“Microaggressions cut deep at the emotional level of how we think about ourselves” - Mo Abdullah
If you've read my previous entries, you'll know how important I think language is and how big of an impact that it makes.
What we say really does matter.
So today we're tackling to super fun and lighthearted topic of microaggressions
What is a microaggression?
A microaggression is a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority.
Basically they're small comments made here and there that generally don't have malintent. But since most microaggressions happen on a fairly regular basis, many times without us even knowing, they can make a pretty major impact over time. When things are said to us over and over and over again, we start to believe them.
I mean, that's like literally what gaslighting is, and I think we all know how well that works.
You're told something over and over and over again until you start to question it. But the danger with microaggressions is that they're so small that it's hard to clock when it's even happening.
Some examples include:
Commenting on how certain foods smell and like making, you know, scrunching nose and making a face. I've heard this story told over and over again from first generation immigrant kids at school
When people don't take the time to learn a name that is unfamiliar to them- I have certainly been guilty of that before
Telling someone who's gay about some other gay person
The phrase "boys will be boys" as an excuse for certain behaviors. And this happens for children as well as grown ass men, for instance when it comes to emotions or behavior in dating and communicating, etc. Boys and men should be held to the same standard as everybody else. Okay?
Putting female as a label before something like a female chef or a female president, Like chef and president are owned by men and you have to like explicitly say when it's a woman, she's a chef, period.
Commenting on a woman's appearance
The list goes on and on and on.
And this is a massive topic, but what I want to speak about today is really one specific microaggression that I experience extremely regularly when I travel.
It's something that I didn't use to understand or really have the language to put into words as to how and why it made me feel so weird and gross and uncomfortable. But as I'm learning about microaggressions, I've had some time to think about it and have tried to have conversations about it - with varying degrees of success.
So, where are you from?
As you probably know, the number one question that everybody asks each other when they travel is, "Where are you from?"
I've had hours and hours of conversations with people before we even realized that we don't even know each other's names. It's a really good conversation starter and it can be really important insight into who a person is.
When I'm asked where I'm from, I respond with the United States or the Chicago area. In theory, the other party responds with something they know or that they love about it and we connect over it. But often times what happens instead is a follow up question of "but where are you really from?" or "Where are your parents from?" or "But your face is Asian..." That's not a joke. Like multiple people have said that to me. Although to be fair, nobody whose English is their first language has ever said that.
In cases like that, I think it's more of not knowing how to like eloquently ask what they're trying to ask (although it IS the most honest and direct). But - spoiler alert, there is no good way to ask.
What they're really doing is implying that they're not satisfied with my answer. It's not the answer that they expected based on my face. And so they've gotta get to the bottom of it to show that they were in fact, correct. And it is so exhausting to have to convince somebody that you are who you say you are or to have to explain my entire fucking backstory so they can get the satisfaction of knowing their assumption on some level was correct.
I don't owe you that. I do not owe you an explanation.
If you eventually get it out of me that my heritage is Korean. Sometimes people will start talking to me about Korea or talking to me like in Korean.
But I have nothing to contribute to that conversation. I can't talk to you about that. I know either the same or probably less than you do about Korea.
And it's not like I'm keeping a secret. This is not like sensitive information or anything.
I was born in Korea and, yes, let me stop you right there - South Korea. Side note, can we also stop making jokes about North Korea? Okay, thanks. Anyway, I was born in South Korea and was adopted and came over to the States when I was four months old. My name is Katherine Elizabeth Johnson. and it doesn't really get much whiter than that. I was raised by a white family in a white community in the Midwestern United States.
And look, you and I are friends now, reader. So you know my story and when I meet people and develop a relationship with them, that part of my story eventually comes up. But I shouldn't have to explain my entire birth story to people to like qualify myself.
And I'm not saying that the thought doesn't also cross my mind sometimes.
