“So like, what are you?” On the bus, I was asked the uncomfortable question.
“I’m American” I replied cautiously. I knew this answer would not suffice; I was going to need to explain myself further.
“What else are you ethnically?” My skin tone had betrayed me. The color of my hair set me apart. Some would swear that my eyes made it apparent. Everyone knew I was Asian, but why did I even need to be identified in the first place?
“I’m half Korean.” Did this make me an alien?
“Oh, are you North Korean or South Korean?”
Should I be offended? It seemed that what they really wanted to know was, “What side are you on?” But maybe he was just curious.
“I’m South Korean.” I left it at that, not explaining how my grandmother had lived in Korea before it was divided. I wanted to be done with this awkward conversation.
“That’s cool.” What did that mean? I turned to my phone as a wall to protect me from more questions. Should I feel hate, sadness, disappointment, resentment, or loneliness?
Was this microaggression, because it hurt? There is a fine line between microaggression and naivety. This was new to me, but whether it was microaggression or not, something did not feel right.
Microaggression is defined as “the social exchanges in which a member of a dominant culture says or does something, often accidentally, and without intended malice, that belittles and alienates a member of a marginalized group.” It is a passive form of racism. It isn’t aggressive, but it can still be threatening and hurtful. Yet, awkward questions that may seem like microaggressions can also just be a person’s ignorance. The questioner may not mean to be offensive, just accustomed to certain racial norms that are different than the receiver’s. This doesn’t make alienating people okay, but it makes it hard to know what is racism and what is just our country learning how to ask the uncomfortable questions.
There are many factors that determine whether a question is a microaggression or not, making microaggression hard to identify. The way the question is asked, the diction the speaker uses, and also the context in which the question is asked all affect the meaning and impact. For example, the question, “What are you?” could be interpreted as an attack on a person’s nationality. On the tennis bus, the question came with no context. “What are you?” started an uncomfortable conversation, and so I immediately felt attacked and alienated. Using no lead-in or context challenged my right to be here.
Whatever the intent of the question, “What are you?” can be a microaggression. In fact, so many people in our country use microaggression as a tool to discriminate without feeling flat out racist. For example, as the painting Housing Discrimination by Roger Shimomura illustrates, one out of every five Japanese attempting to buy or rent a home is discriminated against. Many of these discriminatory acts are forms of microaggression where the landowner does not mean to be racist, but subconsciously may prefer to rent to a white family instead. The landowners may not intentionally be prejudiced. However, background knowledge and historical information about the treatment of Japanese in America tells us that this microaggression was not an accident.
Microaggression is usually coupled with some hidden intent, which may be deep rooted in a person’s background. I do not know if the background of the person on the bus played any role in what he meant by asking what I am. Although it is true that microaggression can be unintentional, it is also important to think about the impact of microaggression. At its worst, it can be more morally degrading than racism. Overt racism is a hard punch to the face that almost every minority group has faced. But overt racism is apparent and something we can identify. People can work together to stand up and fight racism because we can identify it.
Microaggression is latent racism and often used subtly. When used at its worst, microaggression is difficult to combat because it is everywhere. It is hidden in the phrases we say every day and in the questions asked of the minorities. In my situation on the tennis bus, no one seemed to react to the questions the man asked as he attempted to decide what I am. The man on the bus did not even seem to think twice about what he was asking me. To everyone else, it was just a normal and socially acceptable conversation. But for me, it hurt, and it was not acceptable.
Microaggression attacks the inside of people and it seems impossible to eliminate because it is everywhere in society. One must not overlook these little cases of racism; they hurt and they add up. It makes people question who they are; ethnicity, race, sexuality, gender – whatever vulnerable part there is. It can stem from the simplest and most seemingly innocent question: “What are you?”
To this day, I still do not know if what happened on the tennis bus was intentional microaggression. It made me uncomfortable, but was it wrong? In the end, though, it does not matter what the intent of the man on the bus was. It was microaggression, and it made me feel alienated.
There are ways, however, that we can fix my scenario and become aware of microaggression. Becoming aware of microaggression is half the battle. Once people become aware of the hidden undertones of our everyday speech, we can start to eliminate them. Becoming aware of microaggression begins with education. If we want change, teachers should bring up the problem of microaggression and start talking about how our history has prompted our society to have hidden aggressions. Students need to discuss microaggression, racism, and stereotypes in the classroom before we can expect any change. We also need to start discussing why our society uses microaggression. From there, we can consider how microaggression is used and the effects it has on people. Only then, through the discussions of students and people of our society, can we begin to eliminate microaggression. We cannot just forget about microaggression; we must recognize it as a problem, eliminate it through discussions, and learn from our mistakes.