Illustration by June Le of a woman in 'Little Fires Everywhere' over an upside down home
'Little Fires Everywhere' doesn't shy away from the uncomfortable conversations surrounding race. (Illustration by June Le, Minneapolis College of Art and Design)

‘Little Fires Everywhere’ Shows the Harm in Microaggressions

The Hulu miniseries uses everyday scenes to take on an all too persistent problem in the fight for racial equality.

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Illustration by June Le of a woman in 'Little Fires Everywhere' over an upside down home

The Hulu miniseries uses everyday scenes to take on an all too persistent problem in the fight for racial equality.

In April, Hulu released the final episode of the miniseries “Little Fires Everywhere.” The American drama miniseries is an adaptation of the Celeste Ng novel of the same name, following two families in Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland, during the late 1990s. Undoubtedly, Ng uses both families as a tool to uncover toxicity in their respective family units.

Elena (played by Reese Witherspoon) is the matriarch of the Richardson family, made up of herself, her husband and their four teenage children: Trip, Lexie, Moody and Izzy. The other family is composed of Mia Warren (played by Kerry Washington) and her daughter, Pearl.

At the start of the show, Elena sees Mia and Pearl sleeping in a car. She then calls the police, believing the two to be suspicious characters. This is the first of many instances where “Little Fires Everywhere” showcases examples of racially motivated microaggressions.

Mia’s race was one of the major changes between Ng’s novel and the miniseries. In the novel, Ng purposely left Mia racially ambiguous. In an interview about the cast of the Hulu series, Ng commented, “I’m especially looking forward to seeing Kerry bring Mia to life as a Black woman; I’d wanted to do that in the novel, but didn’t feel I was the right person to do that. Kerry is, though.”

By using a Black woman to play Mia, the already dynamic story added another layer to the existing commentary on class differences. While there are many avenues that I could take regarding the series, I want to focus on how the show depicts microaggressions aimed at Mia, as well as other Black characters.

What Is a Microaggression?

The man who coined the term, Dr. Chester Pierce, defined a “microaggression” as “subtle insults (verbal, nonverbal, and/or visual) directed toward people of color, often automatically or unconsciously.” More times than not, those guilty of microaggressions aren’t even aware that they are perpetuating racism.

Ng importantly sets “Little Fires Everywhere” in white suburbia to help explain microaggressions in daily life.

Suburbs became popular in the post-WWII era and include a not-so-subtle racial “sameness” that dominates communities.

Initially, and even today, homeowners were heavily discouraged from selling property to Black and other minority families looking to buy a house in suburban areas. Prospective nonwhite homeowners often faced violence and intimidation.

Elena is one of the worst and most obvious offenders in “Little Fires Everywhere.” She consistently makes racial microaggressions in her comments toward Black characters in the show, and is thus the embodiment of what it means to grow up in a racist, suburban environment.

What Does ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ Teach Us About Microinsults?

Microinsults are a form of microaggression. The subtle snubs are rude, insensitive, and demean a person’s racial identity or heritage. Usually coming in the form of a verbal comment, microinsults seem to be done unconsciously by the offender.

In the scene mentioned above, Elena calls the police on Mia sleeping in her car, and explains, “I never normally do something like this, but I would hate to not say something and then have something bad happen.” Later in the phone conversation, Elena qualifies the mysterious car by saying “It looked as though there was a woman living in there. African American, I think.”

Mentioning Mia’s race while also insinuating some sort of deviant activity is an example of a microaggression called an “assumption of criminal status.” The arguments for suburban segregation are often rooted in the biased link between race, specifically Blackness, and criminal activity.

Later in the first episode of “Little Fires Everywhere,” Elena offers Mia a job in her home. She says, “I’ve been meaning to hire someone for my house, um, to do a little light cleaning, some laundry, maybe cook dinner.” Mia replies, “You mean, like, to be your maid.” Elena quickly adjusts to say, “More like a housekeeper.”

The exchange between Elena and Mia highlights another form of microinsult known as “second class citizenship” in which a person is seen as lesser because of their racial identity. In their exchange, Elena is automatically assuming superiority over Mia by suggesting that people of color are servants, or housekeepers, to whites.

On the surface, Elena’s suggestion may seem almost like an innocent mistake, but it actually has deep roots in American history. The act of automatically casting a Black woman in a service role is just one of the many scars left over from American slavery that perpetuates the myth of white supremacy.

What About Elena Richardson and Microinvalidation?

Like microinsults, microinvalidation is a form of verbal, unconscious microaggression.

One of Elena’s major forms of microinvalidation is the “denial of individual racism,” in which a person fails to recognize their own role in perpetuating racism.

In one scene at the dinner table, the Richardsons are joined by Pearl. The eldest Richardson daughter, Lexie, is dating a young Black man named Brian. At the dinner, Lexie asks Pearl about college. She claims, “Well, with all this affirmative action stuff, you’ll be a shoo-in practically anywhere.” When one of Lexie’s brothers shoots her a look, Lexie defends herself and says, “It’s what Brian always says.”

Instead of acknowledging Lexie’s racist comment, Elena validates her by informing Pearl,  “That’s her boyfriend. He’s African American” while smiling pleasantly. Rather than arguing against the implied meaning of Lexie’s statement, that Pearl wouldn’t get into college on merit alone, Elena backs up her daughter.

Elena makes the assumption that, because Lexie has a black boyfriend, she cannot possibly be racist, right?

Later, both Pearl and Brian are eating dinner with the family when Elena recounts her memories of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Elena again denies her own inherent racism, while pointedly saying the words “African American” and looking directly at Brian.

Elena’s constant denial of her own racism is also a denial of greater institutional oppression.

The Importance of Knowing How Microaggressions Work

“Little Fires Everywhere” does an excellent job of displaying how racism is perpetuated in everyday life. Reese Witherspoon’s portrayal of Elena demonstrates how the people who allow racism to continue are not only men wielding torches, angry NASCAR drivers or police officers who kill innocent civilians. Racism is mainly perpetuated by white people who refuse to acknowledge their role in upholding it through microaggressions. The person committing the microaggression may not even be aware of it, which allows for even more harmful acts to slip through the cracks. This is especially true in times of extreme change.

The only way to fight back against these forms of racism is self-reflection and consideration. Only then can the system be dismantled.

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