When people think of racism, they often think of the obvious examples: Slavery. Segregation. Klan rallies. Big-ticket racism, if you will. Pretty much everyone can agree that these things are racist, and pretty much everyone can agree that these things happen less often than they used to, at least in this country. After all, it’s no longer legal or socially acceptable, say, to make a black person move to the back of a bus or to deny someone a room at a hotel because they’re Chinese. The fact that big-ticket racism has significantly declined in the last 60 years — a good thing, I think — is a big reason why some people think that racism is no longer a problem in this country.
However, there’s another, subtler kind of racism that happens on a daily basis, quietly but clearly communicating to people of color that they’re foreign, inferior, other. These incidents happen all the time, often inflicted by well-meaning people who have no idea that they’re being hurtful. These are microaggressions, the “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.”1
Allow me to illustrate with an example.
I once visited a church in the Midwest with my in-laws, who are white. A greeter stood at the entrance, shaking everyone’s hand as they walked in. “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.
I felt as though I had been slapped in the face.
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.
On top of that, there were the assumptions that this man had clearly made based on my phenotype: first, that I am Japanese (erroneous); second, that I do not speak English, or at least am more comfortable speaking an Asian language (also erroneous).
I was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I’ve never lived outside of the US. English is the only language I speak with fluency. And I’m not alone; there are millions of people who look like me, who were born here, and whose first language is English. So how dare you assume that I am a foreigner, that I am not one of you. How dare you, greeter man.
As you can probably surmise, this interaction left me reeling with hurt and anger. But at the same time, I recognized that this man meant well. I knew that he thought he was being nice, that he was making an extra effort to welcome a person who, in his eyes, was a foreigner. So to be angry at him, from this perspective, just seemed harsh.
These conflicting sentiments — pain and anger on one hand, compassion for this ignorant person on the other — were paralyzing. I couldn’t fully feel one because of the other, so I oscillated between them for long time as I decided how to respond.
There’s much more I could say about the emotional cyclone that I feel after experiencing a microaggression, or about the tricky nuances of how to respond; unfortunately, that’s a much longer discussion for another time. But the point I want to make here is that while these incidents may seem trivial on the surface, the messages they communicate are painful. Even more painful is the fact that when people of color talk about microaggression, they’re often dismissed and invalidated by those who have never experienced it. “You’re too sensitive,” they say. “Why are you looking for racism where it isn’t happening?”
Don’t get me wrong — I’m grateful that big-ticket racism is largely a thing of the past, that I can walk around and not have to worry about my safety or being denied service, as generations of people of color before me did. I don’t take that for granted. But even though I don’t have to worry about those things, I still experience racism on a regular basis — a kind that’s much more subtle and much harder to explain. Innocuous as they may seem, comments like the one from this greeter communicate something to me about how the speaker sees people like me and whether or not I belong, regardless of whether those messages were intended.
People who greet you with “konichiwa” at church, at the gas station, in the Target parking lot, or marvel at how good your English is when it’s the only language you speak.
Questions like “No, where are you really from?” when you say that you’re from Michigan, because some people can’t wrap their minds around the fact that you were born in Kalamazoo, and “What’s your real name?” from well-intended people who 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 race. (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 race 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 people of color that they are different. Inferior. Other. Racism may not be as flashy as it used to be, but it still manifests in microaggressions like these all the time.
1 Sue, D. W.; Capodilupo, C. M.; Torino, G. C.; Bucceri, J. M.; Holder, A. M. B.; Nadal, K. L.; Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist, 62, pp. 271-286.