needs to contend with society’s embedded patriarchy, racism, and gender-based discrimination which limit her to a life of half-freedoms. Liberation therefore, must extend past access to political, economic, and social power. True liberation, full freedom, should include transforming social relationships to reflect fundamental human dignity.

Who am I?

I write this piece from the position of an English-speaking White South African male from Johannesburg who taught intermediate phase isiZulu, continued postgraduate studies in the United States, and recently returned to Cape Town. At a deeper level, I grew up within a family of various races. My unique upbringing shaped how I exist in the world and reinforced my strong commitment to social, economic, and political justice. My partner, who is from Texas, and I came home briefly to South Africa while I served as Executive Director for an education-focused non-profit organization for a six month period.

After living abroad for seven years, I saw South Africa in a new and more nuanced way during my extended stay in Cape Town. What was familiar also became unfamiliar as I revisited spaces through a lens of power and privilege. Systems of oppression such as patriarchy, racism, and gender-based discrimination that, because of my privilege, had been “hidden” to me in the past, now became much more obvious and jarring.

I analyzed my experience through linguistic, symbolic, policy, and institutional frames. I recognized language use describing where people of color live as “locations” rather than neighborhoods. I tried to make sense of why restaurants filled with only White patrons could be framed as symbols of economic revitalization rather than segregation. During our stay, Cape Town experienced its worst drought in recent memory. As the drought became more severe, I could not fully understand policy proposals seeking to restrict water usage for those living in perpetual water scarcity while merely taxing those who waste water on their lavish lawns. As I dug deeper into the institutional design of the city through comparing the public bus routes to the class-based nature of the neighborhoods, I found that the city cares more about tourists being close to the beach than marginalized South Africans accessing opportunity.

Peeling away the layers even further, I also became more sharply aware of the prevalence of microaggressions, the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults. These microaggressions, whether intentional or unintentional, communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership (Sue, et al., 2007).

The wine tasting

Our tasting experience commenced within a beautiful, open-planned, floor to ceiling glass window tasting room next to a fire. Moshe, a close friend, and I visited Blue Wine Estate to taste delicious wines. Moshe is a powerful Black African man whose integrity, leadership and talent underpin his deep aptitude for justice. He is a few months away from graduating as a lawyer, and yet he took time off his busy schedule to visit me in Cape Town. We had not seen one another for three years.

Moshe and I are brothers. We do not share a mother but are bonded by the powerful strands of true human connection. We first met in tenth grade and have remained friends for over half of our lifetimes. Ever since we became friends all those years ago, our bond has spanned the length of time, the breadth of geography, and the alchemy of life events. It has also been shaped by neocolonial identity forces such as racism, classism, ableism, and other “isms”. As close as we are as human beings, we still recognize how our differences are used to divide us.

Paying the bill, swallowing the microaggression

Moshe and I reveled in deconstructing the space, tasting the beautiful wines, and reconnecting on lost time. Eventually we were ready to walk in the garden and signalled for the bill. Shawn, our wine connoisseur and a man of color in his thirties, walked over, followed by Linda, a White, blonde woman who was obviously the manager.

Shawn walked past Moshe and immediately handed the bill to me. Linda, armed with an iPad, walked over to Moshe saying, “How did my little boy serve you today? Please can you rate his service from one to five.” She handed the iPad to him, smiled at us and walked away. My heart sank. I felt a rush of anger and hurt. I looked up from the bill to see Moshe looking at Shawn with an awkward smile. I asked Shawn if he is always called a ‘boy’ to which he nodded affirmatively.

I reached over to the iPad and asked Moshe if I could fill in the comments section of the rating, into which I typed: “Please do not refer to any adult waiter or waitress of color as boy or girl, this is racist behavior.” Shawn, looked over my shoulder and chuckled. I asked him if this would jeopardize him, to which he shook his head. “Please make sure she gets this” I asked, before pressing submit and collecting my belongings to leave.

The blowout

As Moshe and I began walking out, he immediately motioned to me that he would like to talk to me outside about what I wrote on the review. I reacted defensively, angrily, and from deep emotion as I explained why I was right to confront her microaggression and humiliation of him and Shawn. Before Moshe could reply Linda interjected. She had followed us outside and was armed with the iPad.

“Are you the person who wrote that I am a racist? You don’t even know me, how dare you call me a racist! You are stoking division here. We are all a family here until you come here and make my staff think that I am a racist. How dare you!”

My blood began to boil. Being overwhelmed in the moment I replied, “Ma’m. I never called you a racist. As you handed the iPad over to my friend, you referred to Shawn as a little ‘boy’. As a White person when you call a person who is your age or older a ‘boy’ that is unprofessional. When they are a person of color that is racist. Please reflect on this.”

This made her angrier. She began yelling and accusing me of causing unnecessary harm. During this confrontation Moshe moved to intervene. He calmly tried to explain to her why her words caused him hurt, and also why he thought I was wrong to have attacked her the way I did. We completely ignored him as we continued to quarrel. Eventually, I asked to see her boss and threatened to get her fired. She stormed off.

The dialogue: Was the goal to win or to learn?

