microaggression1In the past few months, I witnessed a reinvigoration of discussions regarding microaggressions– whether that’s a societal phenomenon, or just something I have personally witnessed, I can’t say, but I’ve learned something valuable from it: most people have no idea what microaggressions are.

But never fear, your diverse friend Hafsa is here to help explain them.

Microaggressions describe that language and behavior which, although not necessarily intended to be hurtful, has a negative impact on the recipient which– in much the same way as overt acts– serves to reinforce, exacerbate, and ultimately perpetuate the hatefulness which underlines it, however covertly. Because that’s a lot to talk about, here are a few things to know about racial and ethnically-based microaggressions.

And, exhibit #1? Me as someone’s “diverse friend.”

Because suddenly it’s reducing a human being of many facets, interests, passions, and qualities to… her diversity.

Now, honestly, not that many people would outwardly come out and introduce someone as their “diverse friend,” but people have no issues calling someone their “Black friend” or their “Jewish friend.” Maybe their “gay roommate” or their “Latino cabdriver.”

Contextualized in what I’ve already said about microaggressions, it’s rather obvious that I am not a fan of that language, but I need to unpack that. Why? Well because all you’re doing is labeling someone based on this one aspect of their life. And that reduces someone to a token to be pulled out as demonstration of a “diverse environment.”

I mean it’s great that you have diverse friends, really it is. But not if you’re only friends with them for their diversity. And just like the “I have Black friends” card is cliche, racist, and prejudiced, so too is telling me about your Muslim friends or telling your gay colleague that it’s okay, you can’t be prejudiced because you have gay friends, too.
At one point, when having a discussion about microaggressions, someone asked, “Is what you’re saying that we just shouldn’t label people?” And I gave a vehement no, followed by a really muddled explanation, but I think I can do a better job now that I’ve had time to think about it and can backspace the confusing stuff.

There’s nothing inherently wrong, in my opinion, with labels; to some extent, they serve a vital purpose in our day-to-day life to help us identify individuals and navigate interpersonal relationships. “My wife” or “her father” are labels, as are “history teacher” or even “middle-class,” and in and of themselves, they’re not problematic. The problem comes when there is a simultaneous failure to acknowledge the plentiful other facets of someone’s identity and reduce their entire existence down to their relationship to another individual, their occupation, their socioeconomic status, their sex, their gender identity, their race, their religion, etc.

So, yeah, call me Muslim; I have zero objection to that. But also recognize that I am a daughter, a college student, a writer, an RA, a woman, Pakistani-American, etc.

And the other thing about labels is that we have to remember the person wearing them isn’t the end-all-be-all representative of that label; they’re not the mouthpiece for their entire identity.

 Exhibit #1-b:

Don’t assume that your “diverse friend” has the complete, authoritative, perfectly cited answer to every question about diversity because WHY WOULD THEY? Just because someone has experienced a certain type of discrimination, doesn’t mean that they (a) can explain it to you with dictionary-perfect definitions and scholarly references and have every answer to every possible question you ask (I don’t know is a perfectly valid answer, thank you very much) or, more importantly, that they (b) even want to explain it you.

To the first point, the best example I can give is asking an international student about their “professional” opinion on something occurring in their home country. Like asking a Frenchmen to compare the French constitution to that of the American. Would you be able to do that? Then why are we assuming they can? Or asking a Syrian why their country is at war and what they recommend as a solution to the refugee crisis. Can you spout foreign policy recommendations off the top of your head with statistics and historical evidence? Or asking a Kenyan why Africa is so poor. (1) Africa is a continent, not a country; (2) it’s pretty doubtful that individual is a scholar on such a difficult, oft-asked, and well-studied question, and if scholars who spend their entire lives studying a tiny aspect of this global issue don’t have an answer yet, why would the random dark-skinned person you found on the street?

To the second point, it strips you of your dignity a little bit at a time to have to explain it over and over again. Really. Speaking purely for myself, I usually don’t mind answering people’s questions, whatever they are. I typically encourage people to speak frankly and ask questions without fearing they’re being rude because I would rather they be honest if a bit insensitive, than dance around a question unnecessarily or, worse, resort to a random Google search or FOX or CNN to try to answer the question. The integrity of asking an actual person with actual experience can’t be matched through a media response, but faced with the possibility of being ashamed for their ignorance or the anonymity of a screen, people often choose the latter.

That being said, there are days I really just can’t handle it. Maybe I’ve just dealt with too many microaggressions for the day, or maybe I plain and simple just had a bad day. And every person has the right to just not answer the question. Asking the question isn’t necessarily a microaggression, but insisting that a person answer the question when they don’t know the answer or just don’t want to almost inevitably is. Try this cartoon on why microaggressions hurt.

