For some of you who don’t know what “microaggression” is, it is a term that means to describe something along the lines of “unintended discrimination.” In other words, it is a behavior that, while the perpetrator might not have been conscious of, it has the lasting effects of intended discrimination on the victim.
Microaggression happens in all sorts of situations, such as race, gender, sexuality, mental illness, and so forth. But today, I will be specifically focusing on racial microaggression, just because, as an Asian-American woman, I have experienced many instances throughout my life that I would classify as microaggression. It’s something that continues to trouble me, and so I would like to share my personal experiences as means of making aware that this is an issue in an otherwise predominantly Caucasian society, let alone a West-oriented world.
Disclaimer: My intent for this post is NOT to lambaste white people as being the only perpetrators of microaggression. Simply put, I am demonstrating the problems that come with being unconscious of racism, whether white or not. I admit that I have been a microaggressor in the past, and I am sure that we can all attest to that at some point in our lives. None of us are completely guilt-free from microaggression, and so the purpose of this post is not to call any specific demographic out, but rather, again, just make cognizant the issues of being microaggressive.
1. “Getting sick of eating chow mein?”
About two years ago, I was going out to lunch with my mom at Olive Garden (for those of you who don’t know, it’s an Italian restaurant). As we were walking in, a man outside of the restaurant called out, “Hi, you folks out for lunch?” We responded with “yes.” He then proceeded to say, “Huh. Getting sick of eating chow mein?”
Whoa, there. I was immediately thrown off, and my thoughts quickly turned to anger. My mom probably was surprised as well, but she took it well, turning his comment into a joke, “Oh, no. I actually don’t like chow mein that much.” The incident happened all in a matter of seconds, but it quickly soured my spirits for the rest of the lunch date. And to this day, I still remember it.
Because really, it’s arbitrary to call out someone’s race with a so-called “stereotypical” Asian dish that has been heavily Americanized. True, chow mein is a dish that exists in China, but it’s also a diaspora: meaning, it has been so modified, even bastardized, in American culture that the dish itself has become so…white-washed (it’s really bad, but I couldn’t think of another way of phrasing it). It’s like how non-Chinese people call us out for being “rice-eaters” and saying that they enjoy fortune cookies (which are NOT Chinese, by the way). Food is something that’s dear to me, as well as for others who use it as part of defining their Asian-American identity. For someone outside of that to water it down to stereotypes just trivializes all of that, well, that just pisses me off.
2. “Where are you from?”
I’ve already touched on this question/topic many times in previous posts (here and also here). I won’t go into too much detail with those, except just to say that not only do I get asked this question in my home country (the good ol’ US of A), but also abroad.
One incident, however, that I haven’t told you about that involved this very same question happened about a month or two ago. I had an internship interview for this food-travel company, and so I had my answers prepared for the occasion. My interview, though, was…kind of strange. Mainly, it was due to my interviewer, who I had been in contact with before meeting face-to-face. She was definitely a bit eccentric- friendly, but unsettling so: I definitely got a weird vibe from her. Of course, she asked the typical questions about my experiences in editorial work and available works I’m willing to work and so forth. But one that definitely surprised me was the question, “If I may ask, where are you from? I think I detect a trace of an accent somewhere, but wasn’t quite sure what it was.”
Again, whoa, there. Initially, I didn’t interpret the question as racist, but rather a matter of geographic location, in America. I just responded that I grew up in the area, born and bred here all of my life. But went I relayed this to my apartment mates after I returned, they were pretty suspicious. One of them even asked, “Isn’t that kind of…racist?” I admit, now reflecting back on it, the interviewer’s question could have been interpreted as such. Even if it wasn’t the case, it was such a random question to ask for an interview. Still wrapping my head around it.
Like, really: asking a person of color where they are “from” (and not necessarily where he/she was born and raised) does not carry the same connotation as asking a white individual where he/she is from. They would say something like, “Oh, I am from New York” or “I am from Provence in France,” but those are all grounded in locality, not ancestral origins. The same question won’t have the same impact on them: while they see it as distinctive pride (e.g. to be a New Yorker, to be French), we see it as something that we have to defend ourselves with. Even shame, for that matter.
P.S.: I decided to turn down the company’s offer, but for other, non-racial reasons. I knew that it wasn’t going to work out for me. Good riddance.
3. “What languages do you speak?”
Another story: a few weeks ago, I was at the beach with some of my colleagues from one of my school’s organizations (which you can find here). We went to the aquarium to ask for directions to go somewhere along the strand, and we were talking to one of the workers at the site. He noticed that we were college students and said that he happened to be an alumnus of our school, and all of that good stuff. The conversation was going well until, suddenly, he asked us, “So what languages do you speak?” Let me say that the three of us, including me, were of color: one Vietnamese-American, one Indian, and Chinese-American. My Vietnamese-American colleague took the question well, saying that he speaks Vietnamese and English and all of that.
Although it was such a minor incident, the man’s question just triggered me and I just walked out on the conversation. I stepped outside and waited for the other two to finish talking to the man. I told them afterwards that I just didn’t like the fact that he pulled the “race card” on us, especially since it was so irrelevant to what we were originally talking about. I know that he was interested in the fact that we were “not white,” but still, would this same situation apply if it were reversed? Would the man (who was Caucasian, by the way) feel the same sense of shock if we were to ask which languages he spoke? Probably not.
While I wouldn’t say that that episode ruined the rest of the day at the beach, it’s something that I still remember, and what had triggered me to write this post in the first place.
Really, microaggressions are so small and subtle, you can easily miss them. I had that problem growing up, because I didn’t know about them. It wasn’t until I was older and in college that my awareness for them surfaced.
As you can see, I have strong opinions about this topic, and I just wanted to get it off of my chest. I know that this post, along with the last one, weren’t very happy topics to read about, but I hope you got something out of them. I’m thinking about writing another “microaggression” post on sexuality sometime in the future, since it’s something else that is dear to me.
In any case, thank you for reading up to this point. You are all amazing people, and I wish you a good day.
– The Finicky Cynic