"Where Are You Really From?": Microaggressions Against BIPOC
Updated: Mar 12
Dear Asian Youth,
The sheet of paper falls from my teacher’s hand, then flutters face down onto my desk. It’s my biology test I took two weeks ago, the one I’ve been anxiously waiting to see. I turn the paper over, eyes hungrily searching for my score. But it’s not my test, not my name, not my handwriting that I see. The assessment belongs to a classmate of mine, a close friend and fellow Asian-American student. We lift our eyes at the same time and smile, albeit a little sadly. I think, “She doesn’t even wear glasses like me, how did we get confused?” Sighing deeply, I rise from my seat, walk to my friend from across the room, and exchange out tests quietly. This incident was not the first nor the last of its kind to occur. By then, we’d simply learned to deal with it.
Throughout my years at school, I have been subjected to countless microaggressions from both teachers and peers. I’ve heard the phrases: “Are you sure you don’t eat dogs?” or, “You would look prettier if your eyes were bigger,” or, “How come you don’t speak Chinese fluently?” an infinite number of times. And I’m hardly the only student, worker, or BIPOC in general who has gone through this experience. According to a study done by NPR, 92% of African Americans believe they’ve been discriminated against and “of counselors who had clients reporting race-based trauma, 89% identified "covert acts of racism" as a contributing factor.” For BIPOC, microaggressions exist in every aspect of our lives, and they can no longer be ignored. A massive civil rights movement is sweeping across America, and that means increased accountability in every aspect of our lives. BIPOC are realizing that they shouldn’t have to tolerate microaggressions, but that they must actively call out microaggressions. On Instagram, I see my BIPOC friends pointing out microaggressions and reflecting on the ones they’ve experienced. I see posts explaining various types of microaggressions on stories every single day. In my private conversations, my friends tell me about their experiences with microaggressions, and I gradually become angrier and angrier at these injustices. This is an era of change, which means that I can no longer allow myself to stay silent and tolerant. As a result, I’ve formed a new conviction, that the next time I’m mistaken for another Asian-American student, I’ll be ready to speak up for myself.
Microaggressions are subtle acts of invalidation, discrimination, and racism. They’re referred to as “micro” because of their commonality and usually nebulous delivery. More specifically, microagressions come as verbal, behavioral, and environmental acts of discrimination. They can also be split into three subgroups: microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations. These take place when a person purposefully behaves in a discriminatory manner while not intending to be offensive, unintentionally makes a discriminatory comment or action, or invalidates the experiences of a specific group of people. These acts of invalidation are directed towards peoples of various races, sexualities, genders, and weight. Furthermore, microaggressions do not simply die in our education system. They manage to worm themselves into the workplace and other vital public spaces. Asian-Americans and Latinxs who hear the phrases “You speak such good English,” and, “But you speak without an accent,” often feel invalidated by their coworkers, friends, or total strangers. Personally, I’ve been asked “Where are you really from?” countless times, often by people I’ve just met, and each encounter was a stinging, yet subtle blow. According to the same NPR study, 56% of African Americans have reported discrimination when they’re applying to jobs, 60% say they’ve been discriminated by the police, 51% have personally experienced racial slurs, and 22% of African Americans have avoided seeking out medical care out of fear of discrimination, which directly connects to another crucial point: microaggressions cause real harm to minorities.
Microaggressions have never been little comments or actions that cause minorities to “overreact.” When BIPOC are constantly told that they are “overreacting,” it’s easy for BIPOC to believe that microaggressions aren’t a big deal after all. When BIPOC constantly endure microaggressions, it is easy for perpetrators to forget that their words can cause real damage, emotionally and physically, thus creating a vicious never-ending cycle. Robert Montenegro, chief fellow in child and adolescent psychiatry at Seattle Children’s Hospital, believes that microaggressions cause stress responses, which add up over time and prematurely age BIPOC at the cellular level, a phenomenon confirmed in a 2014 study. In addition, racial microaggressions may be linked to lower levels of self-esteem and higher levels of depression. They serve as daily reminders to BIPOC that we are different-that our differences are not welcomed or understood. While unlike overt or obvious acts of discrimination, microaggressions are still a form of oppression. Microaggressions perpetuate both the endless alienation of minorities and the refusal to respect minorities for their differences.
In my experience, microaggressions have cornered me into taking one of two paths, neither one bringing me any justice or relief. Either I speak up against the microaggression and become a mere “complainer,” or I stay silent and ignore it, feeling my unique identity slip away. All my life, I’ve struggled to embrace my Asian-American identity, to try to love my Chinese heritage but resist being stereotyped as your typical straight A, STEM-focused, one-dimensional Asian youth. I remember once in middle school, on a visit to Arlington National Cemetery, my friends wouldn’t stop referencing the “stereotype” of Asian mothers using chunky iPads to take vacation photos. I became so bothered by this stereotype, especially in a place of solemnity such as Arlington, that I quickly fell silent for the rest of our time at the cemetery. What I remember, above everything else, was the nagging acid-like feeling eating up my chest. I hated that distinct sensation of being swallowed up by a dull, baseless stereotype. I hated being boxed into one of the many clichés surrounding Asians, the very clichés that ironically both reduce our individuality but keep us as perpetual foreigners. At the same time, I hated being too scared to speak up against it, especially against my close friends. But I also know that I planted the seed of my new resolve that day, my resolve to never feel that kind of anger and fear again. I had a new mission; I vowed to speak up for myself and all of the BIPOC who are relentlessly stereotyped.
Our generation needs to eliminate these poisonous forms of discrimination. This is no simple, effortless, short-term task. It requires the will to change and the determination to reflect on everyday events. It requires the awareness and the courage to call out microaggressions as they’re taking place. It requires practice to “disarm the microaggression” and set a good example for our peers, and it takes work to educate both ourselves and perpetrators. And to my Asian-American and NBPOC community: yes, we experience microaggressions, but our communities are also perpetrators of these harmful actions. We have to be ready to do the work. As our nation moves through a long overdue civil rights movement, we also have to fix our personal prejudices and harmful, day-to-day actions. When we normalize changing our behavior, we’ll be able to create change for good.
As I’m writing this, I can’t help but think of that biology test, nearly four years ago now. I think about my inaction at the time and my deep desire for action. I think about my own biases, the microaggressions I’ve committed over my life. I think about the future, and the work I have to do in order to eradicate microaggressions from my life and the lives of all BIPOC. There is no doubt in my mind that this work will be difficult and uncomfortable. But I know that with this work, I can create a future where nobody is invalidated because of who they are.