Microaggressions are the racist remarks of the 21st century

Georgia State University students of color often encounter microaggressions from colleagues. Photo by Hannah Greco | The Signal

“Where are you from?” is a question people often ask each other, especially those with facial features that aren’t traditionally Aryan or with different color palettes.

Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine

You might reply with, “Warner Robins, a small city about 30 minutes south of Macon, Georgia.” Here, the questioner tends to furrow their brows slightly, lean in, and emphatically inquire,

“No, where are you really from?”

These types of interactions are common for people who are vaguely “exotic-looking.” While white peers may perceive these questions as innocuous or even friendly, they fail to realize that they actually contribute to the “otherization” of brown and black peoples in the U.S. They emphasize that people of color are “other,” even in contexts where race should be irrelevant. Because the person doesn’t intend malice and may consider themselves “allies” to minorities and women, small affronts like the conversation above are not considered overt acts of racism, but rather, are considered “microaggressions.”

Other examples of microaggressions might include how after a student told an acquaintance that they are Middle Eastern, and he asked about their opinion on Osama bin Laden and whether they agreed with his political perspectives. Or how when a student’s younger sister started dating a white man, his family asked if when she told her father, he would murder her in an “honor killing.” These people presumably mean well and often believe their questions are appropriate for trying to “learn about other cultures.” Yet, slips like these truly show a lack of understanding not only for those cultures, but also a lack of acuity to manners and basic etiquette.

Critics of the term “microaggression” claim that this generation is simply contentious and over-sensitive. After all, people “mean well” and microaggressions have the prefix “micro” in them, suggesting that its significance is miniscule and so is our patience, if we can’t ignore people’s “small mistakes.” These arguments only hold if one assumes 21st century America is a post-racism world, which it is decisively not. Though some of the provocations may seem small, they have substantial effects on the receiving individuals and on society. The microaggressions compound, and manifest as implicit racism and sexism within the perpetrators, witnesses, and those who are victims of the acts themselves (internalized racism and sexism are common in many social circles).

Microaggressions might be thought of as subliminal messaging. Though it’s often not actually subliminal, it is typically subtle, and it takes conscious awareness to dismiss those negative messages. When you’re a female child, people convey that you won’t be as successful as a man in subtle ways that eventually manifest as a self-fulfilling prophecy, and sometimes even result in sabotaging your own opportunities to get ahead, because you’ve always been told you couldn’t. For example: “You can’t be the smartest in the class and the prettiest.” Or: “How can you travel the world as a clinical scientist when you’ll have a family at home you need to take care of?” While no particular sentiment may be absolutely devastating to one’s psyche, constant bombardment of negative messages can and will have an impact.

A difficult question looms: once we establish that microaggressions are both indicators and propagators of racism and sexism in society, how do we avoid them when they seem infinitesimal?

One good rule of thumb is that if you don’t belong in a minority, it’s typically inappropriate to make jokes about negative stereotypes regarding them. Arabs can joke about being strip-searched at the airport because that’s a reality of their experience, but when Chad from Alpha White-boy Alpha does so, it’s not only problematic but also weird.

To be clear, questions about different cultures are not inherently problematic. It’s useful to try to educate yourself on different backgrounds, whether or not you are a person of color. What is inappropriate is projecting your implicit negative perceptions of a culture onto another person. It’s not necessary to dissect every question or statement before saying them, but it is essential to use your discretion. Here’s an easy example: though it’s a common stereotype that US military personnel experience higher rates of psychopathy than the civilian population, it is indeed grossly inappropriate to walk up to a veteran and ask them if they’re a psychopath. The same standards should apply to treating all groups of people with cordiality and respect.

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