I love talking cultures and countries and languages. And so yeah, if I meet a person of color, I do wonder what their background is. But if I ask where they're from and they tell me that they're from Jersey, then that's where they're from. Maybe later it'll come up in conversation but until they, they're from Jersey.
To quote, one of the greatest movies ever, "Oh my God, Karen, you can't just ask people why they're white!"
So why do we think it's okay to ask non-white people why they are they way that they are?
We've just decided that white is the norm for the United States. People never go around asking white people where their parents are from or where their grandparents are from, as if white people didn't also immigrate to the United States.
When I get this question, I still struggle with how to respond.
If people ask me where my parents are from, I respond with "Chicago area".
"Okay, okay, okay, but where are like your grandparents from?"
"Yeah, Chicago area."
"Okay, but what about your great grandparents or whatever"
"Oh, well, my dad's side is part like Swedish and Norwegian. My mom's side I think is German and English."
And they get really confused. And I just let them be confused. And that's fun.
If they phrase it like, "Where are you really from?" sometimes I get the courage, to ask, "would you ask a white person that?" And I've generally found this to be well received. It either opens up a good conversation or they immediately understand the mistake they've made and we like move on.
A few times I've had a conversation with somebody who's gotten really defensive and they don't get it. And that's okay. At least I tried (this is a conclusion I come to much later... it's much harder to believe that in the moment....).
But I've only mustered up the courage to do that in a setting of my peers at bar or hostel after we've been talking for a little while. There are still plenty of times (honestly the majority of times) that I don't say anything and I just give them the answer they're looking for. And I do end up walking away from those conversations wishing I had said something.
But what it really boils down to is that I didn't feel comfortable, making them feel uncomfortable.
How Can You Help?
And so what do we do? How can we be helpful, not just in this conversation, but in larger conversations as a whole? For me, I try to think about whether or not I would ask somebody from a different group of people the same question.
So if you wouldn't ask a white person, don't ask me. If you wouldn't ask a man the size of his dick, you probably shouldn't ask about my bra size. I know people don't really do that anymore, but I feel like that wasn't like, so out of the norm like 10 to 20 years ago.
If you wouldn't ask a straight couple who likes it on the top or the bottom, then like, don't ask a gay couple that.
If you wouldn't touch a man on his lower back while passing behind them, Then don't touch my lower back while passing behind me.
Does this apply to everything? I don't know, but it's a pretty good place to start. So far, every time I've done this exercise, it has applied
And it's hard! A lot of this stuff is really normalized. Things that have been said to me or that have been happening to me my entire life I'm just now realizing they're completely and utterly inappropriate.
And same goes for some things that I've done and said to other people.
If you see this happening around you, feel free to jump into the conversation or be the one to call it out.
So, while microaggressions don't usually have malintent, they're subtly (or not so subtly) reinforcing toxic and sometimes dangerous narratives and norms and they really do make a big difference.
When you ask someone where they're from, believe them. Don't make them tell you their whole life story.
Be brave. Speak up, speak out. This is something that I need to work on a lot, both as the person who is asking the questions and the person who is being asked questions.
If you've got a question, take a minute. Decide whether or not this is an appropriate question. Would you ask a man this? A straight person? A white person? A cisgendered person? Insert whomever.
We're definitely going to get it wrong. And probably way more than we're going to get it right. There is so much stuff that is already so normalized that we don't even think twice about. So give yourself and give everyone else some grace.
It's with these conversations that slowly but surely, things start moving the needle.
The question I'm leaving you with today is, "What is a phrase, a saying, a comment, anything that is common that you, you've experienced or that you've heard on a regular basis that sends, that subtly, sends the wrong message?"
For me, for example, I've decided that I don't really wanna say "girl talk" anymore. I feel like it minimizes the conversations that women have. It makes it sound like the conversations that women are having amongst themselves are silly or unimportant. Girl talk can be about boys. Girl talk can be about girls. Girl talk can be about politics, about foreign policy, about microaggressions. They can mean about anything.
Let's just talk.
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