I once vented to a friend, referred to here as “John,” about a microaggression that upset me: I was purchasing school supplies when the cashier complimented my English and asked where I was from. John listened, then quipped that the word “microaggression” by its very prefix proved it was “too small to be anything serious.” I understood that he was joking, and I laughed to be polite.
The term “microaggression” has grown to encompass a wide range of things. It generally refers to an action, comment, or situation that is hurtful specifically to a marginalized group, but delivered so casually that it is protected from being called out as offensive. Frustratingly, microaggressions often emerge in the midst of good intentions.
It’s true that rare, solitary microaggressions could easily be brushed off. However, their impact is not dependent solely on the magnitude of the incidents alone, but also on the frequency with which they occur. The intrusive consistency with which they appear in my life proves to be a constant reminder that I am identified before I can introduce myself, that I am seen as someone who does not belong, and that I am in a place I do not deserve to be.
When I recount a microaggression I’ve experienced, people usually respond sympathetically. I’ve noticed that my white friends are generally disgusted or shocked and offer their support. My friends of color tend to be less surprised and more understanding ― perhaps even tired ― because they, too, have experienced something comparable and can easily relate to my distress. The former response is kind, but the latter tends to be cathartic and soothing; the mere idea that someone understands what I’m going through reminds me that I am not alone, and that I am not being overly sensitive.
On the first day of August, I experienced two microaggressions that left me so annoyed that I couldn’t help but vent to my co-workers. Their sympathetic response made me realize that they were willing to understand, but unaware of how often these instances occurred. Estimating the frequency of these incidents only made it sound like I was hyperbolizing.
To legitimately quantify the regularity of microaggressions, I wrote down each one that occurred to me during the month of August. There are a lot, especially compared to the infrequent instances back in my quiet, suburban hometown. But none of them are made up. None of them are exaggerated. If anything, I may have forgotten to write one down.
8/1/16 - New York, NY - On my way to work I passed a popular doughnut shop. Instead of the recommended flavors, I opted for the green tea filled donuts. The cashier responded: “I forgot you guys like green tea.” I was surprised, certain that I’d misheard him, when he clarified: “Asians love matcha, right?” I left without buying anything. He said, “Sayonara.”
8/1/16 - New York, NY - As I exited the subway car, a man who spent most of the ride saying unpleasant things he’d like to do to women, said unprompted that I should fly back to my own country.
8/3/16 - New York, NY - In an effort to start a conversation, a man visiting my workplace asked if I could read the Chinese characters tattooed on his arm. I could not. I also felt unable to openly display my irritation because I was intern and needed to be polite to guests.
8/5/16 - New York, NY - A stranger catcalled me saying “Ni hao!” (This was easily the sixth or seventh time it had happened this summer.)
8/7/16 - New York, NY - Someone in my acting class asked where I am from, and continued to ask until I eventually said my parents immigrated here from South Korea.
8/8/16 - New York, NY - A man on the subway said “ni hao” to me a few times before saying “You’re very pretty.” When I ignored him, he yelled, “Why you no talk.” I was frustrated by this until I made eye contact with another Asian American woman on the subway; she gave me a look of such sincere empathy that it made me feel better and, oddly, a little protected.
8/13/16 - New York, NY - I visited my friend who was also hosting other guests. One of the guests asked me what Asian people think of the phrase “All Lives Matter.” He could not understand when I explained that I cannot speak for all Asian people, and was also shocked when I tell him that I support Black Lives Matter instead.
8/15/16 - New York, NY - I took a cab for a work errand and had to carry two slightly heavy but still manageable bags. When I declined his offer to lift them, he responded: “I offered because Chinese women are usually weak.”
8/19/16 - New York, NY - I walked home late at night while a man near the subway yelled “crazy chick” at me. Upon closer listening, I realized he was actually yelling “crazy chink.”
[August 21-27 I visited my aunt and uncle in DC. Either being with them accounts for the fewer instances of microaggressions, or DC is a remarkably kinder city.]
8/25/16 - Washington, DC - I told my aunt and uncle about a co-worker who had mentioned that I was the first Asian person she ever worked with and that it was “a very nice experience.” I told the story because the kindness and sincerity of this co-worker made the incident very funny to me. It was only when my uncle responded in a slightly caustic, surprisingly cathartic way that I realized this comment had been nagging at me for a long time.
8/28/16 - Cambridge, MA - I was having dinner back at school when a dining staff member asked if I had a fun summer. I replied that I did. He responded saying that my “culture” is always “having fun.”
8/29/16 - Boston, MA - I was in a coffee shop when I overheard a conversation two seats down. I wrote this down verbatim in a text message to my friend.
WOMAN: They’re very quiet and very, you know, docile.
MAN: I don’t know how to get them to talk more.
WOMAN: But it’s their culture to be calm and quiet. But sometimes they’re so rude in public!
MAN: Yes! Quiet at work and loud in public!
WOMAN: I’m trying to help them open up more, but I don’t know how to reach them.
MAN: I’m sure they can tell you’re trying to help. That’s very thoughtful.
I would like to emphasize that I share this list not to whine or to collect sympathy, but to illustrate how the frequency multiplies the overall impact of each occurrence. A microaggression on its own is, as John so aptly put it, “too small to be anything serious.” But steeped within the context of its all-too-similar instances, microaggressions are provoking and tiring and cumulative and ultimately impossible to ignore. I hope that this list helps illustrate that inexplicable, unseen weight that each seemingly tiny, standalone incident carries.
And I also hope, rather wishfully, that maybe the people of color reading this article might see it as a virtual version of the empathetic look that the lady on the subway gave me. She was a stranger, and yet I clung to her sad, familiar gaze on the bumpy underground ride while the man yelled into my ear. Just knowing that she understood my frantic mess of emotions made me feel better. I hope that maybe this will make someone feel better, too.