A microaggression, at its core, is an everyday verbal, nonverbal or environmental slight or insult – whether intentional or not – that comes off as hostile or negative to the person being spoken to on the basis of their membership in a marginalized group. For example, asking an Asian person to help with your math homework would be considered a microaggression.
As someone born in the Philippines, raised in Hong Kong and New York City and now attending school in Massachusetts, I have never thought of the question “Where are you really from?” to be a microaggression. I genuinely do not know how to answer the question without giving a chronological timeline of my life. My background is confusing, so I don’t take offense to it.
Whenever I was told that “Where are you really from?” was a microaggression, I rolled my eyes. I understood that for those who have never seen a person of color or a specific kind of person of color before, it can be confusing, and their questions are well-meant.
I moved to the United States in the summer of 2015, right before the presidential primaries of the 2016 election. The term "microaggression" was being used more and more during that time, and I made sure to pay attention. I understood how a phrase such as “you’re not like other [minority] people I know” is a microaggression. But I didn't really see the importance in dispelling microagressions.
Even coming to ACE, a pre-orientation program at Clark University for students of color and/or first-generation students that promoted leadership, diversity and inclusion, I rolled my eyes and made jokes with friends when I saw that a three-hour "diversity retreat" was on our schedule. We were under the impression that the talk was entirely about microaggressions. It turned out that the retreat talked about intersectionality and equity more than microaggressions.
For a while, I had this belief that microaggressions were a result of oversensitivity, but I started to question that belief when I met an English professor in the program. This professor went by they/them/their pronouns. It wasn’t a problem to me even if I hadn’t met a person who didn’t use gender-binary pronouns before. It was just how they wanted to be called. When I explained this to a relative whose career was centered in journalism, they weren’t happy. Yes, the use of plural pronouns confuses the grammar, but it was how the professor identified. In our brief conversation about pronouns, I tried to explain that calling someone by their preferred pronouns is the respectful thing to do. My relative only budged, and when I explained an interaction I had with an orientation leader there.
While I was at ACE, the international students had a separate pre-orientation program. I snuck into one of their events and introduced myself to people. When I met with an orientation leader, they asked “Where are you from?” I paused, as I always did, wondering if I should give the long, convoluted chronological explanation, where I lived most recently or where I was born. They noticed my confusion and asked me instead, “Where did you spend the most time?”
I smiled. The question felt like a warm hug. I had never been asked that question before, and it was a question I knew how to answer without feeling as if I was misrepresenting myself. I explained to my relative that me being asked “Where did you spend the most time?” is as welcoming and kind to me, as it is to call a person by their preferred pronouns.
To those who don’t know me personally, the comparison might not fit completely. Why should someone use a preferred pronoun? If you want to respect and understand people’s identities and backgrounds, we can do so by showing inclusivity and kindness through our use of language. Ultimately, trying to avoid using microaggressions doesn’t necessarily make you politically correct, it makes you sensitive and thoughtful of people’s confusing backgrounds.
Lead Image Credit: Gari De Ramos