It’s All About the Little Things – Microaggression

In Zambia, when I joined Peace Corps, I was the only female Indian American in the entire country from America.

The critical part of my service was the feeling of loneliness and small attacks that kept coming at me no matter how much I represented myself as a girl from New York, and born American. It was always something else before me as a person.

A small attack. About my culture or comment that seems harmless but actually, it always represents my gender and race in a condescending or dismissal of my true personality.

It is called microaggression.

Microaggression is a term coined by psychiatrist and Harvard University professor Chester M. Pierce in 1970 to describe insults and dismissals he regularly witnessed non-black Americans inflict on African Americans. Eventually, the term came to encompass the casual degradation of any socially marginalized group, such as the poor and the disabled.

It has also been seen as being “rooted in racism, sexism, or discrimination based on nationality or sexual orientation. It can be delivered casually or even unconsciously.”

This process comes from people who seem as if their words are harmless, completely coming off across as simple remarks and not at all attacking the real problem: the root of racism or discrimination or sexism. It is an easy way to say or ask if the person is another race while also sounding as the person is inclusive into society. Sometimes it is placed under the shadow of “learning about different cultures,” even though we are not their token resource for our specific background.

Psychologist Derald Wing Sue defines microaggressions as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership”.

He describes microaggressions as generally happening below the level of awareness of well-intentioned members of the dominant culture.

According to Sue, microaggressions are different from overt, deliberate acts of bigotry, such as the use of racist epithets, because the people perpetrating microaggressions often intend no offense and are unaware they are causing harm.

Micro aggressions are known to be subtle insults that direct towards the person or a group of people as a way to “put down”.

He describes microaggressions as including statements that repeat or affirm stereotypes about the minority group or subtly demean them. They also position the dominant culture as normal and the minority one as aberrant or pathological, that express disapproval of or discomfort with the minority group, that assume all minority group members are the same, that minimize the existence of discrimination against the minority group, seek to deny the perpetrator’s own bias, or minimize real conflict between the minority group and the dominant culture.

So in my case, as an Indian woman, Zambia is the not the first place where who I am was defined by the culture I came from. Countless moments of asking about my culture before even I have a chance to say to my own name. People would hear my name and wonder,

Wow, how did that happen?

In conducting two focus groups with Asian Americans, Sue identified eight distinct themes of racial microaggression: Alien in Own Land: When people assume Asian Americans are foreigners or from a different country.

Ex: “Where are you from” or “Why don’t you have an accent?”

Ascription of Intelligence: When Asian Americans are stereotyped as being intelligent or assumed to be smart. Ex: “Wow, you’re really good at math, can you help me?” or “Are Asian Americans this good when it comes to school work?”

Then the concept comes around to how Indians are so smart and creative that there are few negative connotations to the Indian race. People see them as model citizens with no problems with white people or racist people. But that is another concept.

Denial of Racial Reality: This is when a person emphasizes that as Asian American doesn’t experience any discrimination, implying there are no inequalities towards them.It correlates to the idea of model minority.

It even goes down to sexuality. Do you know how many times men in my life have asked or said,

I’ve never been with an exotic woman.

You are the first exotic woman I’ve ever had sex with.

I’ve never had an Indian.

It feels as if I am being checked off on someone’s list. Every time I hear, I remember how my only given talent was my erotic sensual self with an innate history in my genetics for Kama sutra.

Exoticization of Asian American Women: It stereotypes non-white Americans in the exotic category. They are being stereotyped by their physical appearance and gender based on media and literature.[14] One example is Asian American women portrayed as the submissive or obedient type; they are also seen as Dragon Lady or Lotus Blossom. On the other hand, Asian American men are portrayed as being emasculated or seen as nerdy, weak men.

Invalidation of Interethnic Differences: This emphasizes homogeneity of broad ethnic groups and ignores interethnic differences. The claim “all Asian Americans look alike” was identified as a main assumption for this theme. Similarly, thinking that all members of an ethnic minority group speak the same language or have the same values or culture falls under this theme.

Pathologizing Cultural Values/Communication Styles: When Asian Americans’ cultures and values are viewed as less desirable. For example, many people from the focus group felt disadvantaged by the expectation of verbal participation in class, when Asian cultural norms value silence. Because of this discrepancy, many Asian Americans felt that they were being forced to conform to Western cultural norms.

Second Class Citizenship: This theme emphasizes the idea that Asian Americans are being treated as lesser beings, and are not treated with equal rights or presented as a first priority.

Buzzfeed: Where are you really from?

Ex: A Korean man walks into a bar and asks for a drink but the bartender ignores the man and serves a White man first.

