Racism pervades everyday society in increasingly covert ways. One of the most common and infuriating examples of this is microaggressions. Whether intentional or unintentional, this body of racism includes actions, scenarios, or comments that imply negative or derogatory ideas about their targets.
The danger behind microaggressions comes from their ability to insidiously influence the self-conceptions of minority groups and affirm problematic ideas and structures. Hear enough jokes about how Indian people are so smart and it’ll be hard not to be needlessly self-conscious about grades. Get asked where you’re really from too many times and it gets harder to believe that you belong in the place you are really from. And the difficulty of responding to microaggressions that disguise themselves as innocent jokes or good natured ribbing prevents people from calling out ideas that are ultimately informed by racist thoughts.
It is particularly their perceived subjectivity that gives microaggressions their power and makes them so hard to fight. How can you fight something that people don’t even acknowledge as being problematic? When the protestor can easily be dismissed as unable to take a joke or as needlessly sensitive, how can anything change?
Microaggressions against people of color often go unnoticed or un-called out even (especially?) by so-called “woke” allies. The first step to changing the dialogue is identifying the problem. By knowing what microaggressions look like, allies can more easily spot them and speak up. While it would be impossible to identify every type of microaggression, this list illustrates three pieces of dialogue that should help identify the pattern in which these situations occur:
1. “You’re not like other (Indian/Black/Hispanic/etc) people”
The number of times someone has said this to me and expected gratitude is so confusing.
If this kind of “compliment” isn’t labeled as an issue, it not only allows racist ideas to go unaddressed, it also negatively influences the self-conception of the target.
The first problem with this kind of comment is that it establishes a baseline for someone of a certain ethnicity, a ruler derived from racist preconceptions, and holds the target up to this ruler. Having decided that all Indian people are nerdy, or short, or bad at sports, the complimenter feels genuinely surprised when their racist assumptions are not met. If the comment isn’t addressed, however, these racist assumptions never get brought to light as problematic.
Beyond the fact that this comment reveals racist stereotypes in the mind of the aggressor, it also shows that they think that belonging to a certain ethnic group is undesirable. They are saying the target isn’t like other Indian people and they shouldn’t want to be like other Indian people. Disguised as a compliment, the receiver could think this is genuine praise, which only enforces the internalized racism it engenders. Thinking that an unchangeable part of one’s identity is negative fosters self-hatred that hurts POC.
The best way to prevent this microaggression is to understand why it’s harmful and be able to identify it. Beyond the form in the quote above, other ways its presented include:
-Wow, you’re actually really eloquent (“Actually?” Why are you surprised?)
-I didn’t expect you to be this creative (How were these expectations formed exactly?)
-So how come you’re not a doctor or an engineer or something? (Why would you think I would be?)
Pay attention to comments like these, call them out for what they are, and definitely never, ever say them.
2. “OMG you’re JUST like Mindy Kaling”
Ok, obviously racial color blindness is extremely harmful. Fixating on someone’s race through comments like these is not the solution. Let’s break down why:
-When you say a white person is like Brad Pitt, you are choosing out of hundreds of celebrities
-When you say an Asian person is like Constance Wu you're pulling from a much smaller pool because of lack of representation of POC in the media
-If my options are to be like a) Mindy Kaling b) Aziz Anzari or c) Apu from the Simpsons, the comparison you so excitedly share is almost definitely not a deep connection
-The main similarity you're seeing is that we're both brown
-I know I'm brown
The main issue with these kinds of comparisons is that they imply a number of racist assumptions about both people being compared. When the biggest factor in their similarity is their race, it shows that the person making the comparison is minimizing the target’s complexities and personhood to just one dimension.
I wouldn’t say my manager is JUST like Danny DeVito just because they’re both white. So stop comparing me to Mindy Kaling. Instead, try to get to know the person you are thinking of comparing to one of three celebrities of their ethnicity. Don’t ignore their race, don’t fixate on their race, just get to know them like you would anyone else.
** for the record, Mindy Kaling is great and it would be cool to be like her but, honestly, I’m just not.
3. “She’s so sassy”
There’s a famous video from 2013 released by Pantene that calls out gender stereotyping language in the workplace. The video describes how a woman leading a business and working late nights is seen as bossy and selfish, while a man in the same situation is a dedicated leader. These words, loaded with sexist undertones and assumptions, exist in the form of racist microaggressions as well.
When a black woman receives a comment about being sassy, this comment plays off of the racist archetype of the “sassy black woman.” Instead of validating the criticisms she is sharing and listening to her complaints, labeling her as “sassy” strips her of her power to be heard and forces her to be just comic relief. This kind of comment gets even more harmful when the adjectives change to “aggressive” or “loud.”'
Racialized words often go unnoticed in the workplace. Just like many other microaggressions, it is frustratingly easy for others to dismiss them as more attributable to sensitivity or personality mismatch than to racism. But when they systematically oppress the power and voices of POC by dismissing their authority and voice, it’s crucial to dig deeper into these comments and understand their true roots.
Try to imagine what other words could replace the word being used, and why those other words aren’t being used instead. Why sassy instead of direct? Why aggressive instead of passionate? Why loud instead of outspoken?
Understanding this microaggression is the best way to identify the underlying racism behind comments like the one here.
With diversity hiring initiatives and cultural resource groups, many companies are pushing for more inclusive, less racist environments. Microaggressions are one of the major forms of racism that still runs rampant in the workplace. By understanding some of the common ways these microaggressions are framed, we can work to avoid saying them and to call them out when we see them.
Note: Microaggressions can be targeted at any minority group, from trans people to people with disabilities. This article focuses on microaggressions related specifically to race.