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Professor: Term ‘low-hanging fruit’ is a microaggression because it reminds blacks of lynching

The official definition of the term low-hanging fruit is “a thing or person that can be won, obtained, or persuaded with little effort,” according to the Oxford dictionary.

But according to one business professor, it’s a racial microaggression.

“For African-Americans, if you say ‘low-hanging fruit,’ we think lynching,” said Mae Hicks-Jones, an adjunct faculty member of Elgin Community College.

The scholar and consultant’s reasoning was that the term reminds her and other people of color of Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit.” In the song, released in the 1950s, Holiday compares the bodies of lynching victims to fruit hanging from trees.

Hicks-Jones made the comments during an online discussion hosted Thursday by the college’s Multicultural and Global Initiatives Committee, or MAGIC.

Hicks-Jones, along with other members of the Elgin community, shared “examples of implicit biases and microaggressions, which happen in our communities,” the college’s Facebook event page states.

The title of the event was “Black Lives Matter: Being ‘Not Racist’ is NOT enough!”

Also objectionable to Hicks-Jones was the phrase “grandfathered in,” because she said it is reminiscent of a grandfather clause, which privileged white people’s right to vote over that of black people during the Jim Crow South.

She called for institutions to require diversity and inclusion training in order to discourage the use of such phrases.

Not seeing a person’s skin color is also a microaggression, according to Toya Webb, chief marketing and communications officer of the college.

“[White] people really are trying to connect with people of color by saying to them, ‘When I look at you, I don’t see race,’” Webb said.

She said she believes people making these remarks do so with good intentions.

“But at the same time,” Webb continued, “for the person on the receiving end of this comment, they feel that you are denying their heritage, you’re denying everything about them.”

Webb defined microaggressions as “brief and everyday slights, insults and denigrating messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated.”

Specifically, color blindness and believing that “we are all one race, the human race” are microinvalidations, because they invalidate the experiences of people of color, she said.

When Webb was finished, the moderators played a clip from Ibram X. Kendi, author of “How to Be an Antiracist.”

“One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an anti-racist,” Kendi writes in his book.

“When people are charged with saying and doing something racist,” Kendi said in the video clip, “their response is: ‘I’m not racist.’” According to Kendi, the mantra of “not racist” has been employed by eugenicists, segregationists and white nationalists.

Later, the panel welcomed Elgin English Professor Ryan Kerr, who recounted his experience while teaching at South Suburban College, which he said had a student body that was 60 percent black.

He made clear his dissatisfaction with policies which compelled him to have strict deadlines, require typed work, and be firm with students.

“I think it’s also important to think about the idea of anti-blackness in particular because I really do think that’s what the ideology was at the core of this training,” he said.

While he said he did not believe his department chair was a racist for having these policies, he did say that they had a “racist impact.”

References to Robin DiAngelo’s book, “White Fragility,” abounded in the presentations from the final two speakers.

The penultimate, science teacher Deb McMullen, positively summarized the work, saying, “That book basically says that we’re all racist–people that look like me–we’re all racist, and that was really hard for me.”

“I finally realized that privilege takes nothing from me, and there’s no need to be defensive about it…it just means that, as hard as I’ve had to work, my friends and neighbors who are black and brown have had to work harder.”

Liddy Hope, director of Elgin Community College’s Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning, closed the conversation with her prescriptions for white people to tackle their privilege.

She called on white people to “unpack your ethnocentrism,” or “unpack your whiteness,” as DiAngelo calls it.

She described an exercise she makes students do in her sociology class to share their culture with one another. According to Hope, her caucasian students often object by saying, “I don’t have culture; I’m white.”

“My mind blew up as a sociologist, but I really had to unpack that because what that really is saying is: ‘My whiteness is so prevalent, I can’t even see it.’”

Her solution, as well as DiAngelo’s, is for white people to engage with other cultures and people of other races, as well as reading books by black authors.

Thursday’s session was the last of three MAGIC panels on the subject of Black Lives Matter issues.

MORE: ‘Microaggressions’ professor: ‘Not everything is a microaggression’

IMAGE: Arloo / Shutterstock

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About the Author
Charles Hilu -- University of Michigan