We all left the situation feeling unheard, frustrated, and angry. I felt my heart beating, my palms sweating, and my head racing. Confusion echoed loudly through every inch of my body. I could not understand Moshe’s perspective. Nor, could I fathom how Linda was angry with me for being unable to see the harm she had caused. It was like a mugger being angry at the victim. We walked in silence for a while. Eventually, Moshe broke the ice. His tone was measured and direct.

“Warren you needed to say something. If you didn’t, I was going to. But to attack her like you did. That was not right. She stamped on all of our dignity, but by chastising her and calling her a racist, what were you trying to achieve? You have to go back there. You have to talk to her. I understand what you did. It was right. But how you did this was wrong.”

I reacted defensively but Moshe persisted. He stressed how I had correctly read the world, but chose the incorrect strategies and tactics to transform it. Linda had committed a microaggression by diminishing Shawn to the status of a child. This subtle yet obvious snub has historical roots in the colonial gaze (Ascroft, 2000) whereby the observed find themselves defined by the colonial observer’s own set of value preferences, often infantilizing and trivializing what it falls upon (Mishra, 2002).

He asked me what my ultimate purpose was in confronting Linda. Was it to prove that I was right and she was wrong, or, was it to achieve genuine justice? He reminded me of the many times my blind spots have hurt others. I was challenged to review how much change I would have achieved if I was treated in the same way I moved against Linda. If my purpose in writing that review was to be proven right, then I chose the correct strategy. If my purpose was to promote human dignity for all, which may include a better working environment for Shawn, then I fell short.

At that point, all Linda knew was that I called her a racist, which she denied. What good does this achieve from the perspective of justice? True justice must include understanding of how one’s own behavior promotes injustice. Then, reflection on how this realization can be transformed into behavioural change. At the very least, if we are to be consistent between what we say about achieving justice and what we do in reality, then Linda must be included in the conversation.

We agreed that the best approach would be to return and try to talk to Linda. But before we set off, Moshe asked me to consider why Linda and I ignored him during our confrontation. I responded that I felt it my responsibility as a White person to confront the racism that exists in our community. Moshe reminded me sternly that he understood racism better than I ever could, and that he expected to be an equal partner in whatever events were about to unfold. Linda was not the only person guilty of a microaggression in this broader situation. I realized that by previously excluding Moshe, we had invalidated his voice in the conversation, and perpetuated exactly what we were arguing about/against.

Changing the frame, shifting the aim

We walked into the tasting room less confident than we entered before. I was ready for a squad of security to roughly escort us off the property. My heart beat rapidly as we walked. I did not know whether to be on the attack or defense. This time, as I looked around the room, Shawn was nowhere to be found. Linda was situated behind the bar area organizing receipts and talking to a customer. I walked over and asked if we could talk. Linda agreed and the three of us headed to a more private area.

Linda immediately began the conversation. Her voice was calm and her manner engaged. She expressed relief that we returned to talk about what had transpired. Never in her life had she been called a racist. Which in her mind was the worst accusation that could ever be made against anyone. My actions hurt her, because she saw herself as a good person and an advocate for inclusion on the farm. By calling her a racist, she felt personally attacked and acted from a position of raw emotion. She apologized for acting unprofessional, and reiterated that she had never considered calling someone a ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ as racist or derogatory. But when she cooled down and thought about it, she saw how it could be seen that way.

It became my turn to speak. I began by thanking her for stepping outside to dialogue about what had transpired and apologized for acting in such an aggressive manner towards her. I explained how hurt and how angry I felt by her comment because I had heard White people use the term ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ to diminish people of color so often as a child. This is part of why I refused to allow her microaggression to continue uninterrupted. But, I could have used means that recognized the work that we all must do in order to be more humane towards each other. If we are who we are because of other people, then we have a responsibility to believe in others’ ability to change, while doing our part to facilitate that process, just as we hope they would believe and participate in ours. I explained that what was required of me in this situation was humility, not arrogance.

Moshe had been listening intently, choosing the right moment to enter the dialogue. He spoke slowly, choosing his words very intentionally.

“Linda, I have known Warren for a long time, he has this tendency to shoot from the hip when he gets angry. He should not have spoken to you like he did. He should have called you aside and spoken to you properly. But he was angry, and so was I. I think it was the right thing that he did say something. If he didn’t I was going to. But, when I was trying to intervene during your argument you both ignored me. What I was trying to say was that I felt incredibly disrespected as a man, and as a Black man, when you referred to Shawn as a ‘little boy’. That was hurtful. Especially because he can’t say anything because his job could be on the line.

But also, and this is where Warren and I disagree. It was not just Shawn and I that were dehumanised in that moment, but you guys too. Warren, you have never been referred to as a ‘boy’ in that way because you are White. So when that happened, you were automatically put above Shawn and me. Linda, the same thing happened. You pushed us down to raise you and Warren up. It was so subtle, so obvious to Shawn and I, yet completely unnoticed by you, Linda. Whenever that happens we lose the thing that makes us human. I also want to say that I am sad that Shawn is not part of our conversation.”

