Now imagine that you also happen to be Asian.
This is just one of such slights I have experienced in the United States. I’ve been told that I speak "really good English for an international student"—so much so that I write “like an American.” Others have told me to my face that that they assume I don’t know the meaning of words like “cardinal” because I’m not from the U.S.
Most times, I don’t get mad anymore — it’s impossible to get properly angry when it happens multiple times a week, when the next thoughtless remark could even come from people with whom you’re friendly. It’s hard to get outraged when all I really want to feel is uncertainty and hurt and alienation. Most of all, it’s impossible to feel angry because I don’t know how to respond to situations like these.
Psychological research has gone into exploring racial microaggressions, which are brief, derogatory messages signalled verbally or through body language to people of color. These can be anything from asking a colored person how they landed their job to preventing one’s children from dating outside one’s race.
The tricky thing about microaggressions is that they are unconscious manifestations of biases people may not even realize they harbor. According to Drs. Derald Wing Sue and David Rivera in Psychology Today, it’s hard to get people to realize they might be perpetuating microaggressions because of three reasons: they consciously see themselves as open-minded and unbiased, they do not even know they are biased and they feel that recognizing that they possess such racial biases would taint their self-perceptions as “good moral human beings.”
This explains why it’s so hard for me to tell someone to their face when I’m not happy about their throwaway remark. If people genuinely believe they aren't doing any wrong, why pick a fight that you’re not likely to win, and burn bridges in the process?
Sometimes I just try to appreciate the sentiment behind the words and remain open-minded, all the while feeling a little awkward inside, but then hate myself for not saying something afterwards - for letting fear of speaking up hold me back. After all, these moments can be so subtle that I’d likely be told that I’m being overly sensitive, as some friends have suggested, even though to me, the hurt is real. According to Drs. Sue and Rivera, “the person of color is left to question what happened” in an endless game of guesswork, wondering if they’re being “’paranoid” or “overimaginative” or whether they are the legitimate victims of an insult, however, unintended.
I'm not pointing the finger of blame at any specific community - the point Drs. Sue and Rivera are making is that microaggressions can be perpetuated by anyone. Rather, I believe that we're all still on a trajectory of personal growth, we're making the odd misstep as we mature, but we can't brush it off as "inevitable." We can't just leave it up to the university's grand policies to solve "diversity issues."
We can engage in more introspection about the way we interact on a daily basis with others. That involves confronting the reality that whether you're white or Latino, straight or gay, male or female or otherwise, you could potentially say something unintentionally hurtful. And seeing that not as something to be condemned, but as something we can reflect and improve upon - is part of the learning process we're all going through in college.