Are you a victim of microaggression?

Ja'mie King: "Wife beaters and rapists are nearly all public school educated. Sorry, no offence."

Ja'mie King: "Wife beaters and rapists are nearly all public school educated. Sorry, no offence."

Maybe it’s the dim lighting, or maybe it’s the soft 80s rock – but there’s something about catching a taxi alone at night that gives cab drivers the illusion they’re on a speed date with you.  At least that’s one way of explaining the huge number of uncomfortably intimate conversations I’ve had with taxi drivers over the years.

There are the standard ice-breakers – whether I’m single, what I do, where I’d been, and it usually ticks along politely until I get one question wrong.

 Driver: “So, where are you from?”

 Me:      “Oh, I grew up here.”

Driver:  “But I mean, where are you from, originally? What are you Thai? Malaysian?”

And that, I’ve come to recognise, is my cue to provide a solid explanation for being Asian. Of course, I could’ve mentioned I was born in Hong Kong from the start, but what if they decide to compliment me on my English? It’d be rude to take credit for what’s practically the only thing I speak.

Interestingly, the question of ancestry hardly ever comes up in casual banters for my Anglo Saxon friends (although they too are descended from immigrants). We may laugh at the overwhelming percentage of Republican voters who still believe Barack Obama is Muslim,  but even in a truly multicultural society like ours, are certain cultural and religious backgrounds perceived as more ‘authentically Australian’ than others?

The term ‘microagression’ was first coined by psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce in 1970 to describe the everyday things we say or do which causes someone to feel ‘othered’. Originally a racially-related phenomenon, its definition has since evolved to include any subtle verbal or non-verbal communication that conveys insensitivity towards a person’s sex, social status, physical appearance or sexuality. 

Microaggressive remarks can often come in the form of back-handed compliments. For example, “She’s gorgeous for a big girl” or “I would never be able to tell you’re GAY!” Essentially, they are messages that appear innocent enough on the surface but contain ‘demeaning meta-communications’ to its recipients.

According to Columbia University psychologist Derald Wing Sue, “Most people... harbour unconscious biases and prejudices that leak out in many interpersonal situations.” Just think of all the talk-back radio rants that begin with “Now, I’m not racist/ sexist/ homophobic, but ...” or any number of ‘well-meaning’ comments that finish with: [chuckle] “No offence”. And since most ‘microaggressors’ are genuinely unaware of any wrongdoings, this makes it nearly impossible to confront the situation without evoking paranoia.

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Ironically, Sue’s research also found that most of us are actually better at handling overt acts of discrimination than subtle insults, because at least the former has “no guesswork involved” whereas victims of microaggression are “often left to question what actually happened”.

The challenge ultimately lies in making the invisible visible – however ‘insignificant’ it may be. And we can do this, writes Cultural Anthropologist Zara Zimbardo, by  “returning the gaze”: “In feminist discourse, it’s when “the targeted ‘other’ look[s] back at the non-target “norm”, putting them in the spotlight of scrutiny.” Viral videos like S**t White Girls Say to Black Girls or the Microaggression Project – where contributors are encouraged to submit snippets of microaggressive insults – are great examples of putting the spotlight on the myriad ‘invisible things’ that make up a marginalised experience.

In the end, this is an awkward subject because it often requires well-meaning people to reflect on their own bias and privilege. Sure, you may object to racism, but do you speak really, reaaally slowly when you order Thai home delivery? Perhaps no one sums up the value of self-awareness better than David Foster Wallace in his famous ‘This is water' speech:

“Two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"”

It’s surprising what goes unnoticed sometimes.

 

Your say: Have you ever been a victim of microaggression?

145 comments

  • Tragically some of the comments in that gallery read like a script of some of the sound bites our elected politicans make about gay marriage! Or is that macroagression?

    Commenter
    Truthiness
    Date and time
    March 16, 2012, 10:05AM
    • Great article and I totally understand where you are coming from. Having been born and raised in the UK I speak with a British accent which taxi drivers always find fascinating - I guess they assume I would speak in an Aussie or Chinese accent. The general gist of the conversation is like so:

      Taxi driver: So your'e from England?
      Me: Yes born and bred
      TD: Where are you from?
      Me: England
      TD: No what is your background?
      Me: I am Chinese
      TD: So why do you speak with an English accent?
      Me: Because I was born and raised there

      The question the taxi driver wanted to ask was 'Where are you really from, as in my parents?' so why not just ask me directly instead of beating around the bush? Man that is soo annoying.

      Happy Friday everyone :)

      Commenter
      Elle
      Date and time
      March 16, 2012, 10:15AM
      • Wow. "TD: So why do you speak with an English accent?" - what an idiot!

        Commenter
        gg
        Date and time
        March 16, 2012, 10:36AM
      • Well said. Some people are oxygen thieves. You handled that one superbly.

        Commenter
        Dhammachick
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        March 16, 2012, 4:45PM
      • I am born and bred Australian from an Asian ancestry. I have lived in Sydney, London and Singapore.

        I never got asked the question of where I'm from in Sydney while growing up. When I lived in London I got a few ni hou ma? and konnichiwa's from the newspaper sales people around Leicester Square. But now I am in Singapore, I get asked the question of where I am from ALL the time from the locals. Am I from China? Am I from Japan? Am I from Korea?

        Sorry, none of those places - I'm from Australia, my parents are also not born in the country of where we look like we're from. I'm several generations out of the Chinese bloodline I inherited. I don't speak a word of it - Americans I meet here in Singapore speak Mandarin better than me, and better than the locals (as they declare).

        I don't think it's microagression at all. To say that is what is creating all the misunderstanding.

        It is purely curiosity. The world is not so easily definable anymore. What's a person to do but simply ask? We can't preassign one because in the world we live in now, we'll be wrong. So the only thing left to do is ASK.

        It's the polite thing to do.

        Commenter
        cfkam
        Location
        Singapore
        Date and time
        March 17, 2012, 2:56AM
    • Great article. I struggle with a daily basis when it comes to cultural differences. I live in Marrickville and I'm all for multiculturalism. My dad is a refugee. I wish there was a term for struggling with cultural differences. For example, spitting on the street in Marrickville is common, because its okay to do that in China. Pushing in front of people on the bus and talking at the top of your voice in quiet places, is also acceptable. Yet, in many white-bread towns (particularly the ones I was raised in), this isn't acceptable. I don't want to be annoyed by these petty things. And it freaks me out to think that I might be 'othering' other peoples habits and that I can't be more flexible, because I certainly want to be.

      Commenter
      jacinta
      Date and time
      March 16, 2012, 10:28AM
      • I live in the Marrickville area as well and I'm not a big fan of spitting. It's disgusting.

        Commenter
        Anna
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        March 16, 2012, 11:12AM
      • I agree with Anna. Just because something is socially acceptable in one place doesn't mean it has to be tolerated elsewhere. There are definite health issues with spitting in public.

        Commenter
        Derradune
        Date and time
        March 16, 2012, 3:05PM
    • Classic is "that's a good/you're a good... for a girl".

      I visited Turkey recently & most people seem to have very set opinions about where people can come from. You can't be white & be from Africa, people didn't think an Asian girl could be from Australia,... Very tiring.

      Commenter
      gg
      Date and time
      March 16, 2012, 10:35AM
      • As a gamer, I get the girl one all the time and it complete and utterly infuriates me. I know they're saying it to be complimentary, but it's so terribly sexist that I just want to reply "I must have had that pesky femalesaren'tgoodatgames part of my biology removed".

        Commenter
        Ailie
        Date and time
        March 16, 2012, 3:19PM

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