Invisibility: This theme of microaggression focuses on the idea that Asian Americans are invisible in discussions of race and racism. According to some focus group members, dialogues on race often focus only on White and Black, which excludes Asian Americans.

Race or ethnicity

Social scientists Sue, Bucceri, Lin, Nadal, and Torino (2007) described microaggressions as “the new face of racism”, saying that the nature of racism has shifted over time from overt expressions of racial hatred and hate crimes, towards expressions of aversive racism, such as microaggressions, that are more subtle, ambiguous, and often unintentional. Researchers say this has led some Americans to wrongly believe that racism is no longer a problem for non-white Americans. An example of such subtle expressions of racism is a white person being white.

According to Sue et al.,[17] microaggressions seem to appear in three forms:

  • micro assault: an explicit racial derogation; verbal/nonverbal; e.g. name-calling, avoidant behavior, purposeful discriminatory actions.
  • microinsult: communications that convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person’s racial heritage or identity; subtle snubs; unknown to the perpetrator; hidden insulting message to the recipient of color.
  • microinvalidation: communications that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person belonging to a particular group.

Gender and sexuality

Women, including trans women, report experiencing gender-related microaggressions.[18][not in citation given] Some examples of sexist microagressions are “[addressing someone by using] a sexist name, a man refusing to wash dishes because it is ‘woman’s work,’ displaying nude pin-ups of women at places of employment, someone making unwanted sexual advances toward another person”.

Other gender- and sexuality-related microaggressions include the sexual exoticization of lesbians by heterosexual men, linking homosexuality with gender dysphoria or paraphilia, and prying questions about one’s sexual activity.

Transgender people are often misgendered (labelled as having a gender other than the one they identify with), among other forms of microaggression.

People from the LGBTIQ+ community have reported experiencing such microaggressions from people within their own community. This is because others make assumptions on their lives based on their own experience and understanding. While not always intentional, people commit anti-social behaviours based on these misconceptions, resulting in people feeling they are the victim of microaggressions.

The following have been proposed as “microaggressable:

  • Sexual objectification
  • Second-class citizenship
  • Sexist language
  • Assumptions of inferiority
  • Denial of sexism
  • Traditional gender role assumptions
  • Social invisibility
  • Denial of individual sexism
  • Sexist jokes
  • Denial of denial

What we feel from microaggression?

Recipients of microaggressions may feel anger, frustration, or exhaustion. African-Americans have reported feeling under pressure to “represent” their group or to suppress their own cultural expression and “act white”.

The common problem in our own Indian American groups is the distinction between white Indians and actual Indians where our culture is reduced by any person not only white people and we have to suppress our own cultural expression and act to the dominate culture that surrounds us.

Over time, the cumulative effect of microaggressions is thought to lead to diminished self-confidence and a poor self-image, and potentially also to mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and trauma.

These systems pile up. Moments like these either end in a forced smile or an eruption of anger that forces everyone to think I am a crazy ethnic girl pulling out my race car or gender card or even my bisexual card. No matter what I feel as if I have to fight to be a city girl who loves good music, really fashion, wrapped hair and art and writing and then after a proud Indian-American strong bisexual feminist.

I do not mean everytime I hear these statements, that I am going to pull out my speech and scream and yell because people who go through micro-aggression do one common thing: take it in and give a false smile. But it adds up, to the point where I am in tears or I am angry or I am making jokes of my own culture just to feel as if I am at least part of my own joke.

When someone asks me instead of where I grew up but instead goes for the source of my skin color,

“When are you going back to India?”

I answer,

“Sorry, I’m going back home. To Brooklyn.”

Jokes sustain me longer than keeping it in. But afterwhile, I explain my joke or I cry or I scream. That is when the stereotype of angry feminist or angry woman or in the cases of Black men and women, the “angry black woman.” We call something out from the countless amounts of microaggression in our daily lives from the subway down to the corner store to every interaction we have with a person, not from our culture, gender, or “group” and then when we break, when we are weak and can’t take no more,

we are called bitches, and angry, and wrong, and noisy.

Moments like these either end in a forced smile or an eruption of anger that forces everyone to think I am a crazy ethnic girl pulling out my race car or gender card or even my bisexual card. No matter what I feel as if I have to fight to be a city girl who loves good music, really fashion, wrapped hair and art and writing and then after a proud Indian-American strong bisexual feminist.

I am Indian, bi and a woman but Indian, bi, woman is not ME.

So my advice is this for those who don’t understand what to do.

See the person, then their ethnicity. 

See the person, then their gender.

See the person, then their disability. 

See the person, then their sexual orientation. 

Always the person first.

And if you’d like to know, the name is Meghan.


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