Linda and I listened intently. As Moshe spoke I felt heavy within the moments where his reflection revealed how my existence as a person with white skin operated to take away from him and others. There was this urge to interrupt, to try to explain away his feelings. It boiled beneath my surface. But, I tried with all my might to just listen. As I listened, I experienced this deep sense of awe. In the circle, as we dialogued and peeled back the layers of power and privilege I felt a stronger connection and compassion for my friend and a greater understanding of Linda. She was humble and vulnerable and truly trying to listen, and so were we.

Linda concluded that going forward she wanted to be more aware of how she could be affecting others, especially because she has been referring to her colleagues as boy and girl since she began working there. How our conversation unfolded, she asserted, lifted a weight from her because she understood why I reacted the way I did. But, it also added another weight, the weight of responsibility to rethink about other areas she may be unwittingly cultivating an environment of half-freedoms.

We hugged one another and thanked each other for the deep listening and learning we had just experienced. As Moshe and I walked out, Linda joked that she thought when we came back we would yell at her and make another scene. We joked that we thought security was about to escort us off the farm, to which she replied: “I promise you I thought about it.

What can be learned from this?

Why should we care about this event?

As ‘insignificant’ as Linda’s words may have sounded, or as well intentioned as they may have been, they still deeply impacted the conscious and subconscious environment of the space. There is nothing micro about microaggressions. Micro may describe the subtlety of delivery, but it inadequately characterizes the magnitude of its impact on human life. Microaggressions are prevalent across our society, have harmful medical and psychological effects on the human body, and reinforce systemic structures of inequality, inopportunity, and discrimination. To include microaggressions as part of the broader struggle against injustice is to enable a fuller, more fundamental transformation of our society to take place at the relational level.

Situations involving witnessing, or being victimized by microaggressions are prevalent across our communities and around the world. In universities, Blume et al. interviewed students of color at a predominantly White university in the United States and found that on average, each student experienced 291 microaggressions over 90 days (2012). In South African classrooms, Francis and Reygan (2016) interviewed 25 South African teachers who overwhelming framed their Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual and Transgender (LGBT) students in deficient and negative ways. Even adult and children’s clothing brands can be guilty of dehumanising others. In 2017, global retail giant H&M made headlines for portraying a young Black child wearing a hoodie for sale with the slogan: ‘coolest monkey in the jungle’.

Microaggressions are more than just hurtful statements. Chronic exposure to microaggressions leads to ‘micro-traumas’. Montenegro (2016) demonstrates that overtime, microaggressions lead to feelings of anger and anxiety which, over time, result in long term health effects and ‘micro-traumas.’ Cadinue et al., proposes that the adverse health effects of microaggressions included high blood pressure, depression, feelings of isolation, and decreasing problem solving ability (2005).

Microaggressions are a symptom of the broader intersecting system of oppression which operates at multiple levels in our society. While not operating at the same level as discriminatory events such as overt name calling, intentional blocking of opportunities based on an identity marker, or the deeper context of asset dispossession; the microaggression acts to maintain the existence of superiority of one group over another.

What could we have done differently?

Juxtaposing our confrontations with Sue’s (2010) framework for confronting microaggressions is useful to understand what we could have done differently. Sue suggests that the first step is to define microaggressions so that there is a shared understanding between the perpetrator and the victim. Then, Sue suggests that a process of recognizing the words, deconstructing their hidden meanings, and acknowledging their effects take place with the intention of taking action.

Our initial conflict began as a result of a framing and misunderstanding. I framed the conversation from the perspective of attack, rather than the perspective of learning. Our misunderstanding came from how we understood the word’ boy’ being used in this context. I and Moshe interpreted this word as a racialized slur. Linda understood the word as a term of endearment. It is at this juncture that the misunderstanding arose and led to the aggressive conflict.

When Moshe and I returned to dialogue with Linda, we unwittingly revisited the framework by ensuring Linda understood how the word ‘boy’ had led to the event. We shared how the word embodied a range of hidden meanings that triggered feelings of degradation. The power of our dialogue is the shared understanding of how using these words negatively impacts others and finally, how this understanding changes practice.



The above account describes two main microaggressive moments: Linda’s description of Shawn as a ‘little boy’, and our exclusion of Moshe from the conflict. By outlining the full sequence of events I attempted to demonstrate the complex nature of how the confrontation of microaggressions can play out. These events are centered on my experience and are open to multiple perspectives and interpretations. My hope is that through this event, and its subsequent analysis, a deeper and more nuanced understanding of how we arrive at moments of oppression shapes the outcome. While we need to act against injustice, we also need awareness of our strategies and tactics. As is the case in this situation, my actions regrettably led to diminishing the humanity of my closest friend and not fully serving to promote the interests of Shawn. Armed with these lessons, I will continue to confront oppressive practices and humbly align with all who work at the frontline of justice in our communities, countries, and the world.


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(1) Not the estate’s real name. I used pseudonyms to replace the names of locations and people’s names to protect their identity.

(2)See Peters (2016). “Womxn” isn’t a typo. I chose to use this label in order to encompass a broader range of gender identities other than only “woman” or womyn.” The x allows space for individuals who identify as transgender, genderfluid, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, or non-binary.

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