Don’t make assumptions about someone based on their appearance.

It sounds super-obvious, right? I mean that’s literally the definition of prejudice. But it happens all the time.
A few that come to mind immediately?

  • Black individuals who, when in a store, are followed. Black individuals not being served, period, or treated dismissively. A store clerk assuming that the individual from a minority group cannot afford the higher-end items in the store and therefore directing them immediately to cheaper goods. Crossing the street when you see a Black/Latino/minority man approaching you on the sidewalk.
  • Self-identifying as a feminist, and people constantly being skeptical of that and arguing you “can’t be” because you’re Muslim/hijabi (and then having to “defend your religion” against claims of inherent misogyny).
  • Asking a white mother “what her husband does for a living” and asking a black mother “if the father is still in the picture.”
  • Automatically turning to the student of Asian descent for math help.
  • “Merry Christmas” turning into “Merr– happy holidays” because the person on the other side of the counter looks different. Because you “look different,” people constantly asking if you’re an international student or doubting your citizenship in the United States (BTW look different from what?)

Some of these examples border on the overtly racist/hateful, but most of them are the subtle everyday things that we don’t even necessarily recognize doing. The absolute best thing I’ve seen that explains this is this phenomenal photo series that exposes our own biases and this set of Google searches about cultural stereotypes.

The person being microaggressive/prejudiced, doesn’t get to decide what’s hurtful.

Remember what I said earlier about the difference between intent versus impact? The individual most likely doesn’t intend to say/do something prejudiced, but the impact on the recipient is hurtful and reinforces the oppression of prejudices and stereotypes.

Allow me to illustrate with an example: as an RA, I moved onto campus before most of the student body in order to help prep the residential halls. So for a few weeks, only professional staff, RAs, and a few straggler conference attendees (including some international students) were on campus. One of my first interactions with university staff as an RA was when I said good morning to a member of our maintenance crew, and he, smiling, responded with “Are you a guest here?” I said, “No, sir, I’m an RA on the second floor.” Not at all abashed, he says,” Oh, I just thought you weren’t from here because of your” *gestures to headscarf repeatedly*. I smiled and kept walking, but it bothered me the rest of the day that people kept doubting my citizenship or right to be here. He obviously didn’t intend to be microaggressive. But he doesn’t get to dictate how I was impacted by what he said.

Or, in the words of Britni de la Cretaz on EverydayFeminism:

“We [White People] Don’t Get to Determine What’s Racist
How often do we see something posted about racism, only to then see a bunch of white people jump into the comments to argue about why that thing isn’t actually racist? For example, maybe someone calls out Kylie Jenner for appropriating black culture with her braided hair. Or maybe they’re pointing out why white people wearing bindis as a fashion statement isn’t cool. And then a white person comments, “Um, it’s just hair” or “Bindis have nothing to do with skin color.”

Or perhaps someone is venting about a racial microaggression they experienced when they were out to dinner, where they felt like they were treated differently by their server because they’re black. And the next thing you know, a white person swoops in to say something like, “Wait, how do you know it was because you were black? I think you’re being paranoid. It was probably just because the server was having a bad night.” But here’s the thing, fellow white people – it’s not on us to decide what is or isn’t racist because we don’t actually experience racism.”

The most important thing, though is what you can do about it.

First and foremost, acknowledge the validity of other people’s experiences.

So if you’re coming from a position of privilege– and it’s 99.9999% likely that we are in some position of privilege, because discrimination in one area does not negate privilege in another– all you need to do is acknowledge that other people’s experiences are valid. That’s literally it. That’s the first step.

It sounds really simple in writing, but it can be rough in real life. I mean, it’s so bad, that it’s honestly revolutionary for administration or any other people in power to say ‘You know what, your experiences are valid.’ That’s it. That’s all I’m asking for. That you acknowledge my experiences are valid. That they happened. That I have legitimate concerns. That it matters to someone.

And the reason this can be so difficult is that we have to swallow our instinct to defend ourselves or to feel guilty, and, instead, try to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. This is not a conversation about blame or guilt. No one is saying that you are the reason for this system or that it is your fault that you benefit from it. That’s stupid. No one is saying that you didn’t work hard to get where you are in life or that you should feel bad because you maybe didn’t have to work as hard as the person next to you. You don’t have to feel guilty for the body into which you were born any more or less than someone who was born into a different body. You just have to accept that as a result of your body (in comparison to someone else’s) you have been indoctrinated and socialized in a different manner and that as a result, the set of privileges, challenges, and experiences in your life are drastically different from someone else’s. And when someone else is talking about their life experiences, you have to respect that, rather than trying to compare it to your life story in order to minimize their challenges or aggrandize yours.

And that is a lesson for all of us.