I can’t remember when was the last time I heard a racial or gendered slur or was told that the religion I grew up with is a cesspit full of terrorists. All of these things have happened, but somehow I was able to let them go and move on. I mean, whatever right? Can’t dwell forever. I can’t stick around and worry about comments from the ignorant. Got a life to live. Etc, etc.
The incidents that do linger however, are ones where the act is done with such casual ease that I am left confused as to what happened and how to respond. Till today I always remember a friend who told a racist joke about how a bench can support a family better than a Malay man could. I wish I could laugh (you might secretly find it funny, I get it), but I didn’t have enough distance. It hit too close to home. I thought of my father who worked tirelessly to provide for the family. I resented that the reality of his struggle would be dissolved into such a disrespectful, demeaning racial caricature. I felt conflicted because I knew if I expressed anything other than a good-natured laugh or smile, I would be disturbing the peace. I would be a buzzkill.
When obvious bigotry occurs, you know that you are entitled to your anger. You know that you are justified in feeling upset and calling the other person out. I think when you are assured that your anger or discomfort is valid, you are allowed to go through the whole process of feeling before being able to let go of the incident. But with microaggressions, that process is blocked, because you might struggle to validate your own anger/feeling of upset or call the person out. Simply letting it go becomes difficult.
The subtle, prejudicial behaviours and remarks that are said casually under the guise of a joke, an offhanded comment, a behaviour that hints at rejection — are those the ones that really hurt us in the end?
First coined by Dr. Chester Pierce, the concept of microaggressions was thrown into mainstream discourse after the publication of an article by a research team headed by Dr. Derald Wing Sue studying racial microaggressions in the United States. Since then, the term has popularly been used to describe the everyday instances of subtle discrimination faced by historically marginalised groups. The term faces a lot of what the people who go through it do — invalidation. Microaggressions are seemingly harmless and is therefore expected to be graciously forgiven, ignored, or laughed off by its recipients. A lot people actually do, because pointing them out can lead to an awkward, or even hostile situations that would be too stressful to go through each time it happens.
The difficulty with microaggressions is primarily the fact that they are not overt displays of discrimination, leaving you confused and undecided on whether to confront the perpetrator (not made easier with the risk of being called ‘oversensitive’). Was what they said actually offensive? Am I right to feel offended? These are questions worth asking, of course. There are, in the age of social media, moments when slights not worth serious intellectual consideration can spiral out of control. But even that strong retributive sense of anger did not come out of nowhere. It is an expression of an accumulation of heavily repressed frustrations.
The inability to address and validate the incident for ourselves can be distressing especially since they can happen a lot. Some quick examples: A Malay person who does well academically is told that they are “not like other Malays”. A woman who wears the hijab is told she looks “conservative” and “unprofessional”. A Muslim boy who is asked to role-play a ‘terrorist’ during a class. These are all examples drawn from the experiences of my friends.
For skeptics of microaggressions, these incidents are trivial and one-off. They are not seen as incidents that are part of a larger problem. But microaggressions are manifestations, no matter how small, of an ultimately damaging value system that marginalises a community. That is why it can be difficult for us to brush it off though they seem negligible. For a moment, the minority’s difference is not only brought into attention, but it is casually degraded and ridiculed. The person’s difference, usually superficially accepted or tolerated in everyday life, is sharpened into a point and used to hurt them. When faced with this point you are expected to be gracious. To express even minor indignation is to risk hurting the other’s feelings, which makes you appear intolerant and difficult, even though they are the ones who sharpened your difference against you in the first place.
Of course, people are not ill-intentioned a lot of the time. A joke is just a joke to someone who does not experience the marginalisation they are laughing about. We know very well they might be good people, but at the end of the day the impact of what has happened is something that stays regardless of intent. The prejudicial way of thinking is affirmed instead of challenged. And then we are told to let it go.
We expect bigotry and discrimination to be obvious and overt. We expect its perpetrators to be blatantly cruel. But the truth is that we are all swimming in the sea of an unfair system that socially devalues marginalised groups. It has been part of our socialisation. We have all at one point or another said something ignorant or hurtful, a lot of times unaware that it was offensive. That’s okay! Nobody is expected to be perfect. But as decent people living together in a diverse society, it shouldn’t be so difficult to apologise and to understand why our actions or words are offensive, even if we might think it trivial.
I think we are capable of entertaining the possibility of a more complicated world beyond narrow inherited prejudicial attitudes and stereotypes. We are capable of a more nuanced way of handling things instead of just going “it’s nothing” or “it’s not big deal” or “don’t be so sensitive”.
In a study published by Dr. Alvin Alvarez, it was found that ignoring everyday racism is more distressing for one’s mental health. In explaining the findings of his study, he said:
“When people deny or trivialize racist encounters, they can actually make themselves feel worse, amplifying the distress caused by the incident. […] These are incidents that may seem innocent and small, but cumulatively they can have a powerful impact on an individual’s mental health,”
If to keep silent, to brush it off, is the thing that brings us the most distress; if keeping silent or lacking affirmation is what makes microaggressions so tricky to deal with, then we have to affirm ourselves and each other. For this reason, I am proud of the people who are willing to share their stories with us this month. We will speak. We will express our discomfort, and our displeasure. We will do it because the reality of what happened is not up for debate. It happened! We deserve to have our pain acknowledged. Holding people accountable is the first step to challenging prejudicial attitudes instead of letting it get re-affirmed again and again.
Microaggressions is not something as simple as hurt feelings. It is ultimately about the normalisation of oppressive beliefs and the perpetuation of discrimination.
Why should prejudicial, stereotypical notions of the marginalised be something that is normalised? We deserve a better ‘normal’. We’re definitely capable of it, so perhaps let’s normalise speaking up. Let’s normalise a better, kinder way of engaging with each other. Let’s normalise better jokes too, because honestly? Those same old (racist, sexist, islamophobic, etc) jokes aren’t even that funny.
(illustration by Lee Wan Xiang)