“Ni hao!” says the random white, middle-aged man, grinning profusely as he leans in much too closely for your liking whilst you’re walking down the street. Sigh.
Hands up if this has ever happened to you.
This scenario has happened to me multiple times whilst I was abroad – I can guarantee you, every Asian friend you have has probably experienced this if not once, but more than they can count. I mean, wow! What a great way to mark you as an ignorant, presumptuous jerk, right? Blurting out the first Asian-language phrase you think of just because we look vaguely East Asian; I honestly have always wanted to know, do you really think we’re going to be impressed by your poorly pronounced two syllables? Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against Mandarin or the people who speak it, and I’d be totally cool with it if it happened to me somewhere where Mandarin is actually the official language. But every single time, it’s always been in a Western city. If you wanted to be friendly, a simple “hi” would’ve been more than enough. I’m always down for a conversation, but not when you’re randomly throwing around “ni hao” to every Asian you see – it’s quite extraordinary, and quite peculiar, to speculate what goes through their sad little minds.
It was only until I attended a Discrimination & Harassment Workshop on May 7th that I finally could put a word to what I had experienced: microaggression. The term was coined by psychiatrist Dr. Chester Pierce in the 1970s, and Columbia professor Dr. Derald Wing Sue1 borrowed the term, referring to it as “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. In many cases, these hidden messages may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment”2.
Some examples3 of microaggression would be asking the Asian guy how to solve a difficult mathematical problem, asking a black person if you can touch their hair, or the “ni hao” situation above. I’ve had my fair share of microaggressions, being told “You act different from other Asians, y’know?”, friends being in disbelief I dislike playing classical music on the piano, or people bluntly assuming my parents forced me to study medicine. I’ve moved around my entire life from a very young age, so I’m used to these types of interactions – I don’t feel threated, I don’t feel intimidated, and I definitely don’t feel relegated to an inferior status. Instead of taking extreme offense from somebody remarking “Your English is so good for somebody from Thailand!”, I take it as a sort of educating moment, and I somewhat enjoy it, because chances are, most people don’t have malicious intentions behind their words. I don’t believe they’re trying to “aggress” me in any way, and it’s just a sincere comment from somebody who maybe doesn’t mingle much with Asians. It sprouts from their upbringing; perhaps they’ve lived in only one place their entire lives. I once asked a lecturer a question about their presentation, only for her to slowly repeat the exact same phrase she used in her lecture, when it was the specific meaning behind it I was interested in. The issue here was she spontaneously assumed this Asian student couldn’t understand her British accent during the lecture, rather than wanting to delve into the science – but this lady is not a racist at all, and I felt completely fine. I didn’t see that encounter as a microaggression until I discovered the concept itself. Plus, who’s to say it doesn’t go the other way around? I’ve definitely displayed my fair share of microaggressions (e.g. saying to my Asian friends “That’s such a White thing to do” or even asking “But where are your parents from? Where are you ethnically from?”). Leave a comment down below of what microaggressions you’ve ever faced or dished out yourself without knowing – this is a non-judgemental zone (I’ll make sure of it)!
So during the workshop I attended, when the presenter introduced this whole microaggression concept, I thought, “Man! This is incredibly relatable, preach!” But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered, where does one draw the line? Am I supposed to be more offended? When does this sort of “oh, poor me” stuff stop? Because given the nature of microaggressions – subtle messages slipped into casual conversation – I don’t believe they will ever cease to exist completely. But there is definitely benefit to fostering this awareness surrounding microaggressions; the change is evident. In fact, during my first year of university, I spent more time correcting people saying I was actually from Thailand when they assumed I was from America or Canada. This evolution in assumption is a tell-tale sign we’re at least on our way to eradicating the binary name-calling and formal exclusion (i.e. Asian people are solely from Asia! White people cannot be from Asia!). And on the other end of the stick, I know people aren’t asking about my nationality in order to oppress me, but out of genuine curiosity – diversity is fascinating, and when something’s fascinating, we speak the unintentional dialect of awe.
