microaggression: n. “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” (sue et al., 2007)
in my mind, overt racism isn’t the biggest problem that people of color face today. the white supremacists, the neo-nazis — most people can recognize that they’re insane and disregard their extreme, outlandish claims. their words and actions, though incendiary, are easy to discount because they’re so ludicrous.
no, the biggest problem for me is the microaggressions — the tiny, everyday ways in which i am made to feel foreign, inferior, other. they happen all the time, often inflicted by well-meaning people who think that they’re being nice — or, at the very least, have no idea that what they’re saying is hurtful.
allow me to illustrate with an example.
a few summers ago, i was at my in-laws’ church in a medium-size midwestern city. that this city is 92% white is worth noting, though in my multiple visits up to this point, i had never heard anything even remotely negative directed at me. i was always hyperaware of my ethnic-ness, as i usually am in cities that have virtually no people of color, but i had been pleasantly surprised that no one had ever said anything to me about it.
we were approaching the building, where a greeter — a co-worker of my mother-in-law, she whispered to me — was shaking everyone’s hand and doing what greeters do on sunday mornings. “hello!” he said to each person who passed. “good morning!”
we joined the single-file line. “hello!” he said to my husband.
then came my turn. “konichiwa!” he said with a bright smile.
stunned, i limply shook his hand. i turned away from him in a daze. with each step i took, the same four-letter word resounded in my head: shit. shit. shit. shit. out of the corner of my eye, i could see my husband, having overheard this exchange, looking at me and wincing. my eyes were trained on the floor.
it always catches me by surprise. maybe i’m lucky that it does, that these microaggressions only happen once every few months instead of every day, to the point where i’m lulled, in between episodes, into forgetting that these things happen; into believing that i’m seen as just another person, just another american.
my shock wore off seconds later, but i was so paralyzed by conflicting emotions that my expression probably didn’t change.
first and foremost, there was the hurt. konichiwa. everyone else got a hello, a good morning — and i got a konichiwa. it may have seemed harmless on the surface, but the message being subtly communicated was this: you are not like everyone else; you are out of place; you are different. foreign. other.
you are not one of us.
and then, closely following that feeling, was the anger. anger at the assumption that because i have an asian face, i 1. am japanese (erroneous) and 2. do not speak english, or at least am more comfortable speaking an asian language (also erroneous). anger at the ignorance. anger that we’re in the 2010s and this still happens.
and then came the placating thoughts. i knew that this man meant well. i knew that he thought he was actually doing me a favor, that he was making an extra effort to connect with a person who, in his eyes, was a foreigner. he thought he was being nice. so to be angry at him, in this line of reasoning, just seemed harsh.
these sentiments — pain and anger on one hand, compassion for the ignorant person on the other — are enough to paralyze me. i can’t fully feel one because of the other, so i oscillate between them for long time. it used to be that the latter would win out — that i would let these comments slide without a word, because they weren’t meant to hurt me; they just had the unintended consequence of doing so.
but a few years ago, i started to question the legitimacy of that option. yes, the comments aren’t meant to be hurtful — but they are. and they leave me upset and resentful and angry, and if i don’t say anything, then those feelings just get internalized. in addition to the pain of the wound, i carry a host of bitter feelings.
and as horrible as these situations are, they provide an opportunity to educate. in this case, the man had no idea that what he said was hurtful. if i didn’t say anything, there could very well be another asian american down the road who could get wounded in the same way.
so i decided a while back that as uncomfortable as it is to confront them, i can’t let these things slide. i have to say something, no matter how well i know the person, no matter what the circumstance. because i owe it to myself to stand up for myself when i’ve been hurt. and i owe it to every asian american and person of color whom this person meets later to do what i can to keep them from incurring similar wounds. if i could have said something and didn’t, and someone gets hurt in the same way later, then i have colluded in their suffering.
the present situation was a tricky one. for one, i met the man that morning. and he was a coworker of my mother-in-law. as i sat in sunday school, pulled back and forth by my conflicting feelings, i briefly considered just letting it pass. it would make everything easier — for me, for him, for my mother-in-law. but i could not, for all of the reasons explained previously. i left the room for a moment to look for him in the halls; he was nowhere to be found. i returned to my seat in the class, considering what i might say to him if i were to see him afterwards.
the need to plan how to address the person who inflicted the microaggression — this is another thing that interferes with my right to simply feel hurt, to which i am fully entitled. in this instance, i had only a small window of opportunity to talk to this man, so it needed to be done quickly, and i had to put my still-cycling emotions away for a moment. i had to choose my words carefully, given that i didn’t know him, he worked with my mother-in-law, and i was pretty sure that he had no awareness of how his greeting was hurtful. i mulled over my words, reciting and re-reciting the schpiel in my head, knowing the whole time that i could very well not run into him and all of this memorization would be moot. i also made note of the fact that i would, later that day, have to explain this situation to my mother-in-law, lest this man comment to her at work that her daughter-in-law called him out and she have no idea what happened. but that speech would have to be mentally composed and memorized later.
