One night as I got home to my apartment building, some guys were hanging around outside. As I passed, one of them said something about Chinese food. It was something like, “Chinese food is the worst. It’s gross.” I might’ve thought nothing of it, but he said it right as I passed, and interrupted whomever was talking to do so. Then I looked over and saw who was talking. It was the same guy who had in two previous instances, moved to block the door, forcing me to say “excuse me” to get in. He did it moving backwards or to the side, as if he was just adjusting his position or moving naturally as part of his conversation. And yet there was something intentional about it.
Another day. I was at work, where I don’t have a desk and move from place to place. I was sitting next to a guy whom I had never talked to. I said a few words to him. He said a few words back. Nothing remarkable– just casual conversation. A few minutes later he turns and talks to the person behind him about food. And says he hates Chinese food.
Is this a coincidence? Am I being paranoid? Or overly sensitive? Derald Wing Sue, professor of education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, would say no. His research identifies this behavior as a “racial microaggression.” A racial microaggression is brief, everyday exchange that sends a denigrating message to a person of color. Very often it’s a subtle insult where you might not even know what’s wrong, but can sense that something negative is being said. Because it’s not overt and it’s small, it may feel too insignificant to comment on it. And yet at the same time, it bothers you.
Here’s an easier microaggression to describe: the passing shot of the guy who yells “Go back to China!” Professor Sue would classify this as a microassault. What are you supposed to do, turn around and start an argument with him? You are forced to let a lot of it go.
This type of racism is what people experience on a daily basis. While no one instance is that bad, they may cumulatively result in feelings of anger, frustration, ostracism, mistrust, and loss of self-esteem.
The American Psychologist article Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life calls for “research that points to adaptive ways of handling microaggressions” and “to increase awareness and sensitivity of whites to microaggressions so that they accept responsibility for their behaviors.” There’s also a more reader- friendly summary of the article in APA journal (APA here stands for American Psychological Association), Unmasking Racial Microaggressions.
And here’s a table I made from the article which shows some examples of racial microaggressions most relevant to Asians: Examples of Racial Microaggressions.
It’s notable that this researcher is currently based in New York (though he’s originally from Portland way back when, and then California). New York of all places is the ideal breeding grounds for micro-anything. There’s so many people here that you have microencounters all day.
(Featured image Flickr photo credit: rollenran)