If you’ve been in any conversations about race, you’ve likely heard the term “microaggressions”. You may be wondering two things – what are they, and what is the big deal?
Microaggressions are small infractions that communicate a bias of some kind. They’re often unintentional or even subconscious and are not even clearly racially motivated. But they pass along small messages of racist concepts. (Microaggressions aren’t always race-related, either. People can use microaggressions related to gender, sexual orientation, ability/disability and more.)
To illuminate this idea, a few members of our Momentous staff shared examples of microaggressions that they personally have experienced, and what message that sent to them.
The most common question I get asked by strangers is “Where are you from?” When I tell them I was born and raised in Texas, they repeat the question, “No, I mean where are you from?” I usually respond with, “My family is from India and came here before I was born,” to which the usual response is, “Oh, I love India!” or something about wanting to visit or having visited.
The simple question of being asked where you are from indicates I’m not from this country and suggests I don’t belong here.
I always appreciate when people ask me about my childhood or my family, and prefer questions like, “I’m curious about your background, have you always lived in the states?” or “I’d love to know about your family.” This opens up the conversation to other life experiences that also influence who I am.
As a black woman, I am often mistaken as a salesperson in a store while shopping. It bothers me because it’s as if someone who looks like me couldn’t possibly be a psychologist at a nonprofit with a private practice on the side. I don’t mean any insult to those who do work there, but I don’t. And it shouldn’t be an assumption that I do.
I often get approached by people who assume I speak Chinese. They will just start talking to me in Chinese. Sometimes, they ask me where I’m from. I tell them the truth, which is that I I’m from California. They ask, “No, you know what I mean.” I say, “You mean what is my ancestry? My parents were born and raised in Taiwan.” Then, they will insist that I’m Chinese, as if they are the expert on my ancestry. I had one man so strongly insist that I was Chinese that he kept talking to me in Chinese.
One subtle microaggression I have experienced is when people have talked to me about situations in the news that are affecting my race. At a previous job, someone told me after President Obama was elected, “I’m so happy for you. I couldn’t help but think about what this must mean for you.” Well intended, but what if I had voted for John McCain? The assumption that anything about my race – regardless of whether we had talked about it or not – was meaningful to me felt like a subtle microaggression.
I was at a Starbucks in line. The barista and customers in front of me were all white. The barista was smiling and chatting with the customers. When it was my turn to order, she stopped smiling and did not once make eye contact with me. She took my order and, as is usual at Starbucks, asked for my name. I have a name which is quite common in the United States. Nonetheless, she spelled my name in a way that was hyphenated and appeared to be a name from a foreign country.
It bothers me when people touch my hair or ask me how I wash it. I wash my hair the same way you wash yours! In the shower. With shampoo.
So what’s the big deal with microaggressions? They’re just small comments, and they’re not even intentionally racist. Maybe people are being too sensitive. Maybe we should give people credit for trying their best and not nitpick everything they say. Right?
Not so fast.
Microaggressions – though small – are harmful. Imagine this scenario:
A student arrives at a new school on the first day. She is mixed race with long, curly black hair and a slight accent. She takes a seat in her first period class and the teacher begins to take roll. He stumbles over her name, which is difficult to pronounce, and the other students giggle. She corrects his pronunciation. He repeats the name a few times, and adds, “Well, I’ll have to work on that one!”
Next she entered her second period class where a similar experience occurs. In fact, it happens five out of seven classes on her first day.
At lunch she sits with a group of students who look somewhat like her. One girl asks, “Where are you from?” When she mentions the neighborhood, the girl says, “No. I mean WHERE are you FROM?” The student doesn’t know how to respond. She kind of mumbles and changes the subject, hoping no one will ask her any more questions.
In her history class, the teacher mentions that they’ll be choosing historical figures to research and share with the class. He provides a list of possible names, and while she’s reviewing the list he says, “You might be interested in Rosa Parks. She was a real hero of the Civil Rights movement.” The student doesn’t mention that her family not only isn’t African American, but also didn’t live in the U.S. during that time period. She just says, “Okay, thanks. I’ll think about it.”
By the end of the first day, she’s feeling drained. She’s tired of having to explain herself. When she’s with her family, she loves her culture and backgrounds, but at school she sometimes looks at the other students who seem to fit in so easily and wishes it was that easy for her.
Microaggressions are small, yes. But when piled on top of each other, they impact a person’s sense of self and their understanding of their own culture and race.
Microaggressions are often so small and subtle that we don’t realize we are doing them. But with awareness comes the opportunity for change. Being mindful of how even tiny exchanges can make a big difference allows us to approach these exchanges in a new way.