This interested me. Because when I walk up the steps in the lecture theatre to find a seat, I definitely have this feeling I can’t quite put my finger on – a sort of quiet, “Hm, is she going to sit next to me? I don’t know what to say because she’s Asian” vibe. Like I’m a bit of an outsider, because that’s what we’re programmed to think in a country dominated by white people, whether we’re conscious about it or not. And now I know it’s called microaggression, but why has it only erupted in recent years, and should I even do anything about it except recognize when it happens? Jonathan Haidt4, social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business, signposted a fascinating article in September 2015 titled “Microaggression and Moral Cultures”5 published in the journal Comparative Sociology. Written by sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, the article may help explain the dynamics currently manifesting in the U.S. society and why concerns of microaggressions have erupted on many American college campuses in the past few years (which I think definitely applies to other countries, too). So, what exactly does it argue?
In brief, we are undergoing a second major transition in moral culture6. Prior to the 18th & 19th century, most Western societies were cultures of honour, existing where the rule of law was weak. People had to avenge offenses, insults and violation of rights on their own via self-help violence (a reputation of rapid brutality and vengeance was thus important back in the day); failure to do so resulted in loss of social respect and status. The first major transition then occurred during the 19th century as the West became cultures of dignity, in which “people are assumed to have dignity and don’t need to earn it. They foreswear violence, turn to courts or administrative bodies to respond to major transitions, and for minor transgressions they either ignore them or attempt to resolve them by social means. There’s no more duelling”.7 All citizens were legally endowed with equal rights, practicing tolerance that resulted in much more peaceful societies than those embodying the honour culture. Basically, it was the whole “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” gist.
Campbell and Manning now describe societies currently undergoing a second major culture transition: the culture of dignity into the culture of victimhood. It hybridises both the honour culture’s quickness to respond even to the slightest unintentional offense, with the dignity culture’s appeal for the help of third parties to whom they must make the case they have been victimized, so these administrative bodies or powerful authorities can police and punish transgressions. The result? People are urged to think of themselves as weak, marginalized and oppressed; everybody seeks to become a “victim”8. Within the broader context of the highly egalitarian & diverse culture we live in due to college campuses popping up all over the place and the rise in administrative bodies & regulations, the intensity of identifying oneself as a fragile & aggrieved victim is extreme. Here, the equation triggers an explosion of microaggression.
But of course, like every piece of literature, there were holes in the research – like, for example, the basic question of how this concept of microaggression should be applied. It’d be interesting to use Sue’s list of microaggressions9 with college students and see if minority students feel offense in the same way Sue and his researchers did. Personally, I didn’t for all the Asian stuff. And of course, they failed to take into account the subjectivity of microaggression; if it is truly in the eye of the beholder, where should the blame be placed (if any) if the beholder knows nothing of the third party? There is so much scope – we could delve into white privilege, marginalized groups, and the uprising of meritocracy. With the evolving culture of victimhood, there is paralleled swiftness in reading negativity into lots of things in life, but let’s call it microaggression when we’re belittled on the basis of stereotypes or with malevolent intent.
I hope you don’t take all of this the wrong way.
1, 2, 3, 9. Sue DW, Capodilupo CM, Torino GC, Bucceri JM, Holder A, Nadal KL, Esquilin M. Racial microaggressions in everyday life: implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist. 2007; 62(4): pp. 271-286.
4, 7. Haidt, J. Where microaggressions really come from: A sociological account. [online]. 2015. [cited June 27th, 2017]. Available at: http://righteousmind.com/where-microaggressions-really-come-from/.
5. Campbell B & Manning J. Microaggression and moral cultures. Comparative Sociology. 2014; 13(6): pp. 692-726.
6, 8. Bailey, R. The Rise of the Culture of Victimhood Explained. [online]. 2015. [cited June 27th, 2017]. Available at: http://reason.com/blog/2015/09/08/the-rise-of-the-culture-of-victimhood-ex.
DeAngelis, T. Unmasking ‘racial micro aggressions’. American Psychological Association. 2009; February: p. 42.
McWhorter, J. ‘Microaggression’ Is the New Racism on Campus. [online]. 2014. [cited June 27th, 2017]. Available at: http://time.com/32618/microaggression-is-the-new-racism-on-campus/.