after the sunday school class was over — it felt like it had been an interminably long time — i went out to the hall to look for him. i turned to my left, and lo and behold, he was the first person i saw.
i approached him hesitantly, because invariably, these conversations always are always terrible. always. a large percent of the time, the person starts apologizing immediately and profusely, giving you no space to fully explain yourself. there’s no room for you to be upset, because you have to contain them. sometimes they try to demonstrate that they aren’t racist, which can not only lead to more microaggressive statements but also put you in the position of having to absolve them. or, worst of all, there’s the possibility that they don’t understand anything you say and/or they think you’re overreacting, making you feel even more frustrated and misunderstood than you did before. all of these outcomes are well within the range of possibility. and yet you have to initiate the conversation anyway.
“excuse me,” i said to him delicately, heart pounding in my chest.
he turned to face me. “hi,” i continued. “i don’t know if you remember me, but i met you this morning outside, and you said ‘konichiwa’ to me, and –”
“are you japanese?” he said.
“no, i’m not,” i said, making my wince-y yeah, sorry face.
“oh, sorry,” he said with a shrug and a smile. “i thought you were japanese.”
clearly, i thought. “yeah, that’s the thing,” i said. “i’m not japanese. and i speak english. so the fact that you said that was kind of hurtful to me, because it made me feel like an outsider.”
“oh, sorry,” he said again. “i saw you, and it was the only oriental word i know.”
WHICH IS EXACTLY THE PROBLEM, i thought loudly in my head — not to mention the inappropriateness of the word “oriental,” not to mention that ASIANS DON’T ALL SPEAK THE SAME LANGUAGE. i had to keep this all inside, though, because it was becoming fairly clear to me that this man wasn’t really grasping what i was talking about.
“i know that you were trying to be nice — that you were trying to connect with me. but it actually made me feel alienated.”
“sorry,” he said yet again. “i was just trying to make you feel welcome.”
the conversation was clearly going nowhere, so i resignedly ended it as soon as i could. “right,” i said, lips pursed in a tense smile. “thanks for being receptive.” and i turned and walked away.
i walked down the stairs, out the front entrance, and promptly burst into tears. these conversations rarely make me feel better. there’s never catharsis — only more frustration. the mix of all of the morning’s emotions came gushing out in full force now that i had completed my mission, now that i didn’t have to keep anything memorized or to keep myself together. i felt bad for making this man feel bad when he had only the best intentions. i felt angry that he had only the vaguest idea of why i was upset. i felt frustrated that these concepts — of otherness, of being made to feel foreign — are so difficult to explain or to understand unless you’ve experienced them yourself.
yet this is exactly what i had to do. i felt a need to explain to my husband, who was hugging me and stroking my hair, why i was sobbing when i’d done exactly what i wanted to do. my husband is one of the people most attuned to issues of oppression and injustice that i’ve ever met, yet he could not fully understand what i was experiencing. later, i had to have a similar conversation with my mother-in-law. my mother-in-law is very cultured and well-traveled — she lived in cuba for several years as a child, and she and my father-in-law have spent extensive time in france and belgium — but, she confessed, she did not entirely understand the impact that this incident had on me. she was very sympathetic and she listened patiently as i tried to articulate highly abstract, emotionally-laden concepts that she has never experienced herself, and for that i was extremely grateful. but neither of them, at their core, really got it, and because of this, i felt alone.
one microaggression started a cyclone. the conversation following it only made it worse — i was left even more frustrated than before. but i can’t not have these conversations. as gut-wrenching as they are, i cannot allow the moment to pass without bringing it to the other person’s awareness, because they need to know that those kinds of comments are hurtful. they say them because they don’t know, and they need to know. i need to do this for the other asian americans, for the other people of color they may encounter in the future.
should this man even think twice about saying “konichiwa” to the next asian american person who shows up on sunday morning, then our conversation wasn’t fruitless.
people who greet you with “konichiwa” at church, at the gas station, in the target parking lot. (which is actually a step up from gibberish meant to mimic chinese, something that’s been yelled at me on multiple occasions.)
questions like “what’s your real name?” from well-intended neighbors who simply can’t believe that your legal birth name might be elizabeth (which, for the record, it is).
comments like “you’re not like other asians — you’re cool and outgoing!” which are meant to be compliments, but essentially demean your entire people group. (this comment has infinite variations: “you’re not like other black people — you’re educated and hard-working!” and so on and so forth.)
statements like “i don’t think of myself as white. i think of myself as clear.” which are meant to sound open-minded, but really expose the privilege inherent in being white: not having to be reminded of your ethnicity on a regular basis and not having to consider the implications of your race on your daily existence, because your race is “normal.”
these are microaggressions — the insidious, everyday comments that subtly convey to minorities that they are different. inferior. other. these are my biggest problem as a person of color.