I begin by describing a recent encounter I had which, after some post-event analysis, I recognised as an evening glistening with microaggression. This is the thing about microaggression, we so often downplay it – or even fail to recognise its presence altogether – because of how subtle and, well, micro it is.
During a recent stay with a friend, she asked if I might like to pop over to visit her uncle and his wife with their new-born. She has always had a distant relationship with his family, who moved over from Israel only two years ago. We were greeted well, and shortly after arriving I was posed the question: “So, where are you from?”. Knowing instantly what this referred to and having developed my own ways to humour this very question over time, I replied that, considering I was childhood school friends with their niece, it would come as little surprise that I lived, and grew up, in the same city as her here in the UK. “Oh no! I meant from from’, like, originally.” exclaims her Uncle. Again, this is no unfamiliar utterance, and I reply with my well-rehearsed correction: “Oh! I was born in London.”
Eventually, after their exasperated questions involving the phrases ‘heritage’ and ‘but your parents’ I decide to give it to them and share that my mother’s heritage is Hong Kong Chinese while my Dad is British born and bred. This led to jokes about how it was odd that my father should be the ‘mathematical genius’ working in IT, not my mother, given the known mathematic ‘traits’ (stereotyped, of course) typically gifted to Asians, alongside compliments about my appearance stemming from the ‘natural facelift’ of my eyes gifted to me by my Asian heritage.
I met this with a strange emotional hybrid of flattery, understanding the intent, and forgiving the perhaps less ‘PC’ teachings of the older generation, and yet disbelief at the, what I later understood as, microaggressions I was hearing. My friend, taking on second-hand embarrassment, apologises the whole way home.
Now to the untrained onlooker, it may be difficult to understand the impulse to humour myself in such situations. Why not just reply up front when you know what the question is alluding? And yes I admit, personally, I tend to appreciate people’s intrigue. But much like anything else, responses to microaggressions are, for me, context dependent: who is asking, what is being asked, in what manner and when: which all also tends to inform the critical “why is this information significant?” question.
For example, my pinch-of-salt reaction in the above example contrasts with my response in another encounter. Around two years ago, during a night out, I was again asked by a fellow student where I was from. After going through the whole humoured spiel, and learning he was clearly accepting none of it, I finally told him what he had been hoping to hear. In short, he nods, says “oh, cool”, and leaves with his friends. Talking to a friend about it afterwards, I laugh at the ridicule of the situation. Why did this specific encounter make me uncommonly uncomfortable? Simple: context. We had been on a noisy club dancefloor (hint: not a room where we were about to dissect or elaborate further into a two way exchange about the fascinations of cultural heritage), I had noticed how none of my ‘western-looking’ friends got posed the same question, birthed within an exchange where none of us had even gotten as far as to what our first names were. I, subsequently, felt isolated, targeted, and confused – regardless of the other student’s intent.
Both exchanges demonstrate the varying forms microaggressions may take, but while they offer an insight into my personal responses to microaggression in my life, they also emphasise the non-universal nature of micro-aggressive encounters: our perceptions shift between contexts, and tolerance from person to person.
Microaggressions are certainly not always intended by the individuals demonstrating them, but this makes it all the more important that we vocalise whenever we are party to one that affects us, or we feel may affect others, to help us de-micro some, occasionally damaging, norms.