"But I don't think of you as Asian!" Microaggressions in everyday life
February 10, 2017
While I was desperately trying to put together an intriguing research proposal that would sound like I am an intersectionality pro (which I am not), I came across an interesting concept called microaggressions. The term struck me as a little peculiar but when I read up about it, I had one of my OMG-what-I-experience-actually-has-a-name-and-others-go-through-exactly-the-same moments. What I feel in these moments is some sort of positively painful realisation that there are many people out there sharing a very similar experience, that this experience actually is a thing and that it may even have a name! It's very powerful. There are difficult and painful experiences and moments that I've been going through over and, felt alone and helpless, blamed myself, maybe didn’t even notice anymore when it happened because we grew so accustomed to it. And then this sudden revelation feels like a heavy load that I wasn’t even aware I was carrying, has been lifted off my shoulders.
So when I skimmed through the article about microaggressions (1), one section in particular caught my attention. It was a list of quotes that black people in the US commonly hear. Although the reality of black people in the US is obviously entirely different from my own (2), I felt shaken when I read that list. Because I recognised many of them!
If I’d make my own list, it would be verrrry long and the following phrased would be definitely on it:
“When I talk about immigrants and people with migration background (3), I really don’t talk about you.”
“I don’t see you as an Asian.”
“But you’re totally German, of course!”
“But you speak without an accent.”
“Where did you learn your excellent German?”
“How come you have such a German name?” (And, if they are really insensitive: “I would have expected you`re called something like [make up a stupid, cliché “Asian”-sounding name]! Haha!”)
“This is your brother?? No way!!! How’s that possible??!?!” (Adoption, douchebag!)
And the classic: “Where are you from? Germany? Oh but I mean where are you really from? Like, your roots?”
In their 1978 study on racism in TV commercials, Pierce et al. describe microaggressions as “subtle, stunning often automatic, and non-verbal exchanges which are ‘put downs’ of blacks by offenders. The offensive mechanisms used against blacks often are innocuous. The cumulative weight of their never-ending burden is the major ingredient in black-white interactions.” (1).
The article I came across extends the concept to rhetorical microaggressions and exemplifies that by the above mentioned list of statements and questions.
I personally cannot label anyone as racist because they say things like that when talking to me (except for the ones who rant on about criminal, dangerous immigrants and then are like `Oh but you are different, obviously!´).
What makes it so difficult to deal with rhetorical microaggressions is that they fall under the category of unconcious racism (4). So in my case, it’s not the sort of thing people say with the intention to make me feel bad and inferior. Quite the contrary, I think most people use these phrases to say something nice, to say something personal, to show interest in me. (And some just because they somehow haven’t arrived in the 21st century yet where a person can have more complex identities than the ones they know.) And what's more: Of course these things are most likely to be said in the beginning of a conversation, when you’ve just met or been introduced, so are you gonna interrupt the other person and start lecturing them about microaggressions and what’s appropriate and what not, and how they just hurt your feelings? No, of course you won’t!
Because you’re a polite individual and you know the other person just tries to be nice and that pointing it out in any way would make everyone feel very awkward and uncomfortable. And in the end, you would be the one made responsible for ruining the conversation, not them for having said something stupid in the first place.
Because in most cases, you don’t really give a fuck about that other person as the small talk will be over in 2 minutes and you never gonna see them again. Confronting them would require so much more energy than just ignore your feelings.
Because you’re so used to these interactions that they’ve become a totally normal part of a conversation and you end up blaming yourself for reacting over-sensitive.
Because you may feel so hurt and invaded and disrespected that you have to cope with these feelings internally and don’t have any spare energy to confront the other person.
I think the biggest problem for me is that in the end, all these comments point at the fact that I am different, again and again and again. Even when they state that I am in fact not any different. Because pointing that out is making a point in and by itself. Some of you may think now "But.. hang on. She doesn't want to hear that she is different. But she also doesn't want to hear that she is not any different!? So you can't make it right, no matter what you say!" And you know what? I don't say that all of it makes sense. That my reaction, my feelings, my thoughts always make sense. But do they have to? Life is messy, identities are fluid and situational. Sometimes, I hear things from strangers and it doesn't affect me at all. Then I hear more or less the same thing from friends and it really hurts. Sometimes it's the other way round.
I think that if I could give an advice, I would say: just don't make statements about other peoples' identity or appearance - unless you're explicitly asked for your opinion. Swallow you're surprise when you meet someone who doesn't fit into any of your exisiting categories of race or gender or identity. Wait until you get to know the person and then, if you're curious, carefully approach the topic. Oftentimes, once you engage in a longer conversation, some of your questions are answered incidentally. Just know that for many people, questions about origin, roots, and identity are deeply personal and can be emotionally loaded. Of coursmie, there are individuals who don't have any issue with speaking about themselves openly and are happy to answer all your questions. Open your heart and open your mind and you will feel if what you say makes the other person uncomfortable or not.
Sometimes I have to remind me of that myself, believe me! And I am sure you'll be amused to hear that every once in a while, I totally fuck it up and ask exactly the same annyoing questions that I hate so much myself.
In another article, Pierce writes that Blacks "must be taught to recognize these microaggressions and construct [their own] future by taking appropriate action at each instance of recognition." (5) So this is something that I will work on. If someone doesn't know that they are being racist because it's unconscious, then someone has to point it out to them. And I guess I am one of those someones. I don't know how yet and the mere thought of it makes me feel anxious. But I will read (and think) into it, try different strategies, and tell you about how it went.
P.S. Check out this great photography project that documents more examples of microaggressions experienced by young people in the US.
(1) Pierce, C. (et al.) (1978): "An experiment in racism: TV commercials." In C. Pierce (Ed.), Television and education, pp. 62-88. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
(2) I know only in theory about black lives in the US, so by no means I intend to simply apply concepts that grasp the complexity of their reality to my own. I think, however, that most critical theory on race and gender originates in the works of people of colour from the US, and that there is lots of potential to draw on these theories when writing about issues of race and gender in a European context.
(3) In Germany, the not-so-nice-but-still-very-common word for immigrants is “Ausländer” which directly translated means “outlander”, and the sort of more politically correct term “Menschen mit Migrationshintergrund” which I translated here as "people with migration background"
(4) cf. Lawrence, Charles (1987): "The Id, the ego, and equal protection: Reckoning with unconscious racism". In: Stanford Law Review, 39, pp. 317-388
(5) Pierce, C. (1974): "Psychiatric problems of the Black minority." In: S. Arieti (Ed.): American Handbook of Psychiatry, pp.512-523. New York: Basic Books