Recent scholarship has expounded on the nature of words, phrases and actions that are often termed ‘microaggressions.’ Broadly speaking, these are indirect, subtle and even sometimes unintentional acts of discrimination against certain groups and are highly dependent upon context. It stands to reason that such behaviors should be avoided in order to not offend or “other”-ize people, especially if they are from historically marginalized groups. However, attempts to avoid microaggressions, defined here as anti-microaggressive behaviour, can be just as damaging as microaggressions if not correctly undertaken.
I will limit myself to the United States for sake of discussion, where microaggressions typically involve challenging the legitimacy of someone’s identity as an American, commonly used against ethnocultural minorities. Though minorities of sexual orientation, gender identity, those experiencing mental illness, and other groups also experience microaggressions, my lack of direct experience in those areas compels me to leave space for more authoritative voices in those areas.
Consider the most obvious ethnocultural microaggression: “Where are you really from?” This seemingly innocuous question is described by some as a way for the cultural majority to question the legitimacy of a minority member’s American-ness. It usually follows a query of someone’s place of origin. For example, my Chinese-American friend might say she’s from Seattle, only to be asked the above question. What is really and tacitly being asked is something to the effect of either, “What are you?” or, “Where did you immigrate from?” Obviously, these questions are not asked directly, as they seek personal information not yet freely given and presuppose other-ness. In attempts not to “other”-ize, anti-microaggressive behavior advises against this line of inquiry, waiting instead for information to be given.
Several difficulties arise. Primarily, the person who would ask these questions gains no information about the other person. We alter our assumptions and behaviors with others based on new information we gain as we get to know them. Hesitating to, or even not seeking out such information, leaves us with our often inaccurate first impressions, which inevitably lead to interpersonal blunders. As a multi-ethnic Hongkonger-American, I find that, almost without fail, those who mistyped me as Japanese, Korean or even Latino (yes, that happened once … bizarre) are always those who either did not ask, or gave me no space to indicate my background and heritage.
Second, choosing not to seek information risks communicating another, more negative message: “I’m not interested in your context.” It is well-known that context, and the experiences that arise from it, are important factors in shaping someone’s identity. Among these include ethnicity or culture, location, language, socioeconomic status, and more, all of which, combined, form the mosaic that is each person. Refusing to engage another person’s uniqueness is its own injustice, even if well-intentioned. It is motivated by the fear of offending and leads to shallow relationships.
Allow me a personal example. English is my first language and I have a well-cultivated West Coast American accent, due to my father hailing from Seattle. Because of this alone, I surprise many Americans when I tell them I was born and raised overseas. If they never asked where I was from, they would likely treat me as a West Coast, white American, though I am international and multiethnic. Not asking where I’m from would mean fundamentally misunderstanding who I am and the context that helps shape me.
How can we refrain from harmfully “other”-izing while genuinely trying to get to know others, in terms of ethnicity or culture? Broadly speaking, it comes down to humility. Posing a conversation-starting question is perfectly appropriate, as long as you remain open to whatever and how much your conversation partner is comfortable sharing. Repeatedly pushing them to supply information, as is unfortunately too common, prioritizes information over the person, or, more simply, one’s own wants over the other person. Being sensitive to this allows us to remain humble as we learn about each other. In giving others a space to share about themselves without being interrogatory, we can create a space of invitation and inclusion, the true opposite of microaggressions. People love to talk about themselves, or so the saying goes. Let them do it without forcing it on them, and you’ll get to know all you need — and then some — to engage in a meaningful relationship.
While microaggressions can unintentionally cause harm to others, overly acting to avoid them can be harmful as well. This is evidenced by behavior that refrains from seeking genuine contextual information about others, leading to shallow relationships. I have used the example of ethnicity and culture, though I believe the above-mentioned ideas translate to other areas, too. To truly connect with each other, we should create spaces with our questions for others to fill with whatever they are comfortable sharing. This entails asking questions that anti-microaggressive behavior might avoid, but in ways that prioritize the other person, not the information you seek. In doing so, we can more deeply engage with each other across a myriad of